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On paper, the New Orleans Pelicans have a talented side. Zion Williamson’s selection as an All-Star this season gives them two in as many years after Brandon Ingram made his first All-Star game last year.
Lonzo Ball has developed not only into a role player but a piece of the Pelicans future this season with his rapidly improving defense and 3-point shooting. Eric Bledsoe is a two-time All-Defense honoree, including making First Team All-Defense last season, and is shooting nearly a career-best percentage from three.
JJ Redick, Josh Hart and Steven Adams all have roles that they excel at that make them desirable, either by the Pelicans, opposing teams or both. Even Willy Hernangomez, an after-thought free agent signing this offseason, has emerged as an impactful player.
Add it all up this season, though, and the sum is not greater than the individual parts. Through a mixture of individual brilliance from Williamson and Ingram and incredible shooting from Ball and Redick, the Pelicans ranked first in the league in offensive rating since February 1.
But in that same span, the team is tied for last in the league in defensive rating and only marginally have a positive net rating. It’s not a new trend, either. Over the course of the whole season, the Pelicans rank 29th in defensive rating, trailing only the Kings and their historic pace to rank as the worst defense in league history.
It’s a low, low bar that the Pelicans are only barely clearing. It’s as confounding as it is frustrating that it has inconsistently clicked for New Orleans this season. At their peak, New Orleans went toe-to-toe with Milwaukee and Utah, two of the league’s elites, and won.
At their worst, the Pelicans have lost to some of the league’s worst teams in Minnesota, Detroit, and Houston. They’ve been swept soundly by the Bulls, a non-playoff team. Carrying over a trend from last season, the team ranks 19th in clutch situations and are 8-10 in those games.
Perhaps the best example of the up-and-down nature of the Pelicans is that they hold one more win over teams below .500 (8-9) than teams above .500 (7-12).
The solution for the Pelicans remains a mystery. First-year head coach Stan Van Gundy has struggled to find consistency outside his starting five and even within it at times. Multiple Pelicans have been featured in trade rumors this season, ranging from Ball early in the year to Redick and Bledsoe more recently.
In reality, no one trade will solve the Pelicans’ issues. Even multiple trades aren’t going to be the magic wand that turns around the season. The Pelicans have the talent and plenty of it. The solutions will have to come from within.
As frustrating and inconsistent as the season has been, the Pelicans have a lifeline in the play-in tournament. Despite entering the All-Star break six games under .500, New Orleans is just three games out of the 10th seed and one of the spots in the play-in tournament.
The Pelicans have a lot of questions that’ll need to be answered over the mid-season break before diving back into the second half of the regular season. If they can get it right, they figure to be one of the more intriguing teams in the playoff picture. If they can’t, they figure to crash out of the playoff picture for a second year running.