Last season was another disappointing one for the New Orleans Pelicans under executive vice president of basketball operations David Griffin, one that led to Griffin firing his pick to replace Alvin Gentry as head coach, Stan Van Gundy, after just one season, replacing him with former Phoenix Suns assistant coach Willie Green, who will be tasked with running a team for the first time.
It’s a risky gamble, though it could perhaps prove to be a savvy one, as Green had been one of the hottest names in the head-coaching rumors over the past couple of offseason.
Either way, the organization’s top priority will now be to reach the playoffs for the first time in the Zion Williamson era, or risk even more smoke leaking about Williamson being unhappy in New Orleans.
No pressure, Willie Green.
Below, check out our preview for the 2021-22 Pelicans campaign.
Returning: Zion Williamson, Brandon Ingram, Kira Lewis Jr., Nickeil Alexander-Walker, Josh Hart, Willy Hernangomez, Jaxson Hayes, Didi Louzada, Wenyen Gabriel and Naji Marshall
Additions: Jonas Valanciunas (Memphis), Devonte Graham (Charlotte), Tomas Satoransky (Chicago), Garrett Temple (Chicago), Trey Murphy (Virginia), Herb Jones (Alabama), Malcolm Hill (Illinois), Jose Alvarado (Georgia Tech) and Daulton Hommes (Vanoli Basket)
Departures: Lonzo Ball (Chicago), Steven Adams (Memphis), Eric Bledsoe (LA Clippers), James Johnson (Brooklyn), Wesley Iwundu (Charlotte) and James Nunnally (Maccabi Tel-Aviv)
* They have a potential generational talent on their hands… Over the course of just two seasons, Zion Williamson has proven to have a potentially absurd ceiling thanks to his brute strength, soft touch and unreal explosiveness, becoming the first player in league history to average at least 25.0 points per game before turning 21 years old and producing a 27.0/7.2/3.7 campaign in just his second year in the league. If Williamson takes a similar leap in 2021-22, we’re possibly talking about a 30-10-5 player as a 21-year-old, a terrifying proposition.
* They have a strong frontcourt… The Pelicans don’t just have Williamson in their frontcourt, either, as swingman Brandon Ingram is a one-time All-Star and former Most Improved Player in his own right, possessing three-level scoring and solid playmaking in a freakishly long package as a small forward. They also have Jonas Valanciunas, one of the most underrated centers in basketball who can score at a solid rate out of the post and rebounds well. That trio is going to wear down opponents all season long.
* Team connectedness should be improved with Van Gundy’s departure… It’s no secret that the young Pelicans weren’t huge fans of Van Gundy, and we don’t need further evidence than Griffin admitting he made a mistake with the hire and firing the 62-year-old after just one campaign to prove it. With the authoritative Van Gundy out and a far more player-friendly head coach set to take his place in Green, it’d be shocking if New Orleans players and coaching staff are not more on the same page than before.
* Green will have help in his first year as head coach… Though having a first-year head coach can be nerve-wracking, especially for a team like the Pelicans who need to show improvement in the win-loss department next season, Green will have the luxury of being able to pick veteran head coach Mike D’Antoni’s brain, as New Orleans was wise to hire the former Phoenix Suns, Houston Rockets and Los Angeles Lakers shot-caller in an advisory role for next season. That could be huge for the Pelicans, as D’Antoni had a somewhat similar role in 2020-21 with the Brooklyn Nets, though as a full-time assistant coach to another first-year leader in Steve Nash, and the results were beyond solid.
* Backcourt could be one of the weakest in the league… Despite having a couple of solid veterans like Tomas Satoransky and Devonte Graham, as well as a pair of promising up-and-comers in Kira Lewis and Nickeil Alexander-Walker, barring an absolute explosion by one of the latter two pieces, it’s hard to foresee the Pelicans backcourt being better than last year’s.
* Will effort be improved? New Orleans’ effort levels last season would often wane (they ranked 23rd in defensive efficiency for a reason), and that was under a strict head coach in Van Gundy. Will that improve under a first-year guy like Green, who could take some time to find his voice as a leader? If the Pelicans don’t improve in that department and get that defense into at least the Top 16 league-wide, they can likely kiss a spot in the playoffs goodbye.
* There will be questions about their chemistry and spacing… The Pelicans added four starters/key reserves over the offseason, replacing four who departed. That could lead to chemistry issues early on in the season, especially for the backcourt players, Satoransky and Graham, who will have to acclimate to playing with high-usage frontcourt players in Williamson and Ingram. Spacing could also be a problem for a New Orleans team that shot 34.8 percent from three last year, the fifth-worst mark in the league, and didn’t do much to address it in the offseason. Trusting Graham, who’s had just one good season in the NBA and is coming off a poor showing in 2020-21, to fix that by himself is asking for a lot.
* There will be added pressure from the Zion situation… Calling it a “situation” may be unfair, but there’s no doubt that there has been some smoke surrounding Williamson in New Orleans. Just three months ago, The Athletic reported that Williamson’s family is unhappy with the superstar being a Pelican and would rather see him on another team. With how much money will be on the line for Williamson in the not-so-distant future, it’s doubtful we’ll see a true trade demand out of his camp any time soon. Regardless, without question, New Orleans will need to improve next season in order to quiet some of the scuttle.
* They still have a rookie head coach… Green, who was beloved in Phoenix by all, especially Monty Williams, Chris Paul and Devin Booker, could en up being a great hire for the Pelicans. But he’s still a first-year head coach so growing pains are to be expected, and for a team hoping for stability, and quickly, that could be a problem.
* Home-court advantage is not very strong… New Orleans is notoriously a football town, so fandom for the Pelicans can come and go depending on how the team is doing, and on an average night in February, barring it being a nationally televised matchup, their home-court advantage won’t be as strong as it is for other teams.
* The Pelicans ended up operating over the cap after clearing a lot of money in their trade with the Memphis Grizzlies. While they couldn’t get an All-Star caliber player with their flexibility, they might have better fits on their team now that they have more shooting to surround Williamson. They could be primed for a significant in-season trade with many young players, draft picks and tradeable salaries in their arsenal. Satoransky and Josh Hart could be particularly expendable due to New Orleans’ glut of guards, with Hart being an intriguing name to keep an eye on due to his unique salary structure.
* New Orleans generated a $17 million trade exception by trading Steven Adams and can comfortably use it all since they’re $20 million below the luxury tax. They could target a backup power forward without a clear one on the roster. They previously expressed interest in acquiring Lauri Markkanen who is now on the Cleveland Cavaliers. Such players that may fit who they could pursue include Thaddeus Young (San Antonio Spurs) and Kyle Kuzma (Washington Wizards). New Orleans alternatively could use the trade exception to add onto their chest of draft picks by taking on bad salary with it.
* The Pelicans have some decisions to make with current players on the roster. They currently have 16 players on standard contracts so they must get down to 15 before opening night. Also, Valanciunas is currently extension-eligible. Starting on January 7, 2022, he can sign an extension worth up to $75 million over four years. By then the Pelicans should know if they want to commit to him long-term. They could generate around $25 million in cap space next offseason if they waive Hart, but with so few high-profile names available to pursue, the Pelicans might be better off avoiding the market by keeping Hart and locking down Valanciunas if he fits well.
– Yossi Gozlan
3rd in the Southwest Division, 10th in the Western Conference