The New Orleans Pelicans got off to a tremendous start last season and looked like a team ready to take the leap into being a top-4 contender in the West. However, injuries derailed that promising start, as Zion Williamson injured his hamstring after 29 games and never returned, and Brandon Ingram was in and out of the lineup with ankle issues that limited him to just 45 appearances.
Without their top two stars playing consistently, the Pelicans limped home to a 42-40 record before being bounced in the first Play-In game. While this offseason saw them mostly stay the course in terms of roster moves, it wasn’t without noise, as rumors swirled about Williamson’s future with the organization. Entering this season, there isn’t the same level of excitement and optimism around what this team can be, as there is instead this lingering feeling that we may never see this talented roster reach its full potential. Hopefully that is a misguided feeling, but the NBA world will want to see it for a full season before they believe it with this Pelicans squad.
Biggest Question: How Much Will Their Starting Unit Play Together?
With most teams I have tried avoiding going with health-related questions, but it’s impossible to talk about this Pelicans team without addressing the elephant in the room. We saw last year that when they’re all on the floor they can be an absolute buzzsaw, as they have terrific balance when at full strength. Their top-6 is genuinely among the best in the league, as Williamson is an unstoppable freight train getting to the rim, Ingram has become an elite midrange scorer, and McCollum is a steady hand in the backcourt and knockdown shooter. Around those three they can go big or small, with Jonas Valanciunas, Herbert Jones, and Trey Murphy III all providing a different complementary skillset to their trio of stars.
The Pelicans even have solid depth beyond that six, but there is a ceiling on how far that can take a team if their top stars aren’t on the floor. There are already some injury concerns in New Orleans before the season even begins, but if they can get 60+ games out of Zion and Ingram each, they absolutely have a shot at being in the West playoff chase. That’s how good they are, it’s just a matter of whether they can finally sustain it for a full season or if we’re doomed to dream of what could’ve been in New Orleans once again.
X-Factor: Trey Murphy III
If we move away from the health of the Pelicans’ stars, the player who unlocks their team’s full potential is Trey Murphy III, who will be sidelined to start the season with a meniscus injury. The Pelicans do not have anyone on the wing who brings the skillset Murphy does as a knockdown shooter (40.6 percent on 6.3 attempts from three last year) and a cutter/finisher at the rim (75.9 percent shooting at the rim). His ability to space the floor and apply pressure to defenses off the ball is so important for a team with three terrific on-ball threats, and he’s continued to get better as a secondary creator and three-level scorer. Last season he took a considerable leap in terms of efficiency from every area of the floor, and his continued development is one of the things to watch this season as he can alleviate some of the pressure on Ingram in terms of wing creation.
On the other end, Murphy is a big, long defender with plenty of versatility that helps paper over some of the deficiencies on that end from their stars. Getting Murphy back on the court healthy is the first order of business for New Orleans, because they simply don’t have a replacement for all that he brings this team on the wing. If he can continue taking a step forward as an offensive playmaker, the Pelicans will be a true nightmare to deal with offensively because of the attention you have to give their top-3 already.