Pelicans never became the team they wanted to be
The New Orleans Pelicans finished their season with a 110-98 loss to the Los Angeles Lakers on Sunday night in the Smoothie King Center.
The Pelicans didn’t look much like the team that played most of the season because four starters – Zion Williamson, Brandon Ingram, Lonzo Ball and Steven Adams – as well as key reinforcement Josh Hart were sidelined by injury.
But even when healthy, the Pelicans rarely looked like the team they hoped to be. They finished with a 31-41 record.
Though they weren’t mathematically eliminated from play-in contention until the third-to-last game of the season, they did wallow in the bottom third of the Western Conference for nearly the entire season.
They wanted to be a defense-oriented team. They wanted to have enviable inside-outside balance on offense. They wanted to have a blend of wise veterans and blossoming youngsters that would launch an ascension through the Western Conference that would continue into the foreseeable future.
They were none of that.
Their defense was among the worst in the NBA until it improved moderately during a futile late-season playoff push.
On offense, they did fine with the inside part – scoring in the paint and rebounding with the best in the league – but the outside part of the offense never arrived on a consistent basis.
As a result, they didn’t look like a better team in Stan Van Gundy’s first season as head coach than they did in Alvin Gentry’s final season as head coach, though they did finish one game better.
They looked like an identity-free team in need not of a roster overall, but at least in need of a roster re-evaluation.
The veteran leadership on this team – JJ Redick, Eric Bledsoe and Steven Adams – didn’t shepherd the youngsters – Williamson, Jaxson Hayes, Nickeil Alexander-Walker, Kira Lewis Jr., and even Ingram, Ball and Hart – through their growing pains.
Redick saw his outside shooting touch – his primary if not exclusive physical asset – abandon him and he was shipped to Dallas at the trade deadline. Bledsoe, whose presence in the backcourt was supposed to mitigate the loss of Jrue Holiday in a trade that brought Bledsoe, demonstrated consistency nowhere except in his apparent disdain for being here.
Adams, acquired along with Bledsoe, was the defensive, rebounding and locker room presence the team had hoped for, but his offensive and athletic limitations proved a less-than-ideal fit in the midst of a young and athletic group.
If a season could be judged strictly on player development, this Pelicans season would look better than it does. Williamson has matched if not exceeded the sky-high expectations for him and he’s not yet 21.
His evolution as the primary facilitator on offense was a revelation, though he’s still a work in progress there.
Hayes and Alexander-Walker showed significant progress, which demands significantly more minutes if not starting opportunities for both next season. Lewis thus far has justified the confidence the Pelicans showed in drafting him in the first round last year.
But basketball is a team sport and all seasons must be judged on team development and to what degree the whole of the group exceeds the sum of the individual parts.
That brings us to Van Gundy, whose job was both to develop the individuals and mold the team into something greater than the sum of those parts.
His first season cannot be classified as anything other than disappointing, but with an inexperienced core, a couple of ill-fitting veterans and a severely limited ability to have full-scale practices because of an unusually condensed schedule, he was presented a bigger challenge than might have otherwise been the case.
The starting lineup that took the floor Sunday night – Alexander-Walker, Bledsoe, James Johnson, Naji Marshall and Willy Hernangomez – won’t take the floor when next season gets under way.
Presumably the roster will feature at least a few new faces. Bledsoe and Adams are candidates to be shopped around the league. Ball and Hart are restricted free agents. A lottery pick will grab a spot.
We’ll have time during the off-season to take a closer look at those potential moves and others. But in the immediate aftermath of this uninspiring season, this should suffice:
It’s up to Vice President of Basketball Operations David Griffin to do a better job of crafting the next roster and handing Van Gundy a set of tools that better enables the coach to justify the executive’s decision to hire him.
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Les East is a nationally renowned freelance journalist. The New Orleans area native’s blog on SportsNOLA.com was named “Best Sports Blog” in 2016 by the Press Club of New Orleans. For 2013 he was named top sports columnist in the United States by the Society of Professional Journalists. He has since become a valued contributor for CCS. The Jesuit High…