Pelicans season, program produce contrasting evaluations
METAIRIE – The New Orleans Pelicans season came to an abrupt end last Wednesday night in a 123-118 play-in loss to the Oklahoma City Thunder in the Smoothie King Center.
Executive Vice President of Basketball Operations David Griffin used Thursday to “decompress” before he, head coach Willie Green and about half the players met with reporters to offer a post-mortem on the season. (Most of the players who were unavailable – most notably Zion Williamson, Brandon Ingram, CJ McCollum and Herb Jones – had already spoken.)
Evaluating this 83-game season that lasted 176 days can be tricky.
Do you evaluate it in terms of the disappointing end, the elite beginning or any of the ups and downs that took turns taking over the narrative between the good start and the bad ending?
Do you evaluate it strictly within the context of those 83 games and 176 days – or within a larger context of how it fits into a multi-season pattern as well as the evidence of what realistically lies ahead?
How do you factor in the unavailability of players – stars, starters and substitutes – that is becoming an annual epidemic – not only as to whether it’s an excuse for or merely a factor in shortcomings but also what if anything can be done to mitigate the epidemic next season?
The three-hour parade to the media scrum inside the team’s practice facility provided some guidance for trying to craft a detailed State of the Pelicans evaluation heading into the off-season.
Here we go:
‘A tale of two seasons’
Griffin began his comments with a good starting point for a season evaluation when he called it “two seasons – when we were healthy and when we weren’t.”
All-Star Williamson played in just 29 games and second-leading scorer Ingram played in just 45 games. Starting guard Jones missed 15 games and three rotational players also missed double-digit games – guard Jose Alvarado (21), forward/center Larry Nance Jr. (17) and rookie guard Dyson Daniels (15).
“The whole season was upheaval, the whole season was chaotic from that standpoint,” Griffin said. “Your rotations are a mess all year because (the coaches) just struggled to find something they can trust and something they believed in.”
Alvarado missed the last 20 games of the season and Nance joined him on the sideline for the play-in loss. Griffin called them “the heart and soul of our bench guys.”
When the season began, depth was one of the team’s biggest strengths. But the bench was outscored by its counterparts in each of the last four regular-season games.
“We ran the wheels off of our bench guys,” Griffin said.
All of the absences limited who was available for practice, and Griffin said what the team gained from its five-on-five practices “was much less significant” than it would have been with a healthier roster.
“When we’re fully healthy,” Green said, “we have a chance to be really good.”
And they were really good during the 2022 portion of the season.
Perhaps the most telling statistic in regards to the unavailability of players was that the number of games that Williamson, Ingram and third-leading scorer McCollum played in together was 10.
Keeping in mind that Williamson missed all of last season because of multiple foot surgeries, in two seasons as head coach Green has had just 29 games to figure out how to incorporate a player Griffin called “transcendently special.”
“They were learning that on the fly,” Griffin added.
From No. 1 to No. 9 in the West
Nance said that the Pelicans’ brief December ascendance to the best record in the Western Conference, even amid the rash of injuries, “put the league on notice for a little bit.”
“In that locker room,” he continued, “is the No. 1 seed in the West.”
But on the court, ultimately it was the No. 9 seed as Nance acknowledged that “the season kind of deteriorated” after the absences took their toll.
New Orleans started the season 18-8, but that stretch was followed by an 8-9 stretch. Then came a 10-game losing streak, modest improvement during a 7-10 period and a 9-3 surge to return to the post-season.
“We haven’t seen this team play enough minutes together to be able to say, ‘yes, this is a championship-caliber roster,’” Griffin said. “It’s a really impressive group of players. We have a chance to be special good. …
“If I’m a fan of this team I’m really disappointed and angry and I feel like a lot was left undone.”
Griffin came to the post mortem armed with stats, including these: the Pelicans had 13 different players score 20-plus points in wins, six players score 35-plus points in wins and four players score 40-plus in wins.
“We’ve got an awful lot of talent,” he said.
Though this team won six more games than the team last season, it didn’t go as far in the post-season as the team that started 2021-22 with a 3-13 record. That team was also ninth at the end of the regular season, but it won its first elimination at home against the Spurs before earning the No. 8 seed in the playoffs with another play-in elimination-game win against the Clippers in Los Angeles.
Those Pelicans played No. 1-seeded Phoenix to a 2-2 tie in a first-round playoff series before losing games five and six.
So it’s difficult to argue that the Pelicans took a step forward this season even with their first winning record in five seasons, given that they fell well short of last season’s post-season performance.
In the big picture though, the won-lost record improvement is notable because it marks the third consecutive season that the Pelicans have won more games than they did the previous season and the fourth consecutive season that their winning percentage increased. (The 2019-20 won three fewer games than the 2018-19 team, but had a higher winning percentage against the COVID-shortened schedule.)
The elephant in the training room
Now for the elephant in the room – the training room.
Williamson’s lengthy absence, Ingram’s multiple absences and numerous other absences due to injury are part of a multi-season trend.
No one can prevent injuries and over the course of a grueling 82-game season every team is going to have to deal with a series of injuries. Luck is a major factor in who gets hit harder than the norm and who doesn’t.
“You can’t plan for stepping on someone’s ankle,” Nance said in reference to the injury he sustained in the regular-season finale.
Williamson missed the final 46 games because of a hamstring strain he suffered January 2 and aggravated during his rehab in February. That fits a multi-year pattern of players being sidelined by the same injury on multiple occasions and of absences dragging on far longer than originally projected.
Most rehabs go generally according to plan, but the Pelicans have had an inordinate number that haven’t in recent seasons.
Griffin didn’t shy away from issue, but he did provide context.
“There are things we can do better at every area of the organization,” he said. “We try to do a fairly deep dive in (all) areas all the time. We do it every year and we’ll do it again. We’ve got learn from everything that we didn’t do properly.”
Griffin said the medical staff is “not immune by any means” from the evaluation, but “I want to make sure we don’t pin this all on one thing.
“What I don’t want the narrative to be about our team is, ‘Oh my God they have to fix the medical situation.’ We’ve got fix a lot of stuff. We’ve got to do a whole bunch of things better. That’s just part of it.”
‘Clearing up a misstatement’
Williamson’s absence – like all things Zion-related – has been the focal point of scrutiny regarding the medical staff’s proficiency. His inability to return in time for the stretch run, the play-in game or reportedly for any initial playoff opportunity had the Pelicans advanced that far, returned to the headlines in the final days of the season – garnering at least as much attention as Williamson’s teammate’s attempt to extend the season.
The Pelicans unexpectedly made Williamson available to reporters on the eve of the play-in game and he said he was “physically fine” but wasn’t ready to return because of “a mental battle” he was having.
Williamson’s description of his status led many observers to believe he had chosen not to play because his head wasn’t as healthy as his hamstring. In reality he wasn’t ready physically or mentally.
“Physically I’m fine means I’m not currently injured,” Griffin said. “He wasn’t physically cleared to play basketball. He was playing one on one.”
Curiosity about the nature of Williamson’s ongoing absence grew when he took to the floor during pre-game warm-ups Wednesday to shoot jumpers and finish with a windmill dunk.
“That’s not the skillset that makes you capable of playing skillful five-on-five basketball,” Griffin said.
Griffin attributed any misunderstanding about Williamson’s status to “one misstatement” that was “very largely our fault.”
As for the overall unavailability of players, Griffin said, “I think we need to do a better job of examining the whole situation from top to bottom a little bit better.” He cited “off-the-court and on-the-court” responsibility for that.
As for Williamson’s ability to get back in action more quickly, Griffin said, “A big part of it is on him. I think there’s a lot he can do better and I think he would tell you that.”
The absence of players is further complicated by the recent emergence of players having a stronger say in when they’re ready to return from injury as well as “load management,” which teams use occasionally to give healthy player games off in hopes of having individuals and teams primed to play their best basketball in the post-season.
“When I first came into the league in ’09 guys wanted to play 82 games,” guard/forward Garrett Temple said. “Load management was not a thing.”
Aside from Temple the Pelicans’ only over-30 players are McCollum (who will be 32 when next season begins) and center Jonas Valanciunas (who will be 31), both of whom were iron-men this season. Valanciunas missed just three games while playing through quad and calf injuries.
McCollum missed just seven games despite a series of ailments, including a torn thumb ligament that plagued him for the final three months and a torn labrum, both of which were part of his shooting arm. He’s expected to have surgeries to repair the injuries.
Nance, who’s 29, battled six different ailments and returned sooner than expected from an ankle sprain as the stretch run was beginning.
“CJ and Larry wanted to send a message that this is what you do,” Griffin said.
As for basketball stuff, Green cited some stats of his own.
He consistently implored his players to shoot more 3-pointers (as long as they were good looks) and raise their average number attempts to 35-plus instead of the 30.1 they averaged, second-fewest in the NBA.
Since the Pelicans were middle of the pack (15th) in 3-point percentage (36.4), if their attempts reached Green’s sweet spot and they maintained their percentage, their scoring presumably would increase by perhaps six points per game.
That would move them from the middle of the pack in scoring (114.4) to somewhere in the top few spots with an average in the 120 points-per-game range.
Off-season work can lead to better marksmanship from players that return next season, but free agency and the draft will also provide opportunities to make the Pelicans a better 3-point shooting team next season.
Griffin said it was too early to offer specific goals for shaping next year’s roster, but he did say it would feature “tweaks more than huge moves.”
The Pelicans have five players with the opportunity to become free agents this summer: guard Josh Richardson, a savvy reserve acquired from San Antonio at the trade deadline; center/forward Willy Hernangomez, who rarely played down the stretch; reserve center/forward Jaxson Hayes, who’s a restricted free agent; and Jones and reserve forward Naji Marshall, both of whom are likely to see the team pick up an option for next season.
New Orleans will have a lottery pick to add another young prospect to a team with a young nucleus. When next season begins, Ingram will be 26 years old, Jones, Alvarado and Marshall all will be 25, Williamson and Trey Murphy III will be 23 (as will Hayes), and reserve guards Kira Lewis Jr. and E.J. Liddell, a second-round pick who missed all of this season because of a knee injury, will be 22.
Griffin said the team needs to be better at pushing the pace, regardless of who’s healthy and who isn’t for a given game.
Green, who will turn 42 years old during the off-season, is a young head coach with a young staff and they should be an ascending group, just like the majority of their players.
Griffin said Green and his staff did “a remarkable job,” considering the complications created by the limited player availability.
The players have routinely praised the calm and steady Green for the manner in which he has shepherded them through the turbulence of the last two seasons.
While acknowledging the need for him to continue to grow as a head coach, Green added that he’s “really confident in the foundation that we have here.”
The Pelicans still have several first-round picks in their accounts receivable for 2024-27 from the Anthony Davis and Jrue Holiday trades. The possibilities are too numerous to make further examination useful at this point.
But the current young nucleus will still be approaching its prime when New Orleans starts utilizing those significant draft assets.
“We’re not good enough right now and we know it,” Griffin said. “At the same time 27 teams in the league would trade their roster for ours and their draft picks for ours.”
It’s difficult to see the 2022-23 Pelicans season as anything but a disappointment when evaluating it within the context of preseason expectations, heightened expectations after the first two months and an abrupt end after 83 games.
But the view changes within the context of the trajectory of the last few years and the realistic expectations for continued maturation and at least a reversion to the mean in terms of luck with injuries.
So any lengthy evaluation of the State of the Pelicans might produce a very simple bottom line offered by Griffin.
“We’ve got a lot to look forward to,” he said, “but we have a hell of a lot of work to do.”
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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…