It hasn’t been easy, but there is hope at the end of the tunnel for the New Orleans Pelicans. Despite playing the entirety of the 2021-22 season without franchise star Zion Williamson, the 35-44 Pelicans have punched their ticket to the play-in round. There, they’ll have the opportunity to secure their first playoff berth since 2017-18.
But wait, there’s more! Barring a shocking trade, Williamson will make his long-awaited return to action next season, giving New Orleans one of the league’s top stars. Better yet, there’s now a chance he’ll be joined by at least one elite prospect when the season tips off next October.
The Pelicans overcame the absence of Zion Williamson and surpassed expectations
Let’s pump the brakes on one thing. While the Pelicans should be proud of making the play-in round, they’re still nine games below .500. If there was no play-in round, they would be missing the playoffs for the fourth straight year with yet another losing record.
That said, it’s hard to throw shade at New Orleans given its second-half turnaround.
With Zion out indefinitely due to a fractured foot, the Pels got off to a 1-12 start. Then, as Williamson made his controversial decision to continue his rehab away from the team, New Orleans struggled to stay alive in the play-in race. By Feb. 1, the team was 18-32 and in sole position of the West’s 12-seed.
However, as people wondered whether it was time to trade Zion and rebuild all over again, the Pelicans flipped the switch. New Orleans won its first four games in February — three of which were on the road — as well as its first four following the All-Star break. Thanks to newcomer CJ McCollum along with star Brandon Ingram and surprising rookie Herbert Jones, New Orleans has played winning basketball for over two months, compiling a 17-12 record since 2/1.
What’s even more impressive about New Orleans’ turnaround, in addition to doing it with Williamson on the shelf, is that its record should be even better. Since the first day of February, the Pelicans own the eighth-highest offensive rating; ahead of teams like the Phoenix Suns, Dallas Mavericks, and Philadelphia 76ers. But they also boast the sixth-highest defensive rating, sitting ahead of the Sixers, Utah Jazz, and Golden State Warriors.
The Pelicans will now battle the San Antonio Spurs in the play-in round. If they win, they’ll likely face either the Los Angeles Clippers or Minnesota Timberwolves for the eighth and final playoff spot.
New Orleans could still land a top draft pick
While the Pelicans have a shot to crack this year’s postseason, they aren’t expected to get very far. In all likelihood, New Orleans’ feel-good run will end no later than the first round against the powerhouse Suns.
But luckily, the future is still as bright as ever thanks to the ineptitude of the Los Angeles Lakers.
The Lakers built a superteam last offseason, adding Russell Westbrook to a club featuring LeBron James and former Pelican Anthony Davis. Yet the results were spectacularly awful, as LA has gone 31-48 on its way toward elimination.
Entering Thursday, the Lakers possess the eighth-worst record in the NBA. That gives them a 26.3% chance at a top-four pick and a 6.0% shot to win the lottery. But it won’t be the Purple and Gold potentially adding one of the draft’s top prospects.
Thanks to the 2019 Davis deal, New Orleans owns LA’s first-round pick this year, one of three it acquired in the infamous trade. It’s a pick the Pels would keep if it lands in the top 10, meaning the Lakers could win the lottery and the Pels would still get the pick.
So not only can the Pelicans make the playoffs, but there’s around a 1-in-4 shot to get a top-four pick and an opportunity to select a future star like Gonzaga’s Chet Holmgren or Duke’s Paolo Banchero.
But even if the Pelicans miss out on the playoffs, there’s a chance (albeit a small one) to land a top-four pick even if the LA odds don’t land in their favor. While New Orleans traded its own first to the Portland Trail Blazers for McCollum, it only transpires if the pick falls between five and 14. But there is a 7.1% chance it could reach the top-four and a 1.5% shot it wins the whole thing. Not likely, but certainly possible.
So somehow, the Pelicans can win two top-four picks? They technically can, although the odds are slim. But the fact they could make the playoffs and still add an integral piece to their core is a win in itself.
The Pelicans hope a healthy Zion will lead them forward next season
In theory, the Pelicans have already hit their decade’s worth of lottery luck by landing the generational prospect Williamson in 2019. Injuries may have clouded our overall perception of Zion, but when healthy, he’s a one-in-a-million type of player.
Across 61 games last season, a 20-year-old Williamson averaged 27.0 points on 61.1% shooting from the field. The 6-foot-6 specimen also pulled down 7.2 rebounds and dished out 3.7 assists per game, securing All-Star honors for the first time in his career.
In theory, assuming Zion doesn’t return for any play-in or playoff games this year, he’ll come back ready for vengeance in 2022-23. From there, he’ll have All-Star-caliber teammates Ingram and McCollum, a promising second-year forward in Jones, and a potential star rookie ready to help bring the Pels back to relevance.
For all of the drama concerning Williamson’s long-term future with New Orleans, his return would be a huge lift for the franchise. Add in another phenom at this year’s draft, and the Pelicans could be surging toward an extended stay in next year’s postseason.
All statistics courtesy of Basketball Reference.