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The Pelicans Are Running Out of Daylight

The NBA’s most exciting player and the restart’s easiest schedule sound like a simple formula for a playoff push, but New Orleans has been the biggest disappointment in Orlando and could be facing an early exit

Getty Images/Ringer illustration

When it came to the race for the West’s final playoff spot heading into the restart, most arguments for the Pelicans coming out on top rested on two pillars. The first: New Orleans had Zion Williamson, the thicc-cut thunderbolt who blew opponents’ doors off by more than 10 points per 100 possessions during his court time before the hiatus. The second: The Pels had the easiest schedule of any team in the bubble, which gave Alvin Gentry’s crew a great chance to catch the eighth-seeded Grizzlies or force a play-in series.

But neither of those presumed advantages has meant a whole lot during the first week of Bubble Ball. As it turns out, Zion’s not nearly as much of a game-changer when he’s playing less than half the game, and a soft slate doesn’t matter if you defend like you had the game plan Eternal Sunshine’d out of your head moments before tipoff.

An excused absence for a family emergency reduced Williamson’s “ramp up” to game action after four months away and prompted the Pelicans to limit him to short “bursts” of playing time. He’s been the force we remember on offense, averaging 16.8 points in 19.1 minutes per game on 58.3 percent shooting, but he’s been downright woeful on the other end, seemingly sleepwalking through many possessions and contributing to the demise of the Pelicans’ overall structure in the process; New Orleans is allowing 26.5 more points per 100 possessions in the restart with the no. 1 pick on the floor than when he sits.

And despite two games against sub-.500 opponents and one against the Bojan Bogdanovic–less Jazz, New Orleans is just 1-3 in Orlando after a 140-125 pasting by the previously scuffling Kings. The Pels are now 2.5 games behind wounded incumbent Memphis—which, at 0-4 in the restart, might be even in worse shape than New Orleans—and 1.5 games behind the surging Trail Blazers, in serious danger of winding up watching the play-in games like the rest of us:

The Pelicans have yet to put together a single complete performance in Orlando. They came out of the gate strong against Utah, scoring 60 first-half points behind a scorching Brandon Ingram, but blew a 16-point lead and fell apart in the fourth quarter as Williamson watched from the bench. They failed to offer even token defensive resistance against the Clippers, passively observing as L.A. drilled a franchise-record 25 3-pointers in a 23-point blowout.

They got their transition game on track against the Grizzlies for a critical win, but still struggled to generate quality possessions in the half court. And while they held the Grizz to just 99 points, that owed more to Memphis’s ongoing offensive struggles (since exacerbated by the loss of Jaren Jackson Jr.) than to New Orleans suddenly figuring out how to snuff out opponents; any doubts on that last point were answered emphatically by Thursday’s disastrous turn against Sacramento, who scored 49 points in the first quarter and never looked back.

Bogdanovic shook off his 1-for-15 nightmare against the Mavericks to the tune of a career-high 35 points. De’Aaron Fox continued his stellar play in the bubble, toying with the Pelicans on his way to 30 points and 10 assists. Every way the Kings could have taken advantage of New Orleans’s laissez-faire defense, they did: blow-bys on the perimeter leading to trips to the line, drive-and-kicks to open shooters, back-cuts in the half court, runouts in transition, putbacks on the offensive glass, you name it. As a result, all of the Pelicans’ own good offensive work—Zion and Ingram combining for 48 points, assists on 31 of 47 made baskets, 57 percent shooting as a team—amounted to a footnote in a 15-point loss against a team that had previously been winless in the restart.

Through four games, only the Wizards and Nets have posted a worse net rating than the Pelicans in Orlando. New Orleans has looked less like the hard-charging future of the league and more like a young, disorganized, and untethered collection of pieces that doesn’t yet form a cohesive puzzle. And maybe that shouldn’t surprise us. After all, the Pelicans were 17-27 before Zion debuted, with a bottom-five defense that only intermittently looked functional when Derrick Favors was in the middle. (Favors’s sluggish movement and inability to anchor in the lane have been a major factor in New Orleans’s defensive woes in the bubble.)

New Orleans has been bad in crunch time all season long, going 13-25 in games in which the score’s been within five points in the final five minutes, with the second-worst “clutch” net rating in the league. Only four teams have given up more points per game and per possession in transition, according to Synergy Sports; only the dreadful Cavs turn the ball over more often than the young and scattered Pels. Between Zion’s explosion onto the scene, Ingram’s emergence as a bona fide All-Star, and Jrue Holiday’s ongoing two-way excellence, there’s a lot to be excited about in New Orleans. But when you deflect the showroom shine a bit and actually look under the hood, there are plenty of issues, too.

Things could still break the Pelicans’ way. A still-spongy closing slate—winless Washington, small-ball San Antonio, a return date with Sacramento, and the puttering Magic—presents opportunities. Gentry could shuffle his rotation in search of more stability and bite on the defensive end; more minutes for Josh Hart could help plug the gaps, as could exhuming ready vet E’Twaun Moore from mothballs. Zion and Ingram can put up crooked numbers and tilt games. Memphis remains the rabbit to chase, and the Grizzlies are limping; as great as Phoenix and Portland have looked, nobody’s running away with the race. But while the Pelicans have one of the NBA’s brightest futures, here in the present tense, their postseason daylight’s fading fast. If they don’t act fast, the lights will go out a lot sooner than they anticipated.