The Whiteboard: The case for the Pelicans as championship contenders

The New Orleans Pelicans are atop the Western Conference standings and making good on their championship aspirations with dominance at both ends.

With a 104-98 win over the Detroit Pistons and a loss by the Phoenix Suns, the New Orleans Pelicans are in first place in the Western Conference. It’s a stunning turnaround from 12 months ago when they were sputtering near the bottom of the conference and worrying about Zion Williamson asking for a trade.

Last week, in a bout of unexpected prescience, I included the Pelicans in an article about inner-circle contenders separating themselves from the field. Since then, they’ve won three in a row over the Spurs, Nuggets and Pistons and their status as potential contenders seems to be worth a closer look.

The Pelicans have balance

Ranking in the top five in both offensive and defensive efficiency is generally considered the hallmark of a true contender. At this point in the season, we don’t have anyone in that group but the Pelicans are as close as any other team — sixth in offensive efficiency and third in defensive efficiency.

But their balance extends beyond just excellent at both ends of the floor.

On offense, the have six different players averaging double figures. Between Williamson, Brandon Ingram and CJ McCollum, they have three different players who are comfortable creating offense for themselves off the dribble, bending the defense with on-ball gravity. They also have a capable post-up threat in Jonas Valanciunas who can be a matchup-buster against small-ball lineups.  Around that group of offensive hubs, they have six regular rotation players hitting 40 percent or better of their catch-and-shoot 3s, spacing the floor and bombing away.

The Pelicans’ rotation also has similar defensive versatility. Jose Alvarado is a turnover-creating machine and one of the most effective point-of-attack defenders in the league at providing ball pressure. Herb Jones is a lockdown wing defender with the physical tools to handle both big and small matchups. Larry Nance Jr. can chase stretchy bigs and has proven to be an effective backline rim protector. Even Zion Williamson has improved at the end of the floor and, collectively, they’re an incredibly disruptive unit forcing turnovers and contesting every shot without fouling.

As a group, they’ve had a lot of success in holding down some of the best scorers in the league this season, including Jayson Tatum (6-of-18), Paul George (5-of-19), Kyrie Irving (6-of-19), Shai Gilgeous-Alexander (7-of-21), LeBron James (9-of-23) and Trae Young (9-of-26).

At both ends of the floor, they have the individual talent to win a variety of individual matchups but they’re also working incredibly well as a unit.

Pelicans have lineup versatility

The Pelicans are comfortable playing big and have outscored opponents by 2.7 points per 100 possessions with Valanciunas on the floor and Zion, Ingram or Trey Murphy III playing as a 4. They’ve been even better, plus-11.8 points per 100 possessions, downsizing slightly with Larry Nance Jr. at center and the same collection of 4s. And then there is one more gear — Zion at center with Valanciunas, Nance Jr., Jaxson Hayes and Willy Hernangomez on the bench. They’ve used those ultra-small lineups for just 39 minutes but have blitzed opponents, outscoring them by an average of 14.1 points per 100 possessions.

The Pelicans are so deep and with so much offensive and defensive versatility in terms of skill and matchups that they can play any style, whether that’s dictating mismatches or responding to an opponent’s advantages.

What do the Pelicans still need?

What the Pelicans are still lacking is high-leverage experience. Zion and Ingram are relatively untested in the postseason. McCollum has playoff experience but not necessarily in the role and with the responsibilities he has with the Pelicans team. A lot of other contenders don’t necessarily have the incentive to push all out in the regular season but the Pelicans may be the exception.

With their lack of collective postseason experience, homecourt advantage could make a huge difference for the Pelicans. And picking up big regular season wins, like Friday’s matchup against the Phoenix Suns, gives them a chance to build confidence and problem-solve issues that could crop up in a playoff matchup.

The Pelicans look like contenders right now. But they’re in the unenviable position of needing to keep proving it, to themselves and everyone else.

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Check out the newest episode of The Step Back Podcast

Mark Jones joins hosts Ethan Skolnick and Brady Hawk to discuss the Kings, Knicks, Pelicans and more. Subscribe to the show on Spotify, Apple Podcasts, Stitcher or wherever you listen to podcasts.

Content from around the NBA network

Anatomy of late-game collapse

The Warriors lost in heartbreaking fashion to the Utah Jazz on a last-second layup. They can trace that loss to three key mistakes:

  • A defensive breakdown: With the Warriors up four and the Jazz inbounding from the sideline, Klay Thompson completely lost his man, turning his back on Malik Beasley who drilled the open 3 to cut the lead to one.
  • Not protecting the ball: The Warriors still led by one and just needed to inbound the ball, take the foul and hit their free throws. Ty Jerome passed the ball to Jordan Poole who caught the pass and held the ball away from his body where it could be cleanly knocked away, for a layup that put the Jazz up one.
  • An impatient pass: The Warriors then had 1.4 seconds for a hail-mary play. Jerome again inbounded and could have hit Klay Thompson who would have had time to dribble once, turn and heave. He also could have Moses Moody as he was running up the sideline giving him time to pull up for a 28ish-footer. Instead, he waited until Moody was closer to the basket but double-covered and tried to heave it into traffic. Game over.

Brittney Griner is on her way home

This morning, CBS News broke the story that the US had brokered a prisoner swap with Russia and taken custody of WNBA star Brittney Griner. Here’s what you need to know:

  • Griner had been in Russian custody for the last 294 days after cannabis-oil cartridges for a vape pen were found in her luggage as she was passing through a Russian airport.
  • She was convicted of smuggling by a Russian court and sentenced to nine years in prison. She had recently been moved to a notoriously rough penal colony.
  • The US agreed to release convicted arms dealer Viktor Bout in exchange for Griner. President Biden said he had spoken to Griner and she was currently on a plane on her way back to the US.

Denise T. Jones

Denise T. Jones is a passionate sports enthusiast with a knack for capturing the electrifying essence of the sporting world. As a dedicated sports news writer for, Denise brings her unparalleled love for sports and her adept storytelling skills to deliver captivating and insightful content to readers worldwide. With a keen eye for detail and a deep understanding of various sports disciplines, Denise ensures that her articles provide comprehensive coverage of the latest events, matches, and developments in the sports realm. Whether it's the thrill of the game-winning goal, the drama of a nail-biting finish, or the heartwarming stories of triumph against all odds, Denise encapsulates it all with eloquence and precision. Denise's journey in sports journalism has been marked by her unwavering commitment to accuracy, integrity, and excellence. Her ability to blend statistical analysis with compelling narratives sets her apart as a trusted voice in the industry. From the adrenaline-pumping action on the field to the strategic maneuvers off it, Denise brings every aspect of the sporting world to life through her writing. With a finger on the pulse of the sports scene, Denise T. Jones continues to inspire and inform readers with her dynamic and engaging sports coverage on

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