As we move closer to the opening of NBA training camps two weeks from now, there will be plenty of intrigue around the top tier of franchises. At least eight teams1 have a real chance at an NBA title in what could be the most open race the league has seen in years.
But somewhere in the next rung of teams — likely not title contenders, but competitive — is what may be the most-certain-to-be-interesting-no-matter-what team: the New Orleans Pelicans. The Pels enter a new era, looking nothing like before, with little to no sense of how good they, or No. 1 overall pick Zion Williamson, will be.
While it’s fair to expect that it will take time for the Pelicans to take stock of what they have, don’t be surprised if New Orleans figures things out relatively quickly. Based on recent history, it’s not a longshot that they could reach the postseason in their first season without Anthony Davis.
Put aside the fact that FiveThirtyEight’s projection model has the Pelicans as the eighth-most likely playoff team out West, with a 52 percent probability of reaching the postseason. That’s based on player projections. There’s also the simple math of how not-so-horrible teams2 have fared the past two decades after winning the lottery and landing the No. 1 pick.
Remember, the Pelicans got lucky in landing the top overall pick. As a result, they’re a relatively good team as far as lottery winners go. Of the eight previous clubs to defy the odds and win the No. 1 pick without being a total cellar dweller,3 six saw considerable improvement, winning at least eight more games than they did the previous season. That sort of jump would be meaningful for New Orleans, which, with 33 wins last year, would find themselves at .500 or better. It’s also worth noting that the Pelicans’ 33 victories also rank as tied for the most among those lottery winners over the past two decades, which suggests they’ll be starting from a more favorable position than most.
Lottery winners that didn’t have to go from rags to riches
Before-and-after win totals for clubs that won NBA draft lottery without finishing in the bottom four of the standings, since the year 2000
|Year||Team||No. 1 Draft Pick||Wins Before||Wins After||Change|
Of course, even among just these eight teams, there’s a fairly wide range of outcomes and some unique circumstances. Some of these clubs that made seismic leaps were highly unusual. Take the 2014 Cavs, for example: Yes, Cleveland improved by 20 victories year-over-year after winning the lotto. But a guy named LeBron James deciding to sign there that summer was pretty integral to that leap. So was Kevin Love, whom the Cavs dealt for after drafting No. 1 pick Andrew Wiggins. (On the other hand, Toronto getting 20 games better in 2006-07 after drafting Andrea Bargnani is one that can’t be explained anywhere near as easily.) Simply put, other roster moves are obviously a key factor in whether a team can make a significant jump after landing the top pick.
But the No. 1 pick matters too. The Pelicans would gladly take the same sort of early returns from Zion as the 2008 Bulls or 2002 Rockets got from Derrick Rose and Yao Ming, respectively: Stars with bona fide skills, who made immediate impacts before struggling with injuries years later. The Bulls were eight games better after drafting their future MVP, while Houston won 15 more games after taking Ming. Both players ended up with clubs that had at least one other building block, much like Williamson will have in Jrue Holiday, one of the league’s steadiest — if not most underrated — players.
Aside from Williamson and Holiday, New Orleans also has the trio of young players — Lonzo Ball, Brandon Ingram and Josh Hart — that came over in the Davis trade. It remains to be seen if any of them will become stars (Ingram had a torrid end of the season before being forced out with a blood clot in his right arm). But even if they don’t,4 they still look like solid rotation players: Ball has shown to be one of the NBA’s better defending guards when healthy, Ingram has length and has flashed an elite level of scoring ability, while Hart is quietly one of the most sure-handed transition players in the sport.
As far as other roster changes, David Griffin also brought in sharpshooter JJ Redick, who gives the club added spacing, and ex-Jazz big Derrick Favors to help on the glass and to give the team a rim protector without Davis.5
While it’s probably a bit soon to know what sort of team the Pelicans will be in light of all these changes, it seems a safe bet that coach Alvin Gentry’s uptempo mentality will continue with this group, particularly as the hyperathletic Williamson finds his way within the offense and the league. New Orleans was poor defensively last season, but the potential is arguably there for the club to become a top-10 group in the coming years, with what should be four plus defenders (Holiday, Ball, Williamson and Favors) and a fifth in Ingram who has the ability to be amazingly disruptive at times despite his slender build.
But the truth is, we don’t know how it will look just yet, because of all the new pieces. All we know — with 20 nationally televised games on ESPN, TNT and ABC — is that we’ll have a lot of chances to watch it all come together for the Pelicans, and that judging off how teams like the Pelicans often do shortly after landing the top pick, maybe New Orleans will actually be worth the Zion-level hype.
Check out our latest NBA predictions.