New Orleans Pelicans: Two worrying trends that Stan Van Gundy must fix immediately

Head coach Stan Van Gundy of the New Orleans Pelicans (Photo by Christian Petersen/Getty Images)
Head coach Stan Van Gundy of the New Orleans Pelicans (Photo by Christian Petersen/Getty Images) /

The New Orleans Pelicans were battered 111-86 by the Phoenix Suns in a humbling performance that had Stan Van Gundy searching for answers off the bench.

The New Orleans Pelicans had held the Toronto Raptors and San Antonio Spurs to under 100 points going into Tuesday night, but it was a return to last season’s porous defense as the Suns scored 100 points in the first three quarters alone. Although it has only been four games, there are two recurring problems plaguing the Pelicans early this season which Van Gundy must mend.

New Orleans Pelicans: Defensive woes

The first one has been well-documented and that’s the lack of rim protection when Steven Adams is on the bench. When Adams left the floor in the first quarter, the Pelicans were up three points. By the time he checked back in, New Orleans had given up a 28-12 run and were down double digits.

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Like I’ve written before, this trend will dash the Pelicans’ hopes of making the playoffs if it continues—and every sign points to it continuing. Van Gundy has been proactive in trying to find a solution but hasn’t yet.

Against the Spurs, he didn’t play Nicolò Melli for a single minute and instead preferred longer stretches from Jaxson Hayes and Josh Hart. Here, Melli checked in at the end of the first quarter and played some minutes with Zion Williamson at center. Hayes entered the game in the second quarter (compared to the first vs. San Antonio) and also played a fair bit.

The Pelicans’ defense was a sponge despite the changes in the rotation. This was particularly apparent during a small stretch in the second quarter when Williamson had to guard Deandre Ayton. The Suns’ center instantly picked up four quick points, including the above and-one on the smaller Williamson.

Despite Adams’ strong start to the season, the Kiwi center is a limited player offensively and not nearly good enough on that end of the floor to pull the Pelicans back into a game when they leak points without him. Not just that, but teams get into a rhythm that is hard to break once they get into these runs.

New Orleans Pelicans: Scoring struggles

The Pelicans rightly received plaudits for their defense in their first three games but one thing that went overlooked as a result was their lack of offensive firepower. Right now, the Pelicans rank bottom of the league in points per game and have the second-worst offensive rating out of any team.

Brandon Ingram deservedly won the first Western Conference Player of the Week award and is off to a scorching start, but there is too big of an onus on him and Williamson to get the Pelicans going on attack. The Pelicans’ had a top-five offense last year that they have failed to replicate to this point.

A big part of the Pelicans’ current struggles can be attributed to the backcourt. After scoring 18 points in his debut, Eric Bledsoe has only averaged 6.3 points on 15.4 percent from three against the Heat, Spurs, and Suns. Lonzo Ball has played better, but he’s only hit eight of his last 20 threes despite further improving his mechanics.

The Pelicans’ starters don’t make for a seamless fit because of their poor outside shooting, but Bledsoe is too skilled of a player to keep scoring in the single figures and one would hope that Ball’s shot improvements will appear in the stat sheet going forward.

JJ Redick’s ice-cold shooting hasn’t helped either. Over the last three games, the Duke sharpshooter has only made one three. His shot isn’t falling but it’s reasonable to expect a regression to the norm eventually. Redick is taking the same shots as always and the Pelicans need them to fall.

Reshuffling the starting line-up by replacing Bledsoe with Redick is a viable option. This would improve the Pelicans’ spacing and allow Bledsoe to still get plenty of shine by running the show for the second unit.

One piece of encouraging news in the Suns’ blowout was the resurgence of Nickeil Alexander-Walker. Alexander-Walker played four minutes in the season opener and was then left out of the rotation until yesterday’s 24 minutes.

Alexander-Walker has some shiftiness to his game that helps make up for a lack of natural athleticism. It took some time for him to get into a rhythm, but Alexander-Walker has the potential to provide some scoring punch for the Pelicans’ bench unit, which was massively outscored by the Suns’ bench (not counting the write-off that was the fourth quarter).

Garbage time wasn’t just garbage time for the former Virginia Tech star. He played aggressively, looking for his own shot, and ended with 11 points and four assists. I wouldn’t mind seeing Van Gundy turn to Alexander-Walker more often, even if he’ll naturally have some down nights.

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The Pelicans play the Oklahoma City Thunder up next and it will be interesting to see if Stan Van Gundy continues to make significant changes while looking to finetune this New Orleans squad.