New Orleans Pelicans: Plenty of hopeful signs in loss to 76ers

Brandon Ingram #14 of the New Orleans Pelicans (Photo by Jonathan Bachman/Getty Images)
Brandon Ingram #14 of the New Orleans Pelicans (Photo by Jonathan Bachman/Getty Images) /

The New Orleans Pelicans started the season with a blowout loss, and though there are plenty of things to improve, there were some positive signs.

The New Orleans Pelicans started the first game in a hole but dug themselves into a crevice by the end, in the middle, however, there was a lot to like about how the team played. Ultimately this game came down to missed shots and in a make-or-miss league that will doom any team that fails to convert their chances.

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The Pelicans as a team went 39-93 from the field (or 41.9 FG%) and 13-30 from behind the arc (43.3 3P%). That low shooting as a team just won’t cut it in the NBA anymore. But the entire team didn’t go cold from the field at once, rather it was a couple of players from specific areas on the floor.

Freshly signed to an extension earlier (2 yrs/ $30.1 million) in the day, Jonas Valanciunas, had a pretty abhorrent night shooting. His 3-19 performance was the worst of his career when he had at least ten attempts according to Will Guillory of The Athletic.

The good news is, most fans would gladly have him take those same 16 missed shots again and again throughout the season. Most of the attempts were good looks that were impacted by the defense of Joel Embiid or shots that rolled around the rim and out. JV had the right plan of attack, the shots just didn’t go in, that won’t continue to happen every night. He even launched a few three balls that all looked good coming out of his hand.

It wasn’t just JV who was missing shots around the basket. Brandon Ingram went 12-26 from the field in a game where he only took three shots from behind the arc. The Sixers did a good job of altering shots when the Pels drove to the rim all night. As a team, the Pels shot 35.7% on all mid-range shots despite making half of their long two’s, according to Cleaning the Glass.

Just like JV as a player, the Pels as a team had the right idea for a large chunk of last night, the shots just didn’t drop. I’d bet there is some positive regression coming in this area over the next few weeks, there’s no way a team that gets to the rim so often continues to shoot this poorly. But the real change will come when Zion Williamson returns to action and bulldozes his way to the rim, bullying everyone and everything in his way.

This ice-cold shooting performance was compounded by a lack of drawing fouls against Philly. The Pels took just nine shots from the free-throw line and made six. Philly attempted 20 shots from the line and made 16 of them. The crazy part about the free-throw disparity is that Ingram didn’t have a single attempt from the line despite driving to the rim all game. In fact, no one on the Pels bench went to the line once in this game.

New Orleans Pelicans: There were positives in the loss to the 76ers

This may seem like I’m down on the team after the first game but really I’m encouraged by their performance. This team is in a much better position to weather any missed time from their star duo of Zion and BI (as long as the absences don’t happen on the same nights) than they were the past two seasons. There is much more shooting on this roster and some complementary playmaking to lighten the load on the stars.

My favorite stretch of this game came in the second quarter when Nickeil Alexander-Walker and Kira Lewis Jr started playing with more confidence. Yes, they both missed some shots near the rim but that didn’t deter them from continuing to attack. Last year, that was my biggest criticism of the guard play for New Orleans, all too often they would settle for pull-up jumpers instead of driving into the paint and forcing the opponents to not foul.

The bench however needs to be much better as the season goes on. The Sixers second unit outscored the New Orleans Pelicans 45-17 in a game the Pels lost by 20 points. Those Pels points are even boosted by the fact that Josh Hart got hurt (injured his knee and did not return) in the second quarter so the bench got more minutes than expected. Simply put, if the Pels want to outperform expectations the bench will need to carry their fair share of the burden.

What complicates this again is the 300 lb elephant in the room, or rather not in the room due to injury. Once Zion gets healthy and back to playing shape, the games will look much different. Everyone’s responsibilities will be shifted down and there will be less pressure on the role players individually. That said, the timeline for Zion’s return is still fuzzy and the team has games to play in the here and now.

Right now the New Orleans Pelicans offense needs to move the ball more and get into their sets much quicker. All too often, the Pels were setting a screen for the ballhandler with under seven seconds left on the shot clock. These seemed like designed sets, not the team trying to get out of a broken play. New Orleans doesn’t need to play the same run and gun style they did under Alvin Gentry but they can’t play at a snail’s pace either.

All in all, the Pels lost a game they had a chance of winning but stealing a game from what should be a title contender doesn’t happen every night. In the end, the team finished with the result most fans thought they would. How they got there is a different story but once that saw glimmers of hope shine through an otherwise grey and dour night. If the Pels can just tread water until the Zion returns this team has a real shot of making some noise this season.

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