Moore: Pelicans to Make Playoffs Is Still Worth Betting
Sam Forencich/NBAE via Getty Images. Pictured: Zion Williamson, Brandon Ingram and Lonzo Ball
Through three scrimmage games, the New Orleans Pelicans have a 90.8 defensive rating, which would be good for one of the best of all time, and a +21.7 net rating, which would be by far the best of all time.
So we can all load up on their title odds and start shopping for that second vacation home. Agreed?
Great. We’re good here.
OK, not really.
New Orleans is currently 3.5 games back of the 8th-seeded Memphis Grizzlies, and +270 at PointsBet to reach the 2020 NBA Playoffs.
Can they pull it off?
THE LEGO PELICANS
Zion Williamson is expected to practice Wednesday after missing almost two weeks with a personal issue. Whether Williamson will be fully ready to go against the Jazz in the opener Thursday (Pelicans -2.5) is unknown, but he should be at least available in the following games.
The model for the Pelicans is weapons. They have weapons all over the floor. Lonzo Ball has emerged as a reliable 3-point weapon to add to his near-elite passing. Jrue Holiday remains one of the craftiest guards in the NBA on both ends. J.J. Redick, Josh Hart, Nickell Alexander-Walker and Nicolo Melli — they can all get buckets.
What they can’t get are stops. The Pelicans are 18th in defense per NBA.com and Cleaning The Glass, and 18th in halfcourt defense via Synergy.
Williamson can block shots but he’s still very much a rookie; his impact on the defensive end is limited. When you watch the games, you wind up noticing the physicality, but he’s also often out of position as most rookies are.
And yet … the most played lineup for the Pelicans, with 230 minutes played, is Lonzo Ball, Jrue Holiday, Brandon Ingram, Derrick Favors and Williamson. That lineup gives up just 91.6 points per 100 possessions, which of course would be a league-best mark.
Overall, the Pelicans defense is nine points better (per 100 possessions) with Williamson on the court than off, a staggering differential. However, before you go anointing Zion the next Dikembe, keep in mind that if Derrick Favors isn’t on the floor, the Pelicans’ defensive rating with Zion worsens by 11.1 points per 100 possessions.
Favors’ ability to contest without fouling at the rim is a big deal:
But even bigger is his ability to read plays, freelance, show high, and then recover low:
Favors is the unsung hero here, but the reverse is true as well. The Pelicans’ defense with Favors and without Zion drops too. The combination is what works well.
Which leads us to the central argument to the Pelicans’ chances: If you layer them like LEGOs, they build something entirely different from their pieces.
For example, here’s that terrible Pelicans defense in the form of the defensive rating when Jrue Holiday, Lonzo Ball, and Brandon Ingram were on the floor, by month:
It just so happens that Williamson’s debut was January 22nd.
If you have those three without any interior defense, with apologies to rookie Jaxson Hayes and Jahlil Okafor, they’re awful defensively. Add Favors to the layer, and the defense improves to under 110. Add Williamson, and it goes to downright scary:
|w/o Zion & Favors||w/Favors, w/o Zion||w/Favors & Zion|
Oh, and the offense improved at the same trajectory.
Now, how much of this was smoke and mirrors? The Pelicans schedule was considerably easier during the stretch they improved … but it was also considerably more difficult when they struggled.
We don’t really know the Pelicans, much the same way we don’t really know the Clippers. But there is reason to believe that their healthy capacity is greater than their 8-seed competitors.
However, those health issues are real. Williamson has had two separate injury concerns and missed most of the bubble acclimation period with a personal issue. Favors has been banged up all season. Ball has had issues his first two seasons. Ingram, outside of a blood clot issue last season, and Holiday over the last few years have been durable.
But these concerns can be suggested for any team. If you’re betting on ceiling, the Pelicans’ ceiling is the highest.
So how do they get to the playoffs (+270)?
The Pelicans are favored vs. the Utah Jazz on Thursday, a sign of the strength oddsmakers are projecting for them. They will be underdogs in just one game most likely, against the Clippers. The Clippers themselves are missing several key pieces early on.
Sacramento, Washington, San Antonio and Orlando account for five should-wins. The Clippers game is a should-lose. Utah and Memphis are toss-ups, but it should be noted the Pelicans are 2-0 vs. Memphis this season. They have the capability to beat Memphis twice.
The risk is that the Pelicans finish a half-game behind the Blazers without catching Memphis, and the Blazers steal the play-in spot.
But that schedule has seven wins penciled, which gives the 5.5 win total over value, and given the Blazer’s schedule, six wins likely secures a better record than Portland and the 9th spot.
The Pelicans team from this season was a sub-.500 squad that was inconsistent and couldn’t defend a stop sign falling over in zero gravity.
This, however, is not that team, which means the money should still be on them.