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The New Orleans Pelicans are Off to a Great Start

The Pelicans are finding early success in a pivotal year, writes David Yapkowitz.

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With a 7-3 record in their last ten games, the New Orleans Pelicans have been one of the hottest teams in the NBA. It’s a most welcome sign for a team that has been plagued with injuries over the past few seasons that have derailed their playoff aspirations.

The start to this season looked like it wasn’t going to be any different from years past. In the offseason, starting small forward Solomon Hill tore his left hamstring during a workout. At the earliest, his expected recovery time would place him back near the end of the season, if at all. To add to that, the Pelicans’ draft pick, Frank Jackson, a promising young point guard out of Duke, also underwent surgery for a foot injury.

If that wasn’t enough, Rajon Rondo, one of the Pelicans’ top free agent signings, missed the first 13 games of the season with a muscle injury. For a team that already had shaky depth coming into the season, this could have been an early death knell for the Pelicans. Rondo was expected to be the primary playmaker for New Orleans alongside Jrue Holiday in the backcourt.

With Rondo sidelined, however, DeMarcus Cousins stepped into a new role as a point center. Cousins often initiated plays from the top of the key and so far on the season, he’s averaging a career-high 5.4 assists per game. Cousins has always been one of the best passing big men in the league, but he’s taken that to another level this year and it’s really helped the Pelicans stay afloat in the Western Conference. Having the ball in his hands a lot more has also led to a career-high 5.2 turnovers per game, but it’s something the team needed and are better off because of it.

One player who was definitely a beneficiary of Cousins’ playmaker role was his fellow star in the frontcourt, Anthony Davis. Davis’ scoring numbers are down a bit, 25.9 points per game compared to his 28.0 last season, but he’s been scoring much more efficiently. He’s shooting career-highs from the field (56.5 percent) and from three-point range (37.8 percent).

Another big reason for the Pelicans’ early success has been their bench. Even before the injuries hit, this was a team that had questionable depth. The rash of injuries forced the Pelicans to sign veteran point guard Jameer Nelson and he’s helped lead the charge off the bench. He’s no longer the borderline All-Star he was in Orlando, but his veteran leadership and poise have brought a stabilizing presence to the team.

In his first game with Pelicans on Oct. 22 against the Los Angeles Lakers, which coincidently was their first win of the season, Nelson had five points and five assists while making a noticeable impact on the court. Two games later in a win over the Sacramento Kings, Nelson put up a season-high 18 points to go along with six assists, and four rebounds.

Also giving the Pelicans a major boost in the second unit is Darius Miller. Once a highly-touted recruit at Kentucky, Miller struggled to make much of an impact in the league during his first stint in New Orleans from 2012-2015. The Pelicans cut him early in the 2014-15 season and he found himself playing in Germany the past two years.

Now, in his second go-round with the team, he’s emerged as a valuable contributor off the bench. He’s averaging career-highs in shooting from the field (51.9 percent) and from the three-point line (49.2 percent). What’s important about his shooting from downtown is he’s become a deadly three-point shooter on a team that has lacked shooting from the outside. In the past five games, Miller’s put up 12.6 points per game on 68.8 percent shooting.

To make matters even better, Rondo made his season debut on Nov. 13. Since he’s been back, he’s taken the reigns from Cousins as the Pelicans primary playmaker. His 5.6 assists are second on the team behind Holiday.

Currently, the Pelicans sit in seventh place in the West, although they are a mere half game back of the San Antonio Spurs and the third seed. Their 11-8 record is the best mark they’ve had at this point in the season over the past three years. Their upcoming stretch of games is going to show a bit more of what they’re made of.

In the next ten games, the Pelicans will play the Golden State Warriors twice, the Minnesota Timberwolves, Portland Trail Blazers, Denver Nuggets, Philadelphia 76ers, Houston Rockets and Milwaukee Bucks, all teams with winning records. The Warriors, Wolves, Trail Blazers, Nuggets, and Rockets are all ahead of the Pelicans in the West standings.

With Cousins and Davis playing at superstar levels and the bench giving them a surprising boost, the Pelicans are looking to make their mark in the Western Conference this year. At a time when the majority of the NBA is changing and teams are focused on elite outside shooting and non-traditional lineups, the Pelicans are hoping to buck the trend. They’re trying to pound the rest of the league into submission with the best big man combo in the league. Only time will tell if they’ll be successful this year. So far, they’re off to a good start.

David Yapkowitz has been a staff writer for Basketball Insiders since 2017. Based in Los Angeles, he focuses on the Pacific Division as well as the NBA at large.

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