Usually, when a team trades their wantaway franchise superstar, the team’s relevancy gets immediately torpedoed. They are no longer on the guest list for the playoff party. And they quickly start the grueling search for another star and a new identity. That was not the case for the New Orleans Pelicans when Anthony Davis demanded a trade to the Los Angeles Lakers. Fortune played a hefty part when they lucked into the number one overall pick, before they had even moved Davis. That stroke of destiny landed them Zion Williamson and his potential to be a generational talent, but they doubled-down on that by making some savvy moves after the draft lottery.
They traded Davis and his All-Star résumé for a huge haul. The package includes former second-overall picks Lonzo Ball and Brandon Ingram, as well as Josh Hart, the fourth overall pick in this year’s draft, and a litany of future picks.
Instead of using the fourth pick in a notoriously shallow draft class, new Vice President of Basketball Operations David Griffin turned it into two first-rounders, allowing him to pick Jaxson Hayes and Nickeil Alexander-Walker. Griffin followed that up by thumping a couple of home runs in the free agency period. He plucked the sharpshooting JJ Redick from the Philadelphia 76ers, before trading for Utah Jazz big man Derrick Favors.
With the huge renovations likely completed, the Pelicans have pivoted from a middling squad with a disgruntled star, to the most exciting young core in the league. However, not only are they defined by youth, they have created a formidable defensive identity. One that will allow them to compete in every game despite their age demographic.
It all starts in the backcourt, where The Big Easy may harbor the most fearsome defensive guard duo in the entire league. Jrue Holiday, the only remaining piece from the previous regime, has taken his game to a whole new level in the past two years, on both sides of the ball. He has featured on All-Defensive squads in both seasons, and has quickly become known as one of the hardest shooting guards to score on.
He stands at just 6-foot-4 and weighs just 205 lbs, which is considerably undersized for a two-guard. However, he uses his 6-foot-7 wingspan, strength beyond his size, and baffling defensive aptitude to thwart would-be scorers. With that unique tool bag of talents accompanying his ever-growing NBA experience, the 29-year-old will be the pioneer of New Orleans’ defense.
Joining him in the backcourt will be Lonzo Ball. Despite coming under a mountain of criticism for his offensive shortcomings, there is little to be debated about the zeal in which he defends. Ball finished the season third among all guards in defensive player impact plus/minus, outranking lockdown specialists like Pat Beverley, Marcus Smart, and Eric Bledsoe in one of the most reliable defensive metrics around.
Below you can find a bunch of examples of how Ball used his 6-foot-6 size, long arms, and elite lateral movement to hamper offenses.
Just when you think that the Pelicans’ backcourt was enough to buoy them throughout the season, the frontcourt comes around and smacks you in the face. Brandon Ingram took steps toward stardom on both ends of the floor last season, particularly defensively. He isn’t at the level of some of his starting five counterparts, but if Ingram, with his long limbs and his ability to stay in front of guards or forwards, is your weakest link, things are looking scary.
While Ball, Holiday, and Ingram all have seam-bursting potential, the hype they provide isn’t even the same stratosphere as Zion Williamson. The first selection in this year’s draft, Williamson’s blend of size, strength, and unfathomable athleticism has captivated the attention of every hoops fan there is.
A devastating force on the offensive end, Williamson might be just as impactful on defense. With his marriage of size and nimbleness, the 6-foot-7, 285 lb giant will be able to guard any position on the floor effectively.
When he is switched onto guards, he can use his huge body and remarkably quick feet to shadow their every move and stifle shots.
Alternatively, he can devour big men at the rim and make them think twice before throwing up weak shots around him. Combine all of that and you can see how he will be a nightmare for would-be scorers. Especially in pick-and-roll coverage, where he will rip schemes asunder with his versatility. His ability to rocket into passing lanes and burst onto the fast break will also give opposing coaches the sweats.
Rounding out what is an already daunting starting unit is Derrick Favors. Playing next to the Stifle Tower Rudy Gobert suppressed his ability to individually shine on defense, but he still managed to post the highest defensive box plus/minus of his career, while ranking fourth among all power forwards in defensive real plus/minus. Heading into next season, he will have the chance to anchor the Pelicans’ defense and use his experience to quarterback his talented squad.
The 6-foot-10 height and strong frame are the first things that stand out with Favors, and it will likely be the most important part of a Pelicans unit that lacks a true big man. That size, combined with his above-average timing, will lead to plenty of blocks at the rim. Especially with such potent perimeter defenders funneling shots toward him. The big man also defends exceptionally in space, making him even more dangerous.
Outside of their starting five, the Pelicans aren’t as destructive defensively, but don’t write off their rookies to become impact defenders. Hayes is a bouncy, long-armed, athletic freak, who has shown in Summer League he can really defend the rim. While Alexander-Walker has been absolutely balling on both ends in Vegas, which is hopefully just a small sampling of what’s to come.
New Orleans’ defense has ranked outside the top 10 in the previous two seasons, so even if the defensive system isn’t as elite as teams like Boston or Toronto, the union of top-tier individual defenders will likely aid them into a top-five defense next season.
Offensively, it won’t be surprising if New Orleans faces its fair share of struggles. Even with the promising talents of Williamson, Ingram, and Ball meshing with Holiday and Favors, they will likely be one of the worst shooting teams in the league. In an NBA landscape where 3-point shooting matters so much, having a bunch of below-average shooters is far from ideal.
Even if they do fizzle on offense, that staunch defense and mix of athletic scorers is going to make them must-watch TV. Lock up your League Pass subscriptions now, because the Pelicans might be worth the price themselves.