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What’s popping on Air-Ball

The New Orleans Pelicans disappointing so far this season was easily predictable. Sure, they have lots of talent up and down the roster but the fit makes no sense for most of the pieces.

This is why Sunday’s win over Boston was so exciting.

Finally, Stan Van Gundy had the balls to relegate Eric Bledsoe to the bench and let Lonzo Ball and Josh Hart play. The result was the two dominated defensively, showing a glimpse into a potentially special defensive backcourt. 

That wasn’t even the best adjustment the Pelicans did though. 

For the first time all season we got to see extended Zion Williamson with a floor spreading centre minutes and it was as unstoppable as we all expected. Sure, Nicolo Melli isn’t exactly Dirk Nowitzki but the difference his shooting ability made and the space he provided Zion to get downhill as opposed to say Steven Adams or Willy Hernangomez was downright terrifying. 

In the last few weeks, Van Gundy has been experimenting with Zion as a ball-handler, especially in the pick and roll. Unsurprisingly, Zion’s force and skill going downhill is Giannis like and, he still has the passing ability to spray to open shooters if the defence over commits. 

In overtime, with Melli on the court, Van Gundy didn’t even run him in pick and rolls. Instead, Zion just simply got the ball up top and smashed his way to the rim at will. It’s almost like this should’ve been the plan all along.

Instead, the team traded for Steven Adams and subsequently extended him for some reason during the offseason. So now we get these Adams/Zion minutes that are just weird and limit both of their playing styles. 

What’s most upsetting about this is when Zion got the chance to drive, we got to see Brandon Ingram in a secondary scoring role. For a player as skilled as Ingram is, watching him attack off a Zion drive and the space he gets as a result was a thing of beauty. We’ve heard people question their fit together since the moment of the Anthony Davis trade and yet Sunday night, we got a glimpse at the potential when Ingram plays off a first-option Zion.

He got open looks for three and even when Boston did rotate, he was able to attack off the catch against a scrambling defence, allowing him to get to the rim or his pull-up midrange virtually automatically. Giving a scorer like Ingram an added advantage is effectively a death sentence and here we saw on Sunday how Zion can create those opportunities for him.

The biggest question for me with this duo is defensively which is where the beauty of Hart and Ball comes in. They were so good at the point of the attack, it hardly mattered they had three average or below-average defenders behind them. Seeing that, I can’t possibly imagine a world where David Griffin wasn’t on the phones all day today trying to unload Bledsoe.

On Sunday the quartet of young Pelicans showed how well they can play together. In a small sample size of 88 minutes this season, they’re +7.9 per 100 possessions together, New Orleans needs to lean into developing them together.

They need to accept that this probably isn’t a playoff team this season. Next season though, with the promise of those guys and other interesting pieces like Kira Lewis and Nickeil Alexander-Walker, they very well could be. Griffin and Van Gundy just need to be honest with themselves.

Move on from Bledsoe, his existence on this team with Ball, Alexander-Walker and Lewis never made any sense. Similarly, the Adams contract probably means he’s here to stay. However, finding a sixth-man upgrade on Melli, kind of like the role Nikola Mirotic played in this franchise’s last playoff run would be invaluable.

They just have to find a way to play small more. It provides too many favourable matchups for Zion and Ingram not to. 

At 13-17, it’s likely this season ends in disappointment. However, with the blueprint of Sunday ideally leading this franchise, don’t be surprised if this team is a couple of smart moves from the top four in the West.

Zion is a generational talent, Ingram has the ability to be an elite second option and they have some impressive smart role pieces around them. It’s just up to Griffin and Van Gundy not to mess it up. 


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