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Why Are the New Orleans Pelicans Not Improving?

New Orleans Pelicans

In their first season after trading away superstar big man Anthony Davis, the New Orleans Pelicans showed plenty of promise. Brandon Ingram burst onto the scene with his first All-Star appearance, Lonzo Ball looked like he finally figured out how to shoot, and Zion Williamson flexed his limitless potential when healthy. Although they eventually fell short of the playoffs after a disappointing showing in Orlando, it seemed like the Pelicans were a team on the rise. 

Confoundingly, the wheels have come off in 2021. The Pelicans have won only a third of their games and are languishing in 14th in the Western Conference. The question is, why is a team with this much young talent struggling to put it all together? This article will examine a few key reasons why the New Orleans Pelicans have underperformed this season.

Role Player Regression

One positive that can be said about the Pelicans situation is that the blame cannot be put on the heads of their two star players. Zion Williamson and Brandon Ingram picked up right where they left off last season and combined are averaging nearly 47 points per game. 

New Orleans Pelicans

Nicolo Melli has struggled off the bench this season, courtesy of duke basketball report

Where the points are not coming from this season is the bench. Last season, seven players off the Pelicans bench averaged over five points per game, compared to just three this season. This is due to a number of factors. A host of reliable bench pieces left in the offseason, including E’Twaun Moore, Jahlil Okafor and Frank Jackson. Of the ones that remain, many have seen a significant dropoff in their numbers. Most notable among them are the two big men Nicolo Melli and Jaxon Hayes, who’s combined 14 points per game in 2019-2020 has fallen to a lowly five points this season. 

If the Pelicans are to succeed, they need more players they can rely on when Ingram and Williamson are not on the court. 

Continued Lackluster Defense 

As one of the youngest teams in the league, the Pelicans’ defensive struggles are to be expected. Last year they ranked among the worst teams in the league on the defensive end based on points allowed per game although were slightly better than that when taking into account their fast pace. After trading away Jrue Holiday, their best perimeter defender, last offseason the defensive struggles have expectedly continued. 

While they technically allow fewer points per game this season, that does not mean the Pelicans’ defense is necessarily better. Teams have abused the Holiday-sized hole in their perimeter defense by launching record numbers of long-range shots. The 41.9 three-point attempts per game shot by opposing teams would be an NBA record if they continued shooting at such volume. Young guys like Lonzo Ball, Josh Hart, and Zion Williamson are going to have to step up on the defensive end to stop the bleeding.

Long-Range Shooting Woes

Just last season three-point shooting was one of the Pelicans’ strengths. They ranked in the top ten in both three-pointers made and three-point percentage. This barrage from deep was led by veteran NBA sharpshooter JJ Reddick, who finished second in the league in three-point percentage. His pinpoint accuracy combined with career seasons behind the arc from Ball and Ingram made the Pelicans a force to reckoned with in that aspect.

New Orleans Pelicans
Lonzo Ball will need to improve his game from its current state, photo courtesy of Marcel Mutoni of Slam magazine

This season has been a very different story. The usually reliable Reddick is ice-cold and on pace for a career-worst shooting season. And while Ingram has continued to impress with his shooting ability, Lonzo Ball has regressed back to his old ways. Despite attempting more threes, Ball is making only 29% of them. Without Ball and Reddicks shooting, the Pelicans’ three-point shooting has collapsed from seventh in the league in 2019-2020 all the way down to 27th this season. The shooting struggles have also excaberated the teams’ defensive issues. Many times last season their hot shooting kept them in games despite poor defensive play. Without reliable shooting, the Pelicans don’t stand a chance at being competitive throughout the rest of 2021.


All stats courtesy of Basketball-Reference and

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