New Orleans Pelicans show improvement as midseason nears

Jude Papillion, Sports Editor

The New Orleans Pelicans currently stand with a 19-32 record as the NBA’s All-Star break looms on the horizon. The Pelicans are in 11th place in the West, 2.5 games behind Portland for the 10th seed and a play-in berth. (Matthew Tate)

The New Orleans Pelicans stood with an 8-21 record and were in last place in the NBA’s Western Conference in our last update on the team in December. The Pelicans have since played 22 games, winning half to improve to 19-32 and 11th place in the Western Conference. 

The team from the Crescent City is still a staggering 22.5 games behind the top team in the West, the Phoenix Suns. However, the Pelicans are just 2.5 games behind 10th-place Portland. The Pelicans will need to move into the 10th seed or higher to make the NBA’s play-in tournament and must be the sixth seed or higher to be locked into the playoffs. 

The Pelicans are coming off of a 111-101 Tuesday night victory in Detroit. Brandon Ingram finished with 26 points, and Jonas Valančiūnas had a 13-point, 13-rebound double-double as the Pelicans overcame a 15-point deficit in the third quarter to win the game. The win snapped a four-game Pelicans losing streak

The Pelicans have two games left on their current road trip, on Feb. 4 against the Denver Nuggets and on Feb. 6 in Houston against the Rockets. The team will then have a six-game homestand that will begin with the second of back-to-back games against the Rockets before facing Miami, San Antonio, Toronto, Dallas, and Memphis, Tennessee.

After facing Dallas on Feb. 17, the Pelicans will have time off to recharge during the All-Star break and will start their final playoff push with a two-game road trip to Phoenix to face the Suns and to the Crypto.com Arena in Los Angeles to meet LeBron James and the Lakers. 

Zion Williamson is yet to appear in the Pelican’s rotation despite New Orleans having played 51 games this year. The former No. 1 overall pick’s absence this season comes after missing 48 games in his rookie season and 11 games in the 2020-21 season. Williamson has played just 85 games since going pro in 2019 — only three games more than one regular NBA season — and many are beginning to question his long-term future with the team. 

Since the Pelicans hired Willie Green as the franchise’s head coach in July, Williamson has not even undergone a full practice with the team. The latest update on Williamson’s status came on Jan. 5 when the Pelicans announced that he would be continuing to rehabilitate away from the organization but under the supervision of the Pelicans’ medical team. 

Williamson has been recovering from his right foot fracture in Oregon for the past few weeks, but contrary to the Pelican’s statement, there are no Pelicans officials with Williamson in Oregon. Instead, strength coach Jasper Bibbs has been working with Williamson. Bibbs, the former director of men’s basketball athletic performance at LSU, was fired by the university in August after spending less than two months in Baton Rouge. There is no set timetable for Williamson’s return to the team. 

Williamson’s absence has allowed for other Pelicans stars to shine, namely Ingram. The former Laker is having one of the best seasons of his young career, averaging 22.5 points, 5.2 assists and six rebounds in 37 appearances. Ingram’s action this season has also been limited, missing 14 games with various injuries. 

Pelicans’ rookie Herb Jones was named to the NBA’s Rising Stars Challenge, set to take place on Feb. 18. So far Jones leads all rookies in steals, with 71 this season, and he is second among rookies in blocks with 44. 

The Pelicans have their work cut out for them if they intend to play in the postseason in a few months. With the NBA’s trade deadline looming on Feb. 10, the Pelicans could get the ball rolling by dealing with other teams. 

The Pelicans have nine first-round picks available to trade over the next six drafts. If the Pelicans upgrade at the guard position with a trade and if Williamson returns and stays healthy, New Orleans could certainly make a strong push for playoff contention.