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27 burning questions to keep you on your toes for the next 27 games


The Pelicans are 27 games away from finding out exactly what this core needs to win a championship.

The New Orleans Pelicans are sitting at 33-22 coming out of the NBA All-Star break, tied with the Phoenix Suns for fifth place. Willie Green has this group on pace for one of the best regular season finishes in franchise history, but that was not the goal back in September. They are 27 games away from getting another shot at making a postseason run. For some like Zion Williamson, it would be the first NBA Playoffs appearance.

The Pelicans have one fatal flaw as a team. Individually, the players are being tested in a situation that most have never experienced. What follows are 27 questions lingering over the team now that the NBA’s stretch run is ramping up. As with all things New Orleans sports-related, it starts with health.

Pelicans and the Injury Bug meet again

It would not be a complete basketball season in the Big Easy without at least one unfortunate injury. Zion Williamson missed the last two postseason appearances by the Pelicans, a six-game series against the Suns followed by an NBA Play-In Tournament elimination at home versus the Oklahoma City Thunder. The two-time All-Star left the NBA Bubble early due to injury. Willie Green and this Big Three need a fully available roster to have a realistic chance at winning a few playoff series.

Question 1: Can Dyson Daniels return from a knee procedure in time to be ready for the playoffs? The Pelicans released an update citing a four-week re-evaluation window on February 15. New Orleans has a back-to-back set the weekend of March 15-16. It is highly doubtful Daniels is thrown right back into the mix exactly four weeks after a procedure considering the team’s cautious tendencies.

Question 2: Will the Pelicans have enough time to work Daniels back into the rotation? There is in shape, there is basketball shape, and then there is playoff pressure fitness. New Orleans has 15 games remaining after the LA Clippers and Portland Trail Blazers leave town. Daniels gives the team too much on defense to completely ignore if medically cleared. His ball-stopping prowess will be needed in big moments, but the team will be careful with the 20-year-old.

Question 3: Will Matt Ryan be available? Ryan is shooting 47.1% from three-point range over 14 games. Willie Green may not go more than 10 deep for a playoff rotation but Ryan’s shooting is a good option to have in reserve.

Depth does not matter during NBA Playoffs

The Pelicans are the deepest team in the league. Listen to enough game broadcast or league podcasts and you’ll hear a version of that statement. There is only one problem. NBA Playoffs rotations rarely go more than eight to 10 players deep. Having the most talented 11th man on the roster matters far more in the regular season.

Question 4: What’s the plan for Jeremiah Robinson-Earl? The 23-year-old Villanova alum has played in 21 games for the Pelicans this season on a two-way contract. He was converted to a standard NBA contract during the NBA All-Star break, filling a roster spot that could have possibly gone to a buyout option. New Orleans appears to be out of the market now.

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Question 5: Will Jose Alvarado get one last shot at Chris Paul? The Pelicans play the Golden State Warriors in the second-to-last game of the regular season. Steph Curry’s Warriors are in 10th place, but Paul is close to returning from a hand injury. New Orleans needs to avoid any chance of meeting Curry in an elimination game. Alvarado might get a chance to pester Paul completely out of the postseason picture on April 12, doing the entire Western Conference a favor.

Question 6: Will rookie Jordan Hawkins get any meaningful game time before the playoffs begin? Dyson Daniels is on the shelf. Hawkins needs defensive reps and has the shooting to make opponents pay. Might as well give the NCAA champion some developmental run at some point.

Question 7: Will Hawkins be forced into a postseason game after weeks of watching from the bench? Green infamously went to Kira Lewis Jr. as the first reserve off the bench, but the Alabama alum was rusty, tentative, and ineffectual. Avoiding the same confidence-killing mistake with Hawkins is a priority for Green to show growth as a coach.

Question 8: Can Cody Zeller help keep the miles off of Jonas Valanciunas? Zeller was brought in to be a steady veteran voice who can fill in for Valanciunas in a pinch. Just shaving a few minutes off per game, especially in blowouts, will help keep both big men fresh for the playoffs.

Question 9: Will the Karlo Krazies get a cameo appearance from Karlo Matkovic? Some New Orleans citizens are very invested in the 22-year-old going by social media. Getting to see Matkovic in the Smoothie King Center would be a cherry on top of a very productive year for the Slovenian big man and his fans.

New Orleans needs a reserve to step up

New Orleans Pelicans forward Naji Marshall (8) reacts to a play by guard Jose Alvarado (15) against the Washington Wizards during the second half at Smoothie King Center.
Stephen Lew-USA TODAY Sports

The Pelicans Big Three is a net negative. The supporting cast stepping up is what has carried the team for most of the season. Zion Williamson, Brandon Ingram, and CJ McCollum step aside when New Orleans truly needs a big bucket. A Jonas Valanciunas post-up is the team’s go-to bail-out play. They’ll need a varied, more dynamic offense in the playoffs.

Question 10: What will it take to help Trey Murphy III shake out of a shooting slump? If Murphy is not making the three-pointers the team draws up, the Pelicans will not be able to keep up even at the slower postseason pace. He is shooting just 32% over the last dozen games.

Question 11: Will Trey Murphy III be more assertive defensively, or will Green be limited on which lineups can deploy multiple shooters? Murphy III has been unassertive on defense and off-target on offense. The Pelicans need to see more before handing out a max-level rookie contract extension.

Question 12: Will Naji Marshall have a Solomon Hill-type of postseason breakout? Hill famously had one good playoff series then signed a 4-year, $44 million deal with New Orleans that summer. Marshall is an unrestricted free agent after this season and has come up in big moments. The former undrafted free agent has outplayed his $1.9 million cap, now a few good games away from getting a substantial raise. The Milwaukee Bucks are reportedly already interested.

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Question 13: Can Jose Alvarado keep up the act? The NBA knows Alvarado is hiding out, creeping up, and pressing on defense on every inch of the court. The scouting report is out on his offense too. The undersized, undrafted fan favorite has 67 assists all season and is shooting 41% from the field.

Question 14: How many game recaps will Larry Nance Jr. post before the playoffs begin? The Pelicans are aiming for the 50-win mark and a week of rest before starting an NBA Playoffs series. The team’s social media jester surely has a few ideas ready to roll.

Question 15: Will Nance Jr. be able to hold up as a small ball five? Styles make fights. Some matchups are far more favorable for the Pelicans, it a lot of it comes down to the effectiveness of Nance Jr. The Wyoming product is shooting 56.9% from the field, 45.5% from three-point range, and 72.2% from the charity stripe.

Starting lineup still looks bad

The starting lineup has a -2.4 Net Rating. The Pelicans Big Three is at -2.6. Williamson, Ingram, and McCollum with Murphy sporting an unflattering -10.1 Net Rating. Something has to give, and it will not be fewer minutes for Herb Jones. Green has started experimenting with Valanciunas to start the game but Nance Jr. to begin the second half. What’s next?

Question 16: How much can the Pelicans lean on Jonas Valanciunas? The large Lithuanian would probably assert that New Orleans can run through him every trip down the court. He is the person in the locker room to play in all 55 games so far. Valanciunas will get called out in half-court sets once the NBA Playoffs begin. How the team adjusts will factor into any contract negotiations with the soon-to-be unrestricted free agent.

Question 17: When, if ever, will the Pelicans play without Valanciunas or Nance Jr. on the court during close games? Going defense first for too long has been one reason why the Pelicans have squandered 16 double-digit leads. Herb Jones, Trey Murphy, and Zion Williamson have skillsets that fit some small-ball configurations.

Question 18: Will Herb Jones finally make an NBA All-Defense team? Not on Herb went from an inside joke during rookie training camp years ago. Now it is a league-wide word of warning for anyone daring to try and beat Jones one-on-one. It’s about time the Alabama product received at least Third-Team All-Defense respect.

Question 19: How many minutes can Herb Jones theoretically play and remain effective on both ends of the court? Jones is hitting over 40% from three-point range while playing 28 minutes per game. Green could find a way to keep one of the world’s 15 best defenders on the court for closer to 40, even if Jones is the first player off the bench.

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Question 20: Who will be sacrificed if Green makes a change to the starting lineup, and will it be a performance-based decision or more matchup-dependent? Nance Jr. to start the second half is more of a change of pace tactic. A change to the starting five will signal a far more drastic switch of strategies.

Question 21: How would CJ McCollum respond to a request that he move to a sixth-man super sub off the bench role? Talk about a jolt to the system. This move has a high risk of upsetting the locker room’s chemistry. McCollum’s leadership is respected as much as his jump shot. But if something’s got to give, McCollum is the most likely Big Three member to take a seat to start the game.

Question 22: Will the Pelicans fix their free throw shooting or wilt under pressure to no one’s fault but their own? Complaining about not getting proper foul calls is just part of the game. Not making them when you do get to the line is a bad look. The Pelicans are 23rd (76.7%) in free throw percentage this season. They are dead last by a wide three-percent margin when games are within five points and fewer than five minutes remain on the clock.

Pelicans Big Three under pressure to win now

New Orleans Pelicans forward Zion Williamson (1), forward Brandon Ingram (14), and guard CJ McCollum (3) giggle as they pose during Pelicans media day at the Smoothie King Center.
Matthew Hinton-USA TODAY Sports

CJ McCollum was calm but stern when clarifying the situation around Zion Williamson and the Pelicans to ESPN’s Kendrick Perkins. The team may be in a better place than the past few years but the locker room is still under big pressure to win now, especially the Big Three.

Question 23: Will the supposed lack of a true, traditional point guard become a problem? McCollum is having a career year working off the ball and taking more three-pointers. Ingram’s growth as a distributor has been a revelation. Williamson prefers to play the point, but it leads to awkward possessions at times.

Question 24: Can Brandon Ingram take two steps backward so his shot profile is more three-point-heavy? A lot of the offensive problems disappear, and a lot of critics are silenced, if Ingram just takes a step or two backward so his shots count for three points instead of two. A three-point heavy shot chart is a mark of team success. New Orleans is 13-4 when Ingram makes multiple attempts from beyond the arc.

Question 25: Can Point Zion work in the playoffs? That’s the $193 million question the basketball world is waiting to watch regardless of how things unfold.

Question 26: Will CJ McCollum remain on the roster through this summer? That all depends on how the postseason plays out. There are plenty of other questions that need answering first. Any talk about replacing part of the Big 3 right now is a bit premature considering the season so far.

Question 27: Can Willie Green survive a first-round exit? I’d personally bet against the Pelicans having a poor showing in the first round even if eliminated. This is a problem no one in the building is worried about right now though. Just like the McCollum question, this is more of a bridge to cross when nursing bruises, not while brimming with hope.


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