2023-24 Pelicans Season In Review Part II: What Went Wrong?

The New Orleans Pelicans came up short of their goals this season.

Regardless of their poor end-of-season injury luck, a first-round exit can’t feel good given how strong the Pelicans looked at moments throughout the season. What went wrong? Aside from the late-season injuries, what led to the Pelicans falling short?

Their lack of passing feel and ball-handling became evident as the season rolled along. The Pelicans’ four best offensive players are all score-first by nature. Moving Zion Williamson to the nominal point guard position resulted in some success given his passing skill, though this likely isn’t optimal for maximizing his scoring dominance.

Is more “Point Zion” ultimately good for the Pelicans?

New Orleans finished smack in the middle of the league in assist rate (63.4%) and potential assists per game (45.2) despite averaging more passes per game (298.7) than any team aside from Indiana and Sacramento. So much of the Pels’ offense this year ran without purpose, as the team was often relegated to playing “your turn-my-turn” style offense with Williamson, Brandon Ingram, and the other offensive stars.

Beyond the stars, the Pelicans didn’t have competent ball handling from their role players. Aside from Jose Alvarado, who works best as an off-ball guard, nobody on the roster could consistently handle pressure with the ball and create good looks for themselves or their teammates. 

Though the defense was strong this season, the center rotation and interior defense should be cause for concern. As the Oklahoma Cith Thunder repeatedly exploited in their playoff series loss, the Pelicans don’t have high-quality rim protectors on the team. Jonas Valanciunas was the crux of the problem, as the 31-year-old big posted a putrid -2.1 defensive estimated plus-minus. New Orleans’ defense improved by five points per 100 possessions with JV on the bench.

New Orleans built its defense around shutting off driving lanes and keeping defenders out of the paint. But the Pelicans struggled to defend the rim when attackers found their way to the paint, often via spread pick-and-roll attack. Opposing teams shot 65.1% at the rim against New Orleans good for the sixth worst in the NBA.

Statistics and film can’t measure the Pelicans’ issues with consistency and discipline. They barely eclipsed .500 at home. New Orleans toyed with expectations far too often throughout the season, looking like an elite team one night and losing to bad teams the next. The Pelicans flashed the highs of a great team and the lows of a bad one.

The Pels can remedy many of these failures through shrewd roster construction. Focusing on ball-handlers, high-feel passers, and rim defenders should be a priority this offseason to push New Orleans over the hump. 

Analysis by Ben Pfeifer

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