Do the Pelicans Possess Enough Playmakers?

In search of consistent playmaking, the Pelicans turned to Zion Williamson. Point Zion has been an effective initiator — he’s averaging 6.9 assists a night over his last 10 games. Though the Pelicans have had success with Zion running the offense, will this be enough in the playoffs? Does New Orleans need another primary ball handler to reach its ceiling?

All of the league’s best offenses have a dominant primary initiator. These are the best players in the NBA who run offenses through their elite shooting, slashing and playmaking. Most of these elite offenses have elite passers at the helm — players like Nikola Jokic, Luka Doncic, James Harden, Tyrese Haliburton and Shai Gilgeous-Alexander harbor the decision-making load for an entire offense.

The Pelicans rely on team offense more than many great teams. None of their best players are elite passers. Zion, Brandon Ingram and CJ McCollum are all at least capable passers, but they are undoubtedly score-first in their approach. This can lead to some friction at times and contributes to some of the inconsistencies that render New Orleans a good but sub-elite offense.

New Orleans’ assist rate (62.8%) and turnover rate (12.9%) both rank in the bottom half of the league. Despite their lack of primary passing, though, the Pelicans pass the fifth most of any team in the NBA. Many of these passes come via their motion/dribble handoff-based offense which helps the Pelicans manufacture assists and easy buckets.

When the Pelicans abandon their offensive flow, the team stagnates. When the play breaks down, Ingram and McCollum specifically can struggle to generate good looks outside of difficult shots for themselves (which they often make).

The easiest way out would be to continue emphasizing Zion Williamson’s development as a point forward, feeding him possessions and letting him initiate the offense. Still 23 years old, Zion’s passing ability at this point suggests he could become a reliable primary initiator if he can bounce back to 2021 levels of scoring.

At some point, the Pelicans must decide on the future of this current offensive core. Can Ingram, McCollum and Williamson buoy a consistent offensive attack in the postseason? We’ll get an answer to this question in a few months. If they cannot, the Pelicans may need to prioritize passing and primary playmaking in the offseason to improve the team’s overall consistency, which is key in May and June.

Analysis by Ben Pfeifer

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