In The Clutch: Pelicans Came Up Short When It Mattered Most

The New Orleans Pelicans were the worst of the best clutch performers this past season.

One could also say they’re the most underwhelming really good crunch-time team since NBA Stats first began recording these statistics for the 1996-97 season.

There’s multiple reasons why the Pelicans missed the 2023 playoffs. Too many in-season injuries to key players and the 10-25 swoon immediately spring to mind, along with strategies failing to optimize the 3-point shot, but not enough blame has been attributed to the overall underachievement of the team during clutch-time minutes.

The Pelicans posted a 17-20 record in games that were within five points or less at some point in the last five minutes of regulation or during the overtime period. Standing alone, that record isn’t bad per se and sits in line with a 14-18 clutch record from the previous season. However, underlying statistics scream that New Orleans should have won a lot more close games this time round.

Clutch RecordOff RatingDef RatingNet RatingAST/TO RatioEFG%
2021-22 Pelicans14-18114.9 (5th)119.7 (30th)-4.8 (21st)1.62 (17th)50.0% (11th)
2022-23 Pelicans17-20113.9 (6th)103.9 (7th)+10.0 (5th)1.92 (4th)55.0% (3rd)
Clutch Minute Production (League Ranking in Parentheses)

That +10.0 net rating should draw eyes. It’s a really good figure, one that points to a lot of successful minutes. The Pelicans were predominantly better than opponents and it should have translated into at least a handful more wins than losses.

While we’re dealing with a small sample size (the Pelicans played a total of 152 clutch minutes), realize the 45.9 winning percentage in clutch games is the worst one on record in the NBA Stats database among teams posting a +10.0 net rating or stronger.

Only one other team, the 2003-04 Denver Nuggets (19-21), has lost more games than they won since the 1996-97 season.

Since this late-game data first began to get tracked by NBA Stats, 152 teams have gone on to post a +10.0 net rating or stronger. The average amount of more wins than losses enjoyed by these teams? An astounding 10.4 victories.

The Pelicans losing three more games than they won in clutch minutes this season is not only an extreme outlier but also a costly one. Had they managed to flip four of those losses into wins and finish with a 21-16 overall clutch record, they would have leapfrogged a number of teams and secured the fourth seed in the Western Conference standings.

A number of stinging losses early in the season should still be fresh in all minds: Kelly Olynyk’s runner that resulted in a Jazz overtime win, Dyson Daniels’ two missed free throws and Matt Ryan’s 3 that led to a Lakers improbable victory and a third OT loss within the first nine games of the season to the Hawks.

More recently, failing to close out back-to-back games against the Heat and Nuggets during the 10-game losing streak or the Jabari Smith last-second 3-point dagger to beat the Pelicans in Houston added to the list of painful defeats.

As to where top players performing consistently poorly in key moments greatly contributed to tough losses in the past, the Pelicans’ core largely posted solid numbers this season. Jonas Valanciunas, Brandon Ingram and Zion Williamson shot well over 50 percent from the field. CJ McCollum and Trey Murphy were even more reliable from deep at the end of games. Larry Nance Jr., Herb Jones, Jose Alvarado and Naji Marshall all had plenty of good moments too.

Everyone on the Pelicans roster had a positive plus-minus outside of post-trade deadline arrival Josh Richardson.

The players, of course, were not entirely infallible, but it’s difficult to overly criticize them for failing to close enough games. No, the coaching staff deserves to be held more accountable.

In opting to go small for versatility reasons, for instance, the Pelicans were not only awful on the glass, they failed to take advantage of their speed and greater spacing.

Only the Brooklyn Nets and Detroit Pistons rebounded the ball at a worse rate than the Pelicans during clutch minutes. It’s disconcerting that the team finished in the bottom 10 in pace despite Valanciunas and Willy Hernangomez rarely leaving the bench in these situations. Lastly, averaging 23.0 3-point shots per 100 possessions (30th) despite sinking them at a 35.6% clip (5th) echoed putrid strategy by New Orleans.

Better decision-making in pivotal moments is a necessity, and with many clamoring for more experience on Willie Green’s staff, adding a seasoned coaching voice or two seems the right path. This could prove especially true if Jarron Collins becomes the new head coach of the Pistons. Fortunately, personnel moves appear to be on the horizon.

Marc Stein reported on Substack late last week that the Pelicans have interest in hiring James Borrego as an assistant coach. His potential fit looks incredibly ideal.

Borrego, who once served as an assistant under Monty Williams in New Orleans, has garnered over four years of head coaching experience with the Orlando Magic and Charlotte Hornets. The performance of his Charlotte teams in clutch minutes are particularly noteworthy.

SeasonOverall W/L recordOverall net ratingClutch W/LClutch Net Rating

The Hornets overachieved often on Borrego’s watch. Despite a 45.8 winning percentage (138-163) in the four regular seasons, the Hornets posted a 51.1 winning percentage (72-69) in close games.

One of the best ways for the Pelicans to improve immediately is for the team to take better advantage of clutch minutes starting next season. The talent appears to be in place with Williamson, Ingram and a slew of other Pelicans performing well individually in late-game situations. Now it needs to start translating into more wins, so adding an assistant coach of Borrego’s caliber feels like a priority for the New Orleans front office during the offseason.

For more Pelicans talk, subscribe to The Bird Calls podcast feed on iTunesSpotifyStitcher or Google Podcasts. You can follow this author on Twitter at @OlehKosel.

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2 thoughts on “In The Clutch: Pelicans Came Up Short When It Mattered Most

  1. They also need better decision-making on the court. I would love to have a player like Jalen Brunson or someone else that you could trust to make the best decisions at crunch time.

    1. This sits super high on my list too. Watching the Celtics confirms it. Someone needs to be trusted. Can Zion be relied upon? BI? Setting aside injury concerns for a second, can either/both of them execute as needed in key moments?

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