The New Orleans Pelicans squeaked one out over the LA Clippers behind 30 points from Brandon Ingram, setting up a first round date with the Suns. With Phoenix finally able to focus on one team, it’s time to start breaking down how this team matches up against the newly-crowned 8-seed.
For the Phoenix Suns, this is a bit like looking in the mirror, especially after the Pelicans eliminated the Clippers from playoff contention like the Suns did a year ago; ties between the two organizations can be found top to bottom.
The Pelicans’ executive vice president of basketball operations, David Griffin, is a homegrown Phoenician growing up in Maryvale, going to high school at Brophy Prep, and attending Arizona State.
Griffin got his start in the NBA with Phoenix in the public relations department in 1993 while still going to ASU. In 1997, Griffin moved to the basketball operations side of things in the video department. He then spent 2007-10 serving as the team’s senior vice president of basketball ops before moving onto Cleveland in fall 2010.
Maybe the biggest similarity between the two squads comes in the form of first-year head coach Willie Green, who spent the previous two seasons as head assistant under Monty Williams, who coached in New Orleans himself from 2010-15, including two seasons with Chris Paul as his starting point guard.
Williams often gave credit to Green, especially during last season’s playoff run to the Finals, for various in-game adjustments like switching up defensive looks and pushing the pace.
Green has helped orchestrate a dramatic turnaround in New Orleans, taking a team that went 31-41 a year ago (with 61 games played from franchise cornerstone Zion Williamson) to a 36-46 record this season (without any games from Williamson), and that was after a 1-12 start; 35-34 thereafter.
The vice president of player care and performance for New Orleans, Aaron Nelson, spent 26 seasons in Phoenix, including nearly two decades as the team’s head trainer.
On the court
The most noticeable part of the Pelicans game that will remind Suns fans of their own team is CJ McCollum. He takes the shape of a combo guard who is a borderline elite shotmaker and is capable of tough shotmaking as well. He’s no slouch as a play initiator either, averaging 5.8 assists in his 26 games since the Pelicans traded for him in February. While he’s an elite three-point shooter (39.4% on 6.9 attempts), he also loves exploring the mid-range and working from there.
Diving a little deeper, 55.3% of McCollum’s shots as a Pelican have been of the pull-up variety, including 32.9% from inside the arc. He hits pull-ups at a 44.2% rate with the two-pointers being the more effective at 51.8%.
McCollum is also in his first season serving as president of the NBPA. Does all of that sound like any guards you know?
Pelicans run a good chunk of their of their offense (23.8 usage) through big man Jonas Valančiūnas, and for good reason. He’s possibly the best representation of the classic post big in the modern NBA boasting very productive numbers of 17.8 points, 11.4 rebounds, and 2.6 assists on 54/36/82 shooting splits.
While he’s not the defender that Deandre Ayton (21.4 usage) is, their production is almost identical with Ayton at 17.2 points, 10.2 rebounds, and 1.4 assists on 63/37/75 splits.
As for the New Orleans wing talent, rookie Herb Jones out of Alabama has been a revelation for the Pelicans on both sides of the floor. The parallels with Jones and early-career Mikal Bridges are clear, especially given defense being more of his calling card; Jones could receive some All-Defense votes when awards are announced.
Additionally, much of the offense provided by Jones is dependent on other creators; 81.9% of his shot attempts come after two or fewer dribbles. His overall shot profile is reminiscent of Houston Rockets Moreyball with 28.5% of his shots coming from catch-and-shoot three and 60.4% of his shots coming essentially at the rim (within 10 feet).
Jones’s defense will likely be one of the toughest hurdles for Phoenix during round one, especially if he gets the Booker assignment. Jones had varied success guarding Booker in the regular season, and even in situations where Jones is locking down the MVP candidate, Booker’s at an elite stage when passing out of tough situations.
More of that similar career arc can be found in another Pels rookie, Trey Murphy III. He was clutch for New Orleans in their game against the Clippers, knocking down three threes in the final stretch of the game; finished the game with 14 points in 24 minutes, good for a game-high +26 (no other player was better than +13).
The 6-foot-9 wing spent time at a not-great collegiate program in Rice before playing for Virginia in his final season before the NBA. In college, he shot 40.1% over his three-year career and is shooting 38.2% in his rookie season.
When you add in the North Carolina hometown, the Cam Johnson parallels really show up.
Overall, even with the overlap between the two organizations, Phoenix is certainly the more talented and battle-tested group, evidenced if by nothing else by the near-30 win difference in the regular season.
How much of a fight do you see the younger brother of sorts Pelicans putting up against the Suns?