A Los Angeles Lakers-New Orleans Pelicans playoff series would be fun to watch.
Pick your favorite Los Angeles Lakers-New Orleans Pelicans storyline. This series promises to be the highest-rated first-round playoff series in NBA history. Granted, the Pelicans were 0-4 vs the Lakers, but they lost by 10 points or less each time.
They have a chance. Or do they?
Defense wins championships. The Pelicans are fourth in points allowed. I am saying there is a chance! Whoops! I looked at it backwards. They’re actually only ahead of the Timberwolves, Hawks, and Wizards in total points allowed per game – the unholy triumvirate of bad NBA defenses.
The offense will clearly have to win this series for the Pelicans. The numbers initially tell a promising story: first in shot attempts; second in offensive rebounding and pace of play, fourth in total scoring, third in made three-pointers and assists… but the story ends badly: only fifteenth in total points per 100 possessions.
Exactly league average.
The Pelicans are known for their quick-strike offense. This is where the numbers again hurt them: the Lakers average two more fast break points per game than the Pelicans. The Lakers have the Pelicans beat even at their strongest point.
But the numbers do not tell a complete story. Most of the Lakers’ fast-break points come from their half-court defense. They are top four in steals and blocks, which correlates to their ranking third in points off turnovers. Their transition opportunities stem mainly from their half-court defense; they are only ranked twelfth in pace.
The Pelicans are more traditional in how they get quick baskets. They push the ball off missed shots, turnovers, or even made shots. Lonzo Ball quickly passes the ball ahead. Zion Williamson gets easy buckets by sprinting to the rim then posting up in transition.
If this sounds familiar, LiAngelo Ball often did the exact same thing back for Chino Hills High School in the height of the Big Baller Era. Lavar Ball surely meant this when comparing Zion and LiAngelo Ball.
Zion is not the only weapon on the fast break. Jrue Holiday and Brandon Ingram are fantastic scorers on the wing and can score or facilitate off a pick-and-roll in transition. JJ Redick is a top-tier shooter both in sprinting to the corner and coming off screens in transition.
Can the New Orleans Pelicans be like the Los Angeles Lakers’ hated rivals (Boston Celtics) to pull off the upset?
Yes and no.
At first glance, a 1960 Celtics-type game would favor the Pelicans. The faster-paced the game, the more depth matters. The Pelicans have the clear depth advantage here. GM David Griffin exchanged one superstar (Anthony Davis) for four rotation players. Coach Alvin Gentry is known to go into his bench, dating to his time coaching the Phoenix Suns.
The Pelicans have six players who average double figures. Kyle Kuzma is the third leading scorer on the Lakers, averaging 12.5 points per game for the Lakers – and I do not see his playing time necessarily increasing in these playoffs.
There are only two problems with using that strategy: Anthony Davis and LeBron James. This is unresolvable for the Pelicans. They have no chance at stopping either of them (neither do 28 other teams).
More possessions in the game means AD and LeBron get more opportunities to score. Case in point: Davis averaged 36 points and 12 rebounds in their first three matchups (he missed the fourth game due to a knee injury). LeBron James averaged 30 points, 8 rebounds, and 11 assists in all four of their meetings.
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Playing 1960’s fast is about attacking the Lakers one weakness: fast break points allowed, tied for last in the NBA.
The Lakers have ways to shore up their weak transition defense. The obvious answer is to move Anthony Davis to center. I disagree. Davis matches up better at power forward in this series. His length and quickness can envelop Zion’s drives to the basket.
Now if the Pelicans move Zion to center, Davis should move there as well. But I do not see the Pelicans making this move. Their best plus/minus lineups feature Zion at power forward and Derrick Favors at center. For both teams, the easiest and most obvious answer is to stick to what has worked so far.
The Lakers will try to slow down the Pelicans with their own offense. They will relentlessly attack the paint by either driving hard to the basket or posting up LeBron or AD on the low block.
Double-teaming either player would generate wide open lobs and three-pointers for everyone else. Scoring in the half-court and getting to the free-throw line are the two best ways to slow down an opposing fast break.
How do the Pelicans stop the Los Angeles Lakers? They can’t. They have to focus solely on outscoring the Lakers. A game played at Millennium Falcon Warp Speed would favor the Pelicans. But even at such a pace, there is a very narrow path for them to outscore the Lakers four out of seven times.
The Pelicans will get hot and the Lakers will struggle to score for a game or two. The games will be fairly competitive, but the Lakers will make short work of them.
Prediction: Los Angeles Lakers win 4-1