Now that the No. 1 pick Zion Williamson has entered the Southwest Division, the San Antonio Spurs have their work cut out for them.
Generational talents don’t come around often, but it seems as if the New Orleans Pelicans have landed one in athletic phenomenon Zion Williamson. Standing at 6-foot-7 with enough muscle to plow through a truck, the 19-year-old boasts an NBA-ready skill set with keen ball handling skills and an excellent feel for the game.
Williamson did not come to town alone either. The haul of Lonzo Ball, Brandon Ingram and Josh Hart were returned to the Big Easy when New Orleans shipped Anthony Davis off to the Lakers in the midst of the summer. This trio, along with free agent acquisitions J.J. Redick and Derrick Favors, are primed to make Zion’s transition to the NBA as seamless as possible while pursuing a playoff bid.
The Pelicans will face off against the San Antonio Spurs four times this season – once in January, once in March and twice in April with each team hosting the other twice. It’s not often that Spurs head coach and franchise architect Gregg Popovich needs to strategize for a player like Zion. Quite frankly, there aren’t many players who play similarly to the Duke product.
However, San Antonio possesses the tools necessary to limit Williamson’s output while containing the high-quality surrounding cast that’s been implemented around him. Although last year’s group was in the middle of the pack defensively, this year’s Spurs project to be a much-improved unit on that side of the ball due to the return of Dejounte Murray and signing of DeMarre Carroll.
Still, the Pelicans are modernized and revamped this season – they must be taken seriously if the Spurs want to return to the playoffs for a record-breaking 23rd consecutive season.
Next: The 2019-20 New Orleans Pelicans
The 2019-20 New Orleans Pelicans
Simply put, this is not the same Pelicans team that you’re used to. Only six players from last year’s team remain on the active roster. That includes defensive pest Jrue Holiday, who’s beginning arguably the most important season of his stint in New Orleans.
Entering a prime season at 29-years-old, Holiday will be depended on as a veteran leader and floor general amongst the youngsters throughout this roster.
For the second season in a row, Holiday set a career-high in scoring average last year with 21.2 points per contest on a 54.3 % effective field goal percentage; the second highest he’s ever posted. Holiday’s scoring output may continue improving with Ball as his backcourt running mate, zipping crisp passes across the floor to set him up for buckets.
Ball and Holiday are both unselfish enough to make this fit work, although it could take some adjusting. The same goes for Ingram, who will need to improve as an off-ball presence in order to help these Pelicans to reach the postseason.
Ingram improved his field goal percentage last year, but his three-point percentage fell six percent from year two to three while dipping almost one assist per contest. The second pick in the 2016 NBA Draft still has the potential to be a stellar player, but he needs to establish himself with a fresh start this season.
Defense is the name of the game for New Orleans. Their perimeter defenders are relatively strong and those who aren’t will have their deficiencies overshadowed. Holiday is established as an All-Defensive player and Ball has the same potential, but the interior is where they’ll need help.
Centers Jahlil Okafor and Favors rely on skill more than athleticism and are both known for their skills on offense. As a result, New Orleans could give up a lot of points in the paint, which is an area that the Spurs could easily expose.
Next: Countering the Pelicans’ playoff hopes
Countering the Pelicans’ playoff hopes
For the Pelicans to reach the postseason, the Spurs would likely need to fall out. The four games they face against each other will swing the pendulum in the direction of whichever team can persevere and prove itself in the heated Western Conference.
First and foremost, the Spurs need to get their front court prepared to tackle the threat of Williamson. New Orleans is 2-0 in the preseason thus far after defeating Atlanta and Chicago both on the road. Protecting home court is as crucial as ever, so Pop needs to rally the troops and save face at the AT&T Center.
With that said, keeping Poeltl and Aldridge around the basket to counter the No. 1 pick’s relentless pursuit of the basket. Rotating in and around the rim will help this duo to resist getting beat off the dribble, something that Williamson continuously exemplified when scoring 12-of-13 field goals at the rim in the victory over Chicago.
Zion’s jump shot has yet to truly materialize and the Spurs must take advantage of that while they can.
San Antonio’s depth should prove especially useful against the young Pelicans, who roster only four players with more than five years of experience in the league. With veterans like Rudy Gay, Patty Mills and Marco Belinelli, who spent two seasons in New Orleans, Popovich’s squad can dissect the Pelicans’ youth with careful and steady execution.
The battle between Murray and Ball will be an area of focus in this matchup. These two talented floor generals bring out the best of each other when facing off, as shown by their duels in the 2017-18 regular season. Murray must keep the ball out of Lonzo’s hands and force the players around him to make plays instead of allowing the offense to run through him.
San Antonio’s roster isn’t perfect, but it’s concise and each player understands his role well. While the Pelicans search to find an identity around their new star, the Spurs need to play a clean, efficient game and impose their will upon the competition.