The New Orleans Pelicans are the only non-playoff team in the Western Conference that got selected for the expanded playoffs. Most analysts and fans agree that the expanded playoff format was created in part to add Pelicans rookie phenom Zion Williamson, the first overall pick in 2019 who has proven to be one of the most electric players in the league.
However, Williamson isn’t merely a flashy player who doesn’t have any game. He is arguably the best player on the Pelicans, and he will play a key role in the team’s quest for a title. However, before they get to the NBA Finals, they must first get to the first round of the playoffs. While this may be an uphill climb, as they were the last team in the West to get selected, there is still a chance.
First, before they make the playoffs, New Orleans has to excel in the regular season. Williamson will obviously play a very important part in this, and he has to excel in important games that could make or break their season. One such game is their Aug. 3 matchup against the Grizzlies, who currently occupy the No. 8 seed in the West. If the Pelicans are within four games of the final playoff spot, they can force a play-in tournament.
If the Pelicans manage to have a good enough record to keep pace with the Grizzlies, they will also need the current No. 9 seed, the Portland Trail Blazers, to lose enough games so that they can overtake them and force a play-in. If they get there, it will be the battle of the rookies, as Williamson and the Pelicans would meet Rookie of the Year favorite, Ja Morant. If Williamson can outperform Morant and strong performances from supporting cast members such as Jrue Holiday and Brandon Ingram, the Pelicans can overpower Memphis and move on to the first round of the playoffs.
Unless something drastic happens and this team loses a lot of games, the Pelicans’ opponent in the first round of the playoffs will likely be the Los Angeles Lakers. If New Orleans thought the Grizzlies were a tough task to beat, they are in for a rude awakening against the Lakers. Los Angeles is one of the three teams considered to be the most likely to win a title. (New Orleans is not one of those three teams.) LeBron James will be a tough matchup, and the only player really comparable in size is Williamson. If he can prove his worth and score enough points, the Pelicans may have a chance to steal a few games.
However, a combination of Derrick Favors, Josh Hart, and even occasionally Zion Williamson will have to stop the Lakers’ other star, Anthony Davis, from scoring as well. It will be nearly impossible, but if these things can swing the Pelicans’ way, they will be able to pull off the miraculous upset.
The next playoff opponent for the Pelicans should definitely be easier. Currently, the Pelicans would most likely face either the Utah Jazz (No. 4 seed), the Oklahoma City Thunder (No. 5), or the Houston Rockets (No. 6). Since the Jazz are currently one game ahead of both teams, they will be used as the example here.
The main players the Lakers have to watch out for are guard Donovan Mitchell and center Rudy Gobert. The Pelicans will likely counter the offensive production of Mitchell with a combination of Lonzo Ball and J.J. Redick. While it will be hard to slow down someone averaging 24.2 points per game, it won’t be impossible.
Gobert will be a challenge to guard, too. While he may not have the sheer output of Mitchell, Gobert still averages nearly 16 points a game. He is also a menace on the boards, with his 13.7 rebounds per game ranking tied for third in the league alongside Giannis Antentokounpo. The Pelicans will have to combat this with Jahlil Okafor and Jaxson Hayes. The Pelicans beating the Jazz will still be a tough task, although not nearly as tough as the Lakers. If the cards fall right, the Pelicans can upset the Jazz and move on to the Western Conference Finals.
If the Pelicans manage to upset two contending teams, they will be rewarded by facing yet another one in the Western Finals. The most likely team to oppose them would be the Los Angeles Clippers; yet another team with two superstars. One of those stars is Kawhi Leonard, a 6-foot-7 shooting guard and small forward who will most likely be matched up against Darius Miller and occasionally Zion Williamson. Leonard will be a tough matchup for both players, as well as anyone else guarding him, but the Pelicans’ problems don’t end there.
The Clippers completed their lineup last season by adding star small forward Paul George, who at 6-foot-9 presents a tough matchup for anyone guarding the three. He will most likely be guarded by a combination of Brandon Ingram and occasionally Nicolo Melli. If the Pelicans can mostly silence the two stars, as well as stop the production of sixth man Patrick Beverley, the Pelicans can move on to the finals.
The Pelicans finish their Cinderella run to the Finals here, with the team that has the best chance of beating them: the Milwaukee Bucks. While it is possible that a team like the Raptors will be able to meet them in a quest for a repeat, the Bucks have been the best team out of the Eastern Conference so far, and they will look to continue that in the playoffs.
By now, everyone who has heard of basketball has heard of Giannis Antentokounpo, the power forward for the Bucks who is the leading MVP candidate. Based on his size and position, the lucky player who gets to guard him is Zion Williamson. He certainly has the strength to do it, but Antetokounmpo is no slouch. Williamson will have to figure out a way to somehow stop Antentokounpo from meeting his scoring average of 29.6 points a game, but even if he can, the Pelicans still have to worry about someone else.
That someone is none other than Khris Middleton, who may not be the flashiest player but is ridiculously efficient, as his .499 field goal percentage is only .001 away from putting him into the 50-40-90 club, which has only been done by only eight players since the three-point line was instituted in 1979. A combination of Darius Miller and Nicolo Melli will have to stop him from being nearly as efficient as he has been throughout the season.
This will likely be the toughest task of them all for New Orleans. Milwaukee has been the best team record-wise in the NBA to this point, and they have a potent offense led by likely MVP Giannis Atentokounpo. The odds of the Pelicans getting yet another upset and winning the Finals are very, very low. However, that hasn’t stopped New Orleans yet, and if everything goes well, it’s possible that they could once again defy the odds and become the 2020 NBA champions.