Pelicans knock off the #1 seed in the West

By Wyatt Vaughn, senior at Holy Cross School

On a cold night in the Big Easy, the struggling Pelicans took on the 17-8 Oklahoma City Thunder in the Smoothie King Center. The Pelicans were able to take the win on this night though, as they would go on to win by a score of 118-114. On face value this game seems to be nothing more than a surging #1 seed (Thunder) vs a struggling #11 seed (Pelicans). But it hasn’t been like that all season for either team. In fact if these teams would have matched up earlier in the season, it would have been the complete opposite with the Pels surging and the Thunder struggling. The Pels started off 4-0, but since are just 10-15. The Thunder on the other hand started off 0-4, but since are 17-4. How can two teams who started off on such polar opposites have switched places so quickly? 

The first thing is injuries. For both the Pels and the Thunder, injuries have been key in this season. For the Pelicans, since starting off 4-0, starting point guard Elfrid Payton has missed 23 of the 25 games since then, they are 5-1 with him. Anthony Davis has also missed some games along with fellow starter Nikola Mirotic. For the Thunder, star player Paul George has started every game this season, a luxury the Pelicans haven’t enjoyed. And although star point guard Russell Westbrook has missed 8 eight games, two of those were in the opening four game skid. Since those four games to start the season, he has started in 15 of their 21 games and is 12-3 in those starts. For at least this part of the struggles for the Pelicans, it has just been bad luck.

Anthony Davis blocks the shot of Steven Adams. Photo by Wyatt Vaughn

In terms of how the teams play on the court, the Thunder and Pelicans are polar opposites. On one end of the spectrum is the Pelicans, who are 24th in the league in defensive efficiency, as opposed to the Thunder who are 1st in the league in the same category. And while the phrase, “defense wins championships,” has been forgotten in the 3-point-heavy league, the Thunder are trying to bring it back. And they’re doing a pretty good job with it as they have a top-5 record in the league. The Pelicans on the other hand are attempting to reform themselves like the rest of the league and it’s working, somewhat. Their offense has looked great all of this and last season, but it might be at the cost of the defense. In the last two seasons the Pelicans have ranked in the top-five in points per game, but also in the bottom five for points allowed per game. 

Darius Miller misses his shot attempt. Photo by Phillip Petty III

At this point in the experiment that Alvin Gentry is attempting with the Pelicans, he needs to ask himself, is this the best way to win games? Just look at the Thunder, a couple of years ago they tried to go offensive with Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook and other than one finals appearance where they were blown off the court, they had nothing to show for it. And then when Durant left, they changed the philosophy and they now are the #1 seed in the West looking to contend with Golden State. The Pelicans are now in their second season of the experiment and they haven’t had much success and are struggling heavily. It may be time for a change in philosophy. They have two all-NBA 1st team defenders in Davis and Holiday, so why is it so hard for the Pels to play defense? Well, with Alvin Gentry coaching and Anthony Davis set to be a free agent after this season, we may never know.

Whether the Pelicans change their entire strategy as a team or just a few small tweaks here and there, something needs to be done. This team is way too talented to be the 11th seed in the West. The Pelicans return to action Sunday the 16th to take on the 11-15 Miami Heat in the Smoothie King Center.