The New Orleans Pelicans haven’t just picked up where they left off at the end of last season’s playoffs – they’ve ascended to another level.
Through the first week of the new campaign, no team in the league has been more dominant than the Pelicans, who’ve stormed out of the gates looking like a legitimate contender in the Western Conference.
Coming into the season, there were valid questions regarding the Pelicans’ ability to recreate the magic they found in their postseason run and how they’d fare without key players from last year’s team.
It’s only been three games, but it’s hard to downplay just how impressive New Orleans have looked.
Their opener against last season’s number one seed in the West, the Houston Rockets, saw them drop 131 points in a blowout win.
They followed that up with an even better offensive showing to put up an eye-popping 149 points against the Sacramento Kings.
The Pelicans didn’t fire on all cylinders in the same way in their third contest, but the 116-109 victory over the Los Angeles Clippers on Tuesday was arguably the most encouraging win of the bunch.
After making seemingly every shot in their first two games, New Orleans had to grind it out against the scrappy Clippers despite playing not that well.
“We’re starting to see ourselves winning in different ways with three different types of teams,” said Pelicans star Anthony Davis. “One that’s scrappy tonight, one that likes to run and then another one that also runs at the same time.
“But it’s a young team that likes to play hard so it’s good for us to get three wins, especially the way that we’re getting them. So like I said, it’s not always going to be perfect but we’ll take every win we can.”
Davis – who’s averaging 30.3 points, 13.0 rebounds, 5.3 assists and 3.3 blocks – produced his highest-scoring game of the young season against the Clippers, but the MVP candidate has received plenty of support from his teammates so far.
Newcomer Julius Randle has been a force off the bench, averaging 18.7 points and 9.0 rebounds, while Nikola Mirotic has been red hot in dropping 28.0 points per game on 47.8 per cent shooting from distance.
Mirotic thrived next to Davis in the frontcourt last season after DeMarcus Cousins went down with an Achilles tear, and the pairing has continued to give opposing teams problems in the early going.
Elfrid Payton, meanwhile, has done well to take over the point guard duties left behind by Rajon Rondo, and has been part of the reason for the Pelicans turning into an offensive juggernaut.
New Orleans’ offensive rating of 122.2 points per 100 possessions paces the league, as does their true shooting mark of 60.4 per cent.
They haven’t played at the fastest pace in the league – their 107.3 possessions per game rank fourth – but they’re running even more than last season when their pace of 101.6 topped everyone.
New Orleans could well be taking the next step as a team while Davis continues to get better, but it’s more likely than not that some regression will hit.
However, the Pelicans don’t need to be the best team in the league for this season to be a success, considering Davis’ murky future with the franchise.
Davis is under contract for this season and next, but has a player option for 2020-21 that he’ll likely decline to maximise his earning potential.
And even though Davis has shown nothing but commitment publicly to the team, it wouldn’t be a total surprise if he rejected their supermax contract extension for the chance to go to greener pastures. New Orleans are looking good at the moment, but they’ve only made the playoffs twice in Davis’ six seasons and gotten past the first round once.
Maybe this is the start of a new chapter for the franchise.
The moment James announced his decision to don the purple and gold, it was inevitable a circus would follow, but the first three games have already packed a month’s worth of storylines.
The spotlight remained in game three thanks to a roller-coaster last-second loss to the San Antonio Spurs that saw LeBron hit a game-tying 3-pointer at the end of regulation before missing two critical free throws in the final seconds of overtime.
This is the best player in the world on one of the most popular franchises in team sports. Of course everything that happens – good or bad – will be under the microscope. Perhaps no team’s stock is going to rise and fall with every result this season like the Lakers’ will.
And at 0-3, that stock is the lowest it’s been yet.
It’s still incredibly early, but the all-important question is already arising: will the Lakers even make the playoffs? That seems like a ridiculous question to ask of a LeBron-led team, but the query had some validity coming into the season, in part due to how loaded the Western Conference is.
But really, it was worth floating for the simple reason that this Lakers team isn’t very good. Outside of James, the roster is flawed in a number of ways, and those deficiencies have reared their ugly head very quickly this season.
Three games is hardly much of a sample size and the previous two occasions when LeBron switched teams, his squads struggled in the early going as well – the 2010-11 Miami Heat started 9-8, while the 2014-15 Cleveland Cavaliers began 19-20.
However, those teams had better supporting pieces around James and in the NBA, talent almost always wins out in the end.
These Lakers don’t have that luxury. You wouldn’t say they’ve been built to be greater than the sum of their parts because LeBron is the greatest singular part you can ask for, but there was a sense of getting the combination right when this team was oddly constructed.
It’s not as if there haven’t been positives for the Lakers to hang their hat on. Their transition attack has been absolutely deadly – their 32.3 fast-break points per game lead the league by a whopping margin, with the New Orleans Pelicans second at 23.5. Lonzo Ball is shooting 42.1 per cent from 3 on 6.3 attempts per game. Josh Hart looks like a perfect role player next to James. Kyle Kuzma deserves more minutes at power forward after exploding against the Spurs.
But none of that has mitigated the Lakers’ weaknesses, namely their lack of depth at centre and their train-wreck defence.
This team is heavily relying on JaVale McGee, which sounds like a disaster waiting to happen. There’s a reason why he didn’t average more than 11.5 minutes the past four seasons.
Yet McGee hasn’t even been the issue so far – it’s the fact that the Lakers have little behind him to soak up valuable minutes. Rookie Johnathan Williams was a pleasant surprise against San Antonio, but expecting the undrafted big man to be a reliable rotation player after one game is foolish.
As far as the defence, there’s been little of it so far. Opposing teams are getting whatever shot they want, whenever they want. And not only are they getting it, but it’s often been a clean look, with the Lakers allowing the fourth-most open shots (closest defender within four to six feet) in the league at 27.0 and the second-most wide open shots (closest defender beyond six feet) at 26.3.
The Lakers will improve, but their margin for error is slim. It would be a different story if they were in the East, where reaching the playoffs is hardly much of an accomplishment. The West is unforgiving – three games separated the third seed and the ninth-placed team last season.
This is LeBron though and even at 33, he deserves the benefit of the doubt. No one in the league is more aware of the marathon nature of the season, and taking the long view is what he’s always going to do.
“I didn’t come here thinking we were going to be blazing storms right out of the gate,” James said after the loss to the Spurs. “It’s a process and I understand that.”
He added: “We’re going to continue to get better. I like the direction we’re going in. Obviously, it’s not resulting in the wins right now but it’s such a long process.”
This specific process with this specific team, however, may be one even James is unfamiliar with.
The Lakers slipped to 0-3 after James, who joined the LA franchise this summer, missed with a potential game-winning three-pointer with less than three seconds to go.
James had landed a 3-pointer with 3.3 seconds of regulation time left to take the game into overtime after the Lakers had trailed by eight points with 70 seconds remaining.
But with the Lakers up by one with 13 seconds left in the game, James missed two free throws and he could not respond after Patty Mills had put the Spurs ahead with seven seconds left.
The Lakers were missing Brandon Ingram and Rajon Rondo, who were both suspended for their part in the melee during the defeat to the Houston Rockets.
Kyle Kuzma stepped up with 37 points while James ended with 32, but LaMarcus Aldridge’s 37 points and 10 rebounds helped the Spurs improve to 2-1.
The Golden State Warriors bounced back from their defeat on Sunday night with a comprehensive 123-103 victory against the Phoenix Suns.
Stephen Curry hit six three-pointers in his 29-point performance while Kevin Durant added 22 for the reigning NBA champions.
The Toronto Raptors are 4-0 after easing past the Charlotte Hornets 127-106.
Kawhi Leonard top-scored with 22 points for the Canadian side, who have earned three of their wins by a margin of more than 10 points.
Kyle Lowry added 16 points and 14 assists as every Toronto player who took to the floor scored some points.
The Boston Celtics, pre-season favourites in the Eastern Conference, fell to 2-2 after they were beaten 93-90 by the Orlando Magic.
Nikola Vucevic had 24 points and 12 rebounds for Orlando, who bounced back from two successive defeats to improve to 2-2.
Celtics duo Kyrie Irving and Gordon Hayward both had three-point attempts in the final seconds but neither were able to force the game into overtime.
The Milwaukee Bucks moved to 3-0 after seeing off the New York Knicks 124-113, with Giannis Antetokounmpo recording a 31-point haul and claiming 15 rebounds, while the Minnesota Timberwolves were 101-91 winners against the Indiana Pacers.
The Washington Wizards spoiled the Portland Trail Blazers’ night as the visitors won 125-124 after overtime.
Portland’s players had turned up for the game in Halloween costumes but they were unable to mark the evening with a victory in a thrilling finale.
John Wall missed two free throws for Washington with six seconds left but Damian Lillard’s attempted game-winning shot was blocked by Otto Porter Jr.
Elsewhere, Zach LaVine’s 34 points were in vain as the Chicago Bulls were beaten 115-109 by the Dallas Mavericks while the Memphis Grizzlies saw off the Utah Jazz.