New Orleans Pelicans

How high can the New Orleans Pelicans climb in the West?

The New Orleans Pelicans have been on a nice run lately, but how high could they really climb in the Western Conference standings?

The New Orleans Pelicans beat the Utah Jazz 138-132 in overtime on Thursday night, pulling out their ninth win in their last 12 games and ending Utah’s 10-game winning streak. Brandon Ingram scored a career-high 49 points, on an efficient 15-for-25 from the floor (3-for-8 from 3-point range) and 16-for-20 from the line.

Ingram clearly needed a change of scenery, and being sent from the Lakers to New Orleans in the Anthony Davis trade has unlocked him. He’s averaging career-high raw numbers across the board (25.8 points, 6.8 rebounds and 4.2 assists per game over more than 34 minutes per contest), with a clear career-best from beyond the arc (40.6 percent).

Besides Ingram’s star turn, with upticks in scoring (27.8 points per game), assists (6.0 assists) and usage rate (31.8 percent) in January, things have come together for another former Laker this month. Lonzo Ball had a rough game against the Jazz, as he went 2-for-12 from the field with four rebounds and 13 assists over 42 minutes. But he’s still averaging 15.8 points, 9.0 assists and 7.0 rebounds per game in eight games this month, over 37.5 minutes per game as the Pelicans are without Jrue Holiday (left elbow) for the last six games.

Holiday is having a typically good season and appears close to returning, which will be an obvious boost to the Pelicans’ lineup. J.J. Redick has missed the last three games with a hamstring injury and he seems in line to miss a few more games, but he has been quite good this season (15.7 points per game; 46.4 percent from 3-point range). Josh Hart, Derrick Favors and rookie big man Jaxson Hayes have also been nice contributors for Alvin Gentry as New Orleans has weathered injuries. Speaking injuries, the player who is set to be on the floor next week is the most notable returnee for the Pelicans.

Zion Williamson, the No. 1 pick in last June’s draft of course, has yet to play this season after surgery on his right knee in October. The Pelicans have been very cautious with him, rightfully so, even garnering some headlines regarding teaching him to walk and run differently. But his regular-season debut is on the horizon, next Wednesday night against the San Antonio Spurs.

Williamson is slated to be on a minutes restriction as he returns to action. But even in a limited role out of the gate, he can be a difference-maker. Once his legs are fully under him, in a literal and figurative sense, the upside he showed at Duke could be unleashed.

The Pelicans entered the season as something of a sleeper team in Western Conference, but a 13-game losing streak and 14 losses in 15 games from before Thanksgiving to the week before Christmas took that buzz away quickly. Still, the Pelicans are just 3.5 games out of a playoff spot right now. As cited by ESPN’s Andrew Lopez, measured by ESPN BPI, the Pelicans have the easiest remaining schedule in the Western Conference.

According to FiveThirtyEight’s projection model, the Pelicans have the eighth-best odds of making the playoffs in the West, at 46 percent. That number could even climb if the Thunder, perched just ahead of them, dismantle their surprisingly good roster at the trade deadline, as expected.

New Orleans has an offensive rating (109.3) that is 20th out of 30 teams right now. It’s buoyed by the fifth-best conversion rate from beyond the arc (36.8 percent). But their overall field goal percentage (45.2) is in the bottom-half of the league, and they are in the bottom-10 in turnovers per game (14.9). So there’s some room for improvement.

Defense is a problem for New Orleans though. They’re sitting in the bottom-10 in opponent’s field goal percentage and 3-point percentage. Their defensive rating of 112.6 is, as could be expected, 26th in the league through Thursday’s action. Williamson should help things defensively right away, if only as an imposing presence for those driving to the rim against the Pelicans to think about and another big guy to help clean the defensive glass.

After the Lakers, who are 4.5 games clear of everyone else right now, the rest of the Western Conference looks wide open in terms of playoff positioning and who might fill those last couple spots.

Next: 5 Andre Drummond trades we wish would happen

The Pelicans are playing well, and they are in line to finally have all the pieces that inspired such preseason optimism in place together pretty soon. Add in a schedule that’s favorable, and New Orleans can make a legit push to a playoff spot. And if they do get there, a higher seed stands to be on upset alert in the first round.

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