The play-in tournament offers a chance for teams currently in the NBA Draft Lottery to make the playoffs and maybe even pull off an upset. Who is primed for a run?
With the NBA playoffs fast approaching, there are teams in both conferences that could make a late-season push for the play-in tournament and the postseason. Two in particular — the New Orleans Pelicans and the Washington Wizards — are worth monitoring for a late-season surge.
NBA Western Conference, New Orleans Pelicans
The Pelicans may have very well won the February trade deadline with their acquisition of CJ McCollum. On paper, the move embodies a small step — enough to get New Orleans back into the playoff picture for the first time since 2018 — but on the court, it has represented a sea change for a desolate franchise searching for an identity.
Since the All-Star break, the Pelicans have looked as dynamic and cohesive as any team in the conference. In seven games with McCollum in uniform, New Orleans is 4-3 with wins over Phoenix and Utah and losses to the scorching hot Nuggets and Grizzlies (the other loss coming at the hands of the lowly Magic).
Over this small sample, the Pelicans have the league’s eighth-best point differential and the fifth-ranked defense. Some of their success is due to improved play — New Orleans has forced turnovers on 16 percent of their defensive possessions — and some of it to luck — opponents are shooting an abysmal 30 percent from beyond the arc during that seven-game stretch.
Even though the numbers point to a regression, and it’s astute to expect one, the identity of this reconfigured New Orleans team feels real. McCollum provides relief from the Brandon-Ingram-one-man-offensive show that has haunted NBA League Pass broadcasts over the past four months. (In fairness, it’s not Ingram’s fault that he hasn’t been provided any offensive insurance in Zion Williamson‘s absence.)
As a result, Ingram’s scoring efficiency has cratered after hovering at an All-Star level since he arrived in New Orleans. His efficiency has dipped from 1.18 points per shot, where it’s been over the prior two seasons, to the same level as his final stint with the Lakers, a mediocre 1.11 per shot, through 50 games. And still, the Pelicans have been a far better offensive team with Ingram on the floor, which points to the lowly state of their attack prior to the McCollum acquisition.
In a very small sample, McCollum has been elite offensively in a Pelicans uniform. His efficiency of 1.26 points per shot attempt ranks as the very best rate among all players at his position, per Cleaning the Glass, and his shooting splits of 54 percent from the floor and 40 percent from outside stand out in a sample of any size. His shot creation has been critical in clutch play and his skillset as a playmaker has benefited the Pelicans’ attack substantially.
Over the prior two seasons, McCollum has quietly developed into one of the better off-guard playmakers. Through 36 games with Portland this season, he assisted on 21 percent of the Trailblazers’ made shots, which ranked in the 97th percentile among players at his position. In New Orleans, that figure has remained first class, with McCollum tallying an assist on 29 percent of Pelican made field goals.
New Orleans would take another leap if Zion Williamson can make a return to the court prior to the start of the play-in tournament. The Pelicans sit at 28-40, good for the 10th-best record in the conference and two games behind the L.A. Lakers in the loss column. Making further moves up the standings seems unlikely, the L.A. Clippers and Minnesota Timberwolves are seven and 10.5 games ahead, respectively.
Regardless of the matchup, don’t count the Pelicans out as an underdog at full strength. You can bet that the Timberwolves, who’ve confidently ascended up the West hierarchy this year, don’t want to face a healthy New Orleans team in a single game qualifier. The Pelicans may have a slim chance at making real noise in the playoffs, but they should be considered a threat to advance from the play-in tournament even as the bottom-qualifying seed.