Highlander Hot Take: The reenergized Pelicans will make the playoffs

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Don’t look now, but the New Orleans Pelicans are only three and a half games back of the eighth playoff spot in the West, and they’re really starting to find their stride. According to ESPN’s strength of schedule tracker, the Pelicans have played the most difficult schedule up to this point in the season. However, the final 40 games of their schedule will be one of the easiest, and it couldn’t come at a better time.

New Orleans has been on a roll, winning 10 of their last 14 games. Yet, their 16-26 record doesn’t exactly reflect their recent level of play, or the playoff threat that they are. Despite that ugly record, their increased level of play combined with their remaining schedule should be enough to catapult the Pelicans into the playoffs.

There have been a couple of factors to consider when thinking about New Orleans’ slow start. The obvious being injuries, but the main deficiency was the team’s atrocious defense to start the year. Their improved defense has been a big part of their turn around over the past month, and Derrick Favors’ return to the lineup has been key. With Favors on the floor, opponents score four less points per 100 possessions. This might not sound like much, but this metric is by far the best defensive rating held by any player on the team. His ability to be the team’s veteran defensive anchor that can disrupt the oppositions’ drives to the rim should not be understated.

Brandon Ingram has made a huge jump this season and has been the one consistent force for this team. Ingram’s scoring average has jumped eight points, from 18 to 26 points per game, but the most impressive improvement in his game has been his three-point shots. Last season, Ingram shot only 33% from deep on only two attempts per game; this year his percentage is up to 40 and his attempts have tripled. He’s played like an All-Star from the beginning of the season until now, and whether he makes the team or not, it doesn’t look like he’s going to be slowing down anytime soon. Lonzo Ball has also looked better as of late compared to his early season struggles. Ball is finally looking healthy and reenergized and recently had a four-game stretch where he scored 20 or more for the first time in his career.

And of course, there is the Zion Williamson factor. Williamson is significant in the how the Pelicans make the playoffs equation for a couple of reasons. The first is that he is finally going  to make his NBA debut on Wednesday, Jan. 22. Williamson’s insertion into the lineup will likely inject the Pelicans with even more energy. The other aspect of this is that Williamson isn’t a typical rookie. Although he is yet to play in an NBA regular season game, he has already competed against NBA competition during the preseason and was showing why he was the number one pick in the draft. Through four games, Williamson averaged 23 points per game on 70% shooting from the field. 70! That’s not normal, especially not for a rookie. If Williamson can return and produce, even at a slightly lower level, he will provide the Pelicans with much more than just energy. Ingram and Williamson’s production combined with a soft schedule will be more than enough to hoist New Orleans back into the playoffs.