The top three seeds in the Western Conference standings are all but set in stone. The 4-through-10 spots, however, remain completely fluid with every seed held by a different owner on a day-to-day basis. The New Orleans Pelicans find themselves right in the thick of things in the wild West, sporting an even 38-38 record as the season draws to a close.
The Pels have recently made a late surge to keep themselves in the conversation and offer the intrigue of a potential Zion Williamson return as a sort of trump card that could elevate them higher than their definition-of-mediocre record indicates.
Zion Williamson is getting closer to a return 👀
He hasn't played since January 2nd with a hamstring injury. pic.twitter.com/AaLUHBtokN
— ClutchPoints (@ClutchPointsApp) March 29, 2023
But they’re hardly the only potential play-in tournament team that could boast the return of a former All-Star. The Golden State Warriors have endured without Andrew Wiggins. The Los Angeles Lakers and Minnesota Timberwolves are in the process of reintegrating stars LeBron James and Karl-Anthony Towns, respectively. The Phoenix Suns and Los Angeles Clippers have had their game-changing forwards Kevin Durant and Paul George suffer minor, late-season injuries that could very well heal before the postseason begins.
All this to say that even as the Pelicans appear to still be getting toward full strength, so too are their peers. It makes seeding and matchups that much more important in trying to advance past what’s sure to be a hotly-contested playoff in the West. Every team offers a unique challenge, but one, in particular, could present New Orleans with a potential nightmare matchup.
Pelicans stay at 8, Warriors fall to 7
The Warriors and Pelicans have actually split the season series this year with two wins apiece. Every result was lopsided, with the smallest margin of victory being nine points. The difference proved to be simple: the winner was whoever owned homecourt advantage.
Golden State has been utterly putrid on the road, with an away record comparable to that of a bottom-feeder angling for a shot at Victor Wembanyama. They’re one of only four teams to still have single-digit road wins, alongside the Pistons, Rockets, and Spurs. But they’re fantastic at home, where they’ve easily handled the Pelicans this season.
A closer look reveals that New Orleans’ two wins over the Warriors actually came against Golden State’s bench unit. With both November contests serving as second nights of a back-to-back, the Dubs decided to sit Stephen Curry, Klay Thompson, and Draymond Green. They’ve yet to beat the defending champs at their best this season.
Golden State is also arguably the team best equipped to defend Zion Williamson, should he return to form for a potential play-in matchup. Draymond has historically performed well against Williamson as a defender with a rare blend of both agility and heft to at least slow him down. They also have Jonathan Kuminga, who offers less defensive savvy but an even better athletic profile than Green does.
Other teams like the Lakers, Timberwolves, Mavericks, and Thunder would likely stay up until the wee hours of the morning on game day brainstorming which of their defenders they’ll have to throw into the fire to potentially defend Zion. The Warriors at least have a shot.
Solving Steph Curry
Then there’s the Warriors’ own unstoppable scorer in Stephen Curry. The Pelicans couldn’t do anything to slow him down during their fourth and final season matchup earlier this week, with the former MVP lighting them up for 39 points and eight threes. The Pelicans have several wing defenders such Herb Jones, Naji Marshall, Dyson Daniels, and Josh Richardson to throw at Steph, but Curry would offer the biggest headache to defend amongst all other potential play-in tournament matchups.
In the most important game of the season last night, Stephen Curry put on a show.
39 PTS (14-25 FG, 8 3PM)
20-point comeback win. pic.twitter.com/vYwUjDWg4i
— Antonin (@antonin_org) March 29, 2023
Combine all those three aspects plus Golden State’s championship pedigree and you have the Pelicans’ nightmare matchup to start the postseason. To make matters worse, a loss in the 7-8 matchup would likely result in a do-or-die battle against LeBron James and the Los Angeles Lakers.
The Pelicans have the talent to compete and even outlast both the Warriors and Lakers, especially in a one-game playoff. But if there’s an option to swap them out for some of the other options available, that would probably be better for New Orleans’ chances to advance beyond the play-in tournament and scare – or even possibly upset – one of the top seeds.