Update: on April 11, the Los Angeles Lakers officially fired Head Coach Frank Vogel, according to ESPN’s Senior NBA Insider Adrian Wojnarowski.
As the NBA season draws to a close, the Los Angeles Lakers have become both the disappointment of the season and the victim of other fanbases’ ridicule all over the country. The New Orleans Pelicans, in contrast, find their hopes still alive: as of Sunday afternoon, the Pelicans stand at a 36–45 record with a spot clinched in the play-in tournament, while the Lakers have been completely eliminated from contention at 32–49.
Before the season started, these teams’ season projections were in complete contrast to their current situations. The Lakers chose to trim all the fat off their roster by trading for former league MVP Russell Westbrook in exchange for Kyle Kuzma, Kentavius Caldwell-Pope, and Montrezl Harrell, all of whom played a role in the team’s 2019 championship run. They also sought out veteran talent in the likes of Carmelo Anthony and Trevor Ariza. While many at the time questioned these roster moves, pointing out the relative lack of athleticism and defensive prowess displayed by these incoming players, the Lakers still maintained their championship aspirations, and were largely seen as the title favorites of the Western Conference.
Meanwhile, Pelicans superstar Zion Williamson suffered a fracture in his right foot before the season even began, requiring surgery and a much longer-than-anticipated rehabilitation. He has missed the entire season up to this point, sparking much scrutiny and criticism of the Pelicans’ front office, medical staff and Williamson himself. The team would lose 14 of its first 16 games, hopelessly burying itself in the bottom of the Western Conference’s standings, or so fans thought.
The Lakers’ star forward Anthony Davis went down multiple times with injuries and ended up missing nearly half the season, forcing a 37-year-old James into playing more minutes per game than he had in eight years. Westbrook had one of his worst statistical seasons to date, and the other veterans proved their doubters right, posting a -3.1 net rating and a 113.1 defensive rating, an affront to the usual consistency Frank Vogel-coached teams have played with over the years.
The front office signed one ten-day contract after another, trying to find a diamond in the rough talented enough to take some pressure off, to little success. Even the one player that the front office had decided to bank on long-term, Talen Horton-Tucker, saw a significant drop in efficiency despite seeing similar time on the floor to last year.
Crucial to the mid-season turnaround was the acquisition of Portland veteran shooting guard C.J. McCollum in exchange for Josh Hart, three bench prospects, one first-round and two second-round picks. McCollum turned out to be a perfect fit for the job, as his impact and advanced metrics rose markedly in his new point-hybrid, higher-usage role. The rest of the team has been firing on all cylinders as well, sparking the meme ‘Pels stacked’ to resound throughout New Orleans. Herbert Jones and Jose Alvarado would break out at just the right time, providing a much-needed boost in defense at the guard positions by way of steals.
The centerpiece of all this was the Pelicans’ actual play against the Lakers. They swept the three contests, first with a 28-point blowout in late February, then two closer contests in March and April respectively, featuring huge scoring games from the likes of McCollum, Brandon Ingram and Jonas Valancunas.
Another huge long-term implication of this switch in fates dates back to the Anthony Davis trade in 2019. In securing the All-NBA talent, the Lakers gave up Lonzo Ball, Josh Hart, Brandon Ingram and several first round picks, including this year’s. As the pick is unprotected, and the Lakers posted a record 17 games below .500, sbnation.com and clutchpoints.com report the Pelicans will likely have a top-eight overall pick this upcoming draft. This makes the third time in four years that the Pelicans will draft inside the top 10.
So, by going all-in on brand-name players and sidelining player development, the Lakers had a fall from the top as predictable as a Hollywood blockbuster. The Pelicans, despite their comparatively tiny market, won out by putting all their effort and resources into scouting and developing the right draft prospects and existing talent for the right roles.