With just a dozen or so games left in the NBA season, the New Orleans Pelicans’ once-promising record has fallen to a shell of its pre-2023 glory. Before the New Year rang in, the team’s record was 23–13, including a very impressive seven-game win streak featuring some elite competition. Since then, the Pels have gone 10–24, with an equally-impressive nine-game losing streak. As of March 19, their season now sits at 33–37, good for 12th in their conference and several games out of playoff contention.

What crushed the team’s momentum? The main change to crush the Pels’ fortunes has been, like last year, the absence of their stars. Superstar forward and 2019 first overall pick Zion Williamson has only played 29 games this season due to injury. Of late, he has been nursing a hamstring strain, but may return sometime the week of March 27, according to CBS Sports.

Williamson’s co-star and fellow forward Brandon Ingram has suffered a series of lower-body injuries this season, including a sprained left big toe and a right ankle sprain, and as such has only played 33 games.

As the Pelicans have regressed in performance, several teams usually featured at the bottom of the Western Conference have made significant efforts to achieve playoff success. The eternally-dormant Sacramento Kings made bold trades in the offseason, embraced their new offensive identity around De’Aaron Fox’s ball handling, and are suddenly now one of the West’s top three teams.

The brilliant play of Oklahoma City Thunder’s Shai Gilgeous-Alexander in spite of the loss of rookie Chet Holmgren has brought them much further than expected. Finally, the Los Angeles Lakers, whom the Pelicans had reaped so much benefit from over the last several years, made desperate moves at the trade deadline and now have the perimeter shooting to fully complement LeBron James’ and Anthony Davis’ skill sets.

Conversely, the Pelicans’ front office has been happy to keep their roster intact and play through their misfortune, trusting that the overall talent of their roster would right the ship naturally. The difference is reflected in the latest matchups between the Lakers and Pelicans. Last season’s sweep is a distant memory, as the Lakers won three out of the four games this year, 120–117, 126–131, 120–102 and 123–108 respectively. The last one on March 14 was particularly demoralizing, as the Lakers took a huge lead early by setting up a barrage of 3-pointers that the Pels couldn’t match. 

Unfortunately, the progression and development of key players has languished somewhat. Trey Murphy III has taken the step up into the starting lineup, but aside from some flashes of scoring here and there and maintaining his shooting form, has several holes to fill in his overall game (defense, etc.). Herbert Jones has remained inefficient from beyond the arc — 29.3% at low efficiency.

Veteran CJ McCollum leading the team in minutes, has slightly declined in efficiency. Fan-favorite Jose Alvarado doesn’t have the size to take on consistent minutes, and big man Jonas Valančiūnas has taken on too much responsibility at times, racking up fouls and ejections. 

So, to save the season and make it to the tenth seed, what needs to happen? First, the team needs to embrace its defensive potential. Head Coach Willie Green has the blueprint to bother even elite superstars and hold bad teams under 100 points. That needs to happen in every one of these last dozen games.

Second, the bench needs to remember its own talent. This bench unit is 18th in offensive rating, per NBA.com. That number does not accurately represent the wealth of options the team has there. Naji Marshall, Devonte’ Graham, Larry Nance Jr., and Alvarado: if each of these players has one game each worthy of attaching their name to it, then the Pels will make it.

Finally, Williamson’s return must be in earnest. He must be ready to play, and play at his peak form. When we last saw him, he was averaging 26/7/4.6 on 60% from the field. That’s  nigh-unstoppable production, and if that returns in time for the last 7 or more games, the Pels might jump over the Lakers and Utah Jazz to sneak into contention.