Right now it’s nearly impossible to talk about the Pelicans without using this word. It was used after DeMarcus Cousins went down last year, as the Pelicans raced out to a pace that led the league. It was mentioned all offseason as the Pelicans signed players who went under the radar, but were selected presumably for their ability to run up and down the floor. And now, two games into the young NBA season, it has been a word the team is synonymous with. The Pelicans are 2-0 and are averaging a jaw-dropping 108.75 possessions over their two games. But the pace discussion is no longer relegated to this team, because one week into the season, it seems the entire league is running.
That pace number the Pelicans posted, the one that made my eyes pop out of my head, isn’t even the fastest pace in the league. That belongs to the Sacramento Kings, the team the Pels defeated on Friday. They’re averaging 110 possessions per game. And they’re not alone. As I stated last year, the Pelicans topped the league with 101.6 possessions per game. Right now, that would be TWENTIETH IN THE LEAGUE. Four teams this season have a pace under 100 — last year there were only four teams OVER 100. It seems that every team is running, and the scores are high. This is clearly unsustainable, but it seems for now that the league looked at AD’s Red Bull sponsorship and decided they wanted wings too.
Again, I want to stress that I don’t think any of these numbers will hold over a long, grueling season. However, we do know one thing for sure — playing with speed is intentional on the Pelicans’ part, and a large goal going forward. It has made for fun basketball, and ridiculous, record-breaking numbers. And it makes this week a very interesting one for those of us wondering how long the team can keep running.
Tonight the Clippers come to town with a 2-1 record and an average of 107 points per game, just a skosh under the Pelicans 140 points a game. They also enter with a pace of 102 possessions, good for 19th in the league. That’s still fast, still would be the fastest in the league last year, but it is obvious that this team doesn’t intend to run like the Pelicans do. And on Friday and Saturday the Pelicans host the Brooklyn Nets and the Utah Jazz, two other teams that aren’t near the top of the pace rankings. The Jazz are 18th and the Nets are 28th in the league, one of the four teams who post under 100.
According to Gentry, the Pelicans will maintain their pace no matter the opponent, and so these three opponents will be a good test. Not only because the Pelicans will need a good record heading into a 5 game road trip against some tough Western Conference teams, but also to see what happens if the Pelicans face a team that isn’t intent on running with them, that wants to try and slow this race down. Will the Pelicans run the team out of the gym? Will they adapt if shots aren’t falling? The first two games have given fans a sense of optimism that many did not have before, but this week will give us a better idea of how many ways this team can play.
There are more factors that will weigh into these games. Can the Pelicans continue to crash the offensive glass as effectively as possible? Will Gentry’s rotations need to be tweaked further as he searches for a wing solution, and as the players get more in shape? Can Nikola Mirotic continue to be the best player in the world? But most people believe that the Pelicans’ success depends on their ability to dictate the pace and play their own game. Starting tonight we’ll see how effectively they’re able to do that against teams that don’t want to play the same game.