At the outset of this series, I set the ground rule that a team that had moved to a new media market couldn’t have a legacy that belonged to its old home carry over to the new one. This was the justification for the Atlanta Hawks not having their championship in St. Louis count in Atlanta. The New Orleans Pelicans, meanwhile, are another story.
After all, I said nothing about a team changing its name while in the same city, as happened to the New Orleans Hornets when they changed their name to the Pelicans so the city of Charlotte, from which the original Hornets had moved, could have the name back.
And so it is that the best season in the history of the New Orleans Pelicans happened when the team wasn’t even called the Pelicans.
That would be the 2008 season, the only 50-win season in franchise history and one of just two times—2018 was the other—when the team made it out of the first round.
In a year overshadowed by the renewal of the Celtics-Lakers rivalry, let’s take a look at that utter rarity—a New Orleans NBA team that didn’t suck.
The On-Court Record
New Orleans went 56-26, winning the only division title the franchise has ever recorded and, for the only two times in franchise history, hosting a Game 1 in a playoff series.
The first Game 1 came against the 7-seed Dallas Mavericks, a series New Orleans would go on to win in five games.
The second was in round 2 against the 3-seed defending champion San Antonio Spurs. This series would go the distance and stand as the only time New Orleans ever hosted a Game 7 in their 19 years of existence and seven playoff appearances.
Sadly, however, the still-Hornets lost that Game 7 and the series, and while they would make the playoffs again in 2009 and 2011, losing in the first round both times, they would never again be a serious contender. Since 2011, they have made the playoffs just twice despite having Anthony Davis for eight years and reloading with Zion Williamson in the 2019 draft. Zion has proven a huge disappointment despite his huge scoring numbers, but that is a story for another day.
Point is, the now-Pelicans were good for one year—fifth in offense, seventh in defense, and fifth in Net Rating good—and that was it.
The Featured Players
Chris Paul has the interesting distinction of being the best player in franchise history for two different franchises. He is by a mile the greatest player New Orleans has ever had—Davis suffers from having had only two trips to the playoffs and loses legacy points for petulantly forcing his way off the team in 2019—and he is also the greatest player ever to suit up for the Los Angeles Clippers.
If he gets over the hump and wins a ring there, he might have a case for being the greatest Phoenix Sun ever as well, but he is 36 years old and we’ll have to see how much he has left.
CP3 was spectacular on the ’08 Hornets, leading the team in scoring at 21.1 points per game, dishing 11.6 assists per contest, and if advanced stats are more your jam, posting an eye-popping .284 WS/48 (17.8 WS overall) and 9.3 VORP.
David West was fantastic as well, posting 20.6 points and 8.9 rebounds per contest and posting 2.6 VORP.
Bear in mind the Hornets/now-Pelicans played at a glacial 89.9 pace, fifth-slowest in the league. Adjust those counting stats for the speed at which the game is played as the 2020s get going and those numbers could easily have been 10 percent higher.
And when your third-best player posts 2.5 VORP—as Peja Stojakovic did while scoring 16.4 points per game on 44.1 percent shooting from 3-point land—well, teams have won titles with less than that.
Add in Tyson Chandler—11.8 points and 11.7 rebounds per game as the defensive bulldog he was for his whole career—and a competent fifth man in Morris Peterson (8.0 points, 39.5 3PT%) and that’s a rock-solid starting lineup well-deserving of all 56 wins.
It’s funny how coaches reviled now for failing to adapt to the modern pace-and-space era NBA, guys like Byron Scott and Lionel Hollins, were quite good coaches back in the day when their style considered archaic now was current.
Scott coached New Orleans alongside Paul as his point guard and got quite a bit out of him. The Hornets’ .231 3PAR, woeful today, was 11th-highest in the league as Stojakovic and Peterson were able to make use of the long ball to good effect while West and Chandler played a traditional two-big-men low post game, Paul acting as a traditional pass-first point guard and directing traffic while scoring a ton of points himself.
That kind of arrangement would never work in 2021. It didn’t work in New Orleans when Anthony Davis and DeMarcus Cousins tried to coexist on the floor, it doesn’t work in Indiana with Domantas Sabonis and Myles Turner, and it hasn’t won a title in this league since David Robinson retired after winning it all with Tim Duncan in 2003.
Yet Scott made it work and New Orleans won 56 games.
There’s really only one here—the 2018 Pelicans, who won 48 games in the regular-season and shocked the 3-seed Portland Trail Blazers in the first round before getting pantsed by eventual champion Golden State in five games in the second round.
Speaking of the ’18 Pellies, my point about Davis and Cousins becomes relevant here. When Boogie played, New Orleans was 27-21. When he sat due to injury, New Orleans was 21-13 as they no longer had the low-post clogged toilet that trying to play a twin-towers frontcourt had caused. That 21-13 included a 10-game winning streak. With Cousins, New Orleans never won more than four in a row.
When your second-best season in franchise history is a cautionary tale against the dangers of outdated strategy—unsurprising from coach Alvin Gentry, who is on that same scrap heap of history as Scott and Hollins—that’s not a good sign.
The Pelicans are a rotten franchise, with poor leadership, overrated players, and no real chance to go anywhere in the NBA today—if Zion proves me wrong and evolves into Giannis Antetokounmpo, great, but Stan Van Gundy got fired after only one season when he couldn’t get Zion to work in a four-out offense.
But for one year, they were fantastic. Gods bless Chris Paul.
NEXT: New York Knicks. Who wants to get retro? Stay tuned, and thanks for reading!