NBA source sees healthy Pelicans challenging Nuggets for top team in Western Conference

Mike Battaglino
3 Min Read
Stephen Lew-USA TODAY Sports

The New Orleans Pelicans have advanced to the semifinals of the NBA In-Season Tournament, and that somewhat surprising performance has one league observer speculating that even bigger things may be ahead for the team.

“With their complete roster, they are the team that I could see challenging the Denver Nuggets for the top team in the West,” a league source told ESPN.

The Pelicans earned their trip to Las Vegas for the semifinals with a 127-117 victory against the Sacramento Kings on Monday that raised their record to 12-10 this season. New Orleans will face the winner of the Phoenix Suns-Los Angeles Lakers quarterfinal game that is taking place Tuesday.

The Pelicans have won three of their past four games, buoyed by the return of C.J. McCollum from a collapsed lung. Led by stars Brandon Ingram, Zion Williamson and Jonas Valanciunas, New Orleans is looking to get back to the playoffs after missing out last season.

The Pelicans last won a playoff series in 2018, which is their only series victory since 2008, when they were known as the New Orleans Hornets. The franchise has won just those two series in its 22-season existence, so just making the playoffs again might be an accomplishment in itself, to say nothing of challenging for a conference championship.

The Nuggets, of course, are the defending NBA champions. After starting the season 9-2, they have gone just 5-5 since then and may be showing small signs of vulnerability at 14-7 overall. The Pelicans won West Group B ahead of the Nuggets to advance to the quarterfinals of the inaugural tournament.

The Minnesota Timberwolves and Oklahoma City Thunder occupy the top two spots in the Western Conference standings heading into play on Tuesday. The Nuggets sit third, while the Pelicans are in eighth place.

The experience gained playing a high-profile semifinal game against a team like the Suns or Lakers on Thursday could prove invaluable to the emerging squad. Actually going on to win the first NBA Cup in the final game on Saturday could stamp the Pelicans as legitimate threats to the top teams in the league.

New Orleans has improved its winning percentage in each of its seasons under head coach Willie Green, so there may be even more untapped upside as this season’s group starts to round into full health.

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Mike is a veteran journalist who has focused on New York sports. He has covered the NBA and NFL for almost three decades and is still waiting for the next championship for the Knicks and Jets.