Pelicans, Thunder over achieve this season

Published April 17, 2023, 11:00 AMPolo Bustamante
Polo Bustamante

Despite not making the playoffs, the Pelicans and Thunder showed that they can compete with the top teams in the league.

The West play-in teams were overachievers.

Just take a look at the New Orleans Pelicans. There was a stretch of a few days in December where they were the best team in the West. That may not mean like much for most teams, but for the Pelicans, it was validation that they were on the right path. That in itself was a huge accomplishment for this young team.

They continued to hover near the top of the conference even with Brandon Ingram missing a significant chunk of time early in the season. That’s because Zion Williamson was a singular force that was driving the Pelicans forward. In December of this season, he was playing like the superstar everyone envisioned him to be. Williamson averaged a 29-7-5 line on 61 percent (!!!) shooting that month.

Then the injury bug hit the Pelicans. Williamson injured his hamstring to open 2023. That kept him out of games and New Orleans started hurtling down the standings without their best player. The team could have just packed it up and tanked for the lottery. But everyone on the team decided to keep on fighting.

Williamson fought by working on his recovery, hoping to make it back at some point in the season. The rest of the team held down the fort, trying to extend their season as much as possible. 

Ingram returned from injury and took over where Williamson left off. He proved that he was also a superstar capable of carrying a team as well. They won nine of their last 12 games behind some of the best basketball of Ingram’s career. The All-Star averaged more than 29 points, six rebounds, eight assists per game during that stretch. Because of Ingram’s incredible play, the Pelicans were able to salvage a ninth seed and a spot in the play-in.

The Pelicans continued to fight until the very end. They were a stop or two away from extending their season at least one more game.

The team that eliminated the Pelicans are the poster boys for overachieving.

When Chet Holmgren was declared out for the season due to a foot injury, nearly everyone in the league counted out the Oklahoma City Thunder. That was a big mistake.

The Thunder proved very quickly that they weren’t going to be pushovers despite not having their prized lottery pick this season. The team didn’t need Holmgren this season. They already had a leader in Shai Gilgeous-Alexander. 

Fueled by all the doubters this season, Gilgeous-Alexander raised his level of play to All-NBA levels. He was the fourth best scorer in the league, averaging 31.4 points per game on a highly efficient 51 percent shooting. He also set the tone for the team by playing hard on both ends of the floor. He finished tied for 7th in the NBA in steals per game with a 1.6 average.

While SGA is proof that taking a risk for trading a young talent pays off, the rest of the team showed the league what smart drafting can do. Josh Giddey was the team’s second best player this season, averaging a 16-8-6 line, doing all the little things that help a team win. In the team’s play-in win over the Pelicans, Giddey didn’t shy away from the big moment, netting 31 points, nine rebounds, and 10 assists.

The Thunder also showed that their 2022 draft was stacked beyond Holmgren. Jalen Williams, the 12th pick in the draft, was a revelation for the team. He was inserted into the starting lineup midway through the season and never looked back. He was a key contributor to the Thunder’s play-in run, averaging 14 points on 35.6 percent shooting. The other additions this season, Jaylin Williams and Ousmane Dieng, also played significant roles for the Thunder throughout the season.

Even though Oklahoma City didn’t make the playoffs this season, the team showed that they have what it takes to compete with even the best and most established teams in the league. Gilgeous-Alexander set the tone by not backing down from anyone, and the rest of the team followed. The Thunder re-established their winning culture this season and have a bright future moving forward.