New Orleans Pelicans: Are They Prime for Upset of the Year?

When the New Orlean Pelicans signed Rajon Rondo in last year’s free agency, not too much was made of it. Sure, he could provide some good assists and a veteran presence for Anthony Davis and DeMarcus Cousins. But he was also coming off a disappointing injury that stopped his chance to help lead the Chicago Bulls to an upset over the Boston Celtics in the first round last season. Coming into free agency, people saw the potential in ‘Playoff Rondo’ as the Bulls did hold a 2-0 series advantage before he got injured. However, many teams were unwilling to commit to the 31-year-old long-term after he had unsuccessful stints with the Dallas Mavericks and Sacramento Kings.

One year later, Rondo finds himself in a similar and much more successful situation. After signing three straight one-year deals, he took up the offer to try it out again. This time though, he knew he had potentially the best player in the NBA on his side. After a regular season that showed major promise followed by the heartbreaking Achilles injury to Cousins, expectations were mixed heading into the postseason.

After Cousins went down halfway through the season, the Pelicans had to battle out many other teams in the loaded Western Conference. They ended up as the sixth seed, but could have easily been the third or fourth seed, had their other big man stayed healthy for the entire season.

The schedule played itself out and the Pelicans matched up with the Portland Trail Blazers in this year’s first round. Davis balled out, averaging 33 points and 12 rebounds while showing off his MVP-caliber potential throughout the series. There were plenty of highlight-worthy plays, many of them coming from Playoff Rondo. Rondo played the role of assist-man brilliantly, as he dished out 17 assists in the first game and averaged 13 for the round. The offensive connection between Davis and Rondo was electric and completely overwhelmed Portland. It was an impressive sweep that almost nobody expected to happen.

Speaking of unexpected occurrences, many people didn’t foresee the emergence of Jrue Holiday and Nikola Mirotic in the playoffs. After signing a five-year, $126 Million contract extension, high expectations were put upon the young guard. Although he endured several years of injuries, the Pelicans were confident in his two-way abilities. With the signing of Rondo, Holiday was slotted into his natural spot as an off-ball shooting guard. The success has been apparent, and his offensive and defensive production proved key in their upset of the Blazers.

Just as unexpected has been the contributions of Mirotic. After getting traded from the tanking Bulls, Mirotic found new life at the end of the season. With Cousins out for the year, Mirotic has been a solid option and has been a good supplement to Davis in the post. With the emergence of Mirotic, the resurgence of Holiday, and the stellar play of Rondo and Davis, the hype for this team has gone up exponentially.

That hype was procured during their 4-0 sweep of the Blazers in which the team dominated almost every aspect of the game. Davis showed his MVP potential by commanding the paint and Holiday shut down Damian Lillard on the offensive end. Meanwhile, Playoff Rondo provided assist after assist and reminded people why he can still play in the league. There was a lot of good things to pick out from the Pelicans dominant series win.

The hype is real and palpable and the Pelicans can cause the upset of the year in the next round against their probable opponent: The Golden State Warriors. (They’re up 3-1 against the San Antonio Spurs, so it’s very likely–don’t tell LeBron James that though.)

This notion stems from the Pelicans’ surge as well as the status of Steph Curry and the overall play of the Warriors. If Curry is not at 100 percent, that may have an impact. However, as shown in their series with the Spurs, the Warriors have plenty of talent to hide Curry’s injury woes.

The main reason the Pelicans can upset the Warriors is because of matchups. Assuming the team keeps riding their hot play, every player can present problems for the Warriors. Davis will cause havoc in the paint and Mirotic can help space the floor if the Warriors use their smaller lineup. Furthermore, Holiday has shown he is one of the best defenders in the postseason, shutting down Lillard last series. He can very well do the same against either Klay Thompson or Curry.

The biggest X-Factor in this series is the man who has been magnificent this postseason and almost carried those Bulls to an upset over the Celtics. If Rondo has the space to create and pick apart the Warriors defense, then the Pelicans can cause some turmoil. It is most likely that Thompson, who is the Warriors best perimeter defender, will be on Rondo. If Thompson can limit the creativity of Rondo and his alley-oops to Davis, then the Pelicans stand little chance of competing. The Warriors have so much offensive talent that it can make up for the potential 40 points-per-game Davis could score. They need to outscore the Warriors and they rely on Rondo’s tempo and vision to create great opportunities. Without Rondo at his peak, the Pelicans will suffer a disappointing second round exit.

The Warriors are the reigning champions, one of the best teams of all-time, and the most hated team in the league. If the Pelicans can dethrone what seemed to be an inevitable Warriors Finals team, it would create shockwaves around the league. With a lineup focused around Rondo-Holiday-Mirotic-Davis, the Pelicans could scoop up the biggest upset of the year.

For that to happen, Playoff Rondo, an MVP Brow, two-way Jrue, and a Beardless Mirotic all need to show up and ball out. Here’s to hoping that the Pelicans can continue their impressive run and dismantle the preordained champion-favorites. That would provide a much-needed sense of parity that this year’s playoffs have already shown.

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