Prior to All-Star C DeMarcus Cousins‘ left Achilles’ tendon rupture, the New Orleans Pelicans were becoming one of the rising powers in the NBA. They had just beaten the Western Conference’s then second-seed team in the Houston Rockets, and had just started to truly jell as a team before Cousins went down in that marquee victory. Understandably, losing one of the team’s two All-Star starters would severely derail the Pelicans’ season. New Orleans had spent prior seasons relaying on just All-Star PF Anthony Davis to lead them to victory, and that was a middling success at best.
Yes, losing Cousins should have spelled ruin for the Pelicans and their season. However, this has not been the case in the 17 games since they lost the University of Kentucky product. During this post-Cousins stretch, the team has gone 11-6. While that is a solid stretch that most teams would enjoy, much of its value lies in a 10 game winning streak that just came to a halt. This streak was not just against the bottom feeders of the Association either. New Orleans has been battling, and winning against teams like the Miami Heat and the San Antonio Spurs, the seventh seeds in the Eastern and Western Conferences, respectively. This begs the question, why? Why have the Boogie-less Pelicans entered such a stretch of success?
The first one is F Nikola Mirotic. While the Montenegro native initially had some shooting struggles in the start of his Pelicans tenure, he has recently gotten back into the groove he started off the year on. Since the star of March, Mirotic has put up a line of 18/8.5/1.5 while chipping in half a block and steal per game. The percentage stats only help his case even more, as Mirotic is shooting 50% from the field in that stretch, alongside 90% from the line and a stellar 43.3% from the trey. However, the most important attribute of his remains the spacing he provides. It keeps the lanes open for Davis, and has been one of the key factors for the superstar’s MVP-caliber performance of late.
The other key acquisition was C Emeka Okafor. The University of Connecticut veteran was once a double-double machine in his early career with the Charlotte Bobcats. However, due to a herniated disc injury in his neck, Okafor has been out of the league since 2013. This season, he returned to NBA basketball with the G League’s Delaware 87ers, before signing a 10-day contract with New Orleans. The comeback was complete less than a moth later, as the Pelicans signed him for the rest of the season, as reported by Yahoo Sports writer Shams Charania:
Sources: Emeka Okafor is signing with New Orleans for the remainder of the season today. The former No. 2 pick has averaged 6.3 rebounds and two blocks in six games back in NBA since injuries sidelined him in 2013.
— Shams Charania (@ShamsCharania) February 26, 2018
What exactly has Okafor done to go from a 10-day contract to a season-long one? The Texas native has been putting up a line of 5.1/5.3/0.4 with 1.6 blocks. Additionally, he has been doing this on 52.4% shooting from the field and 75% shooting from the line. While those numbers do not scream “wow,” it is important to note that he is only playing 16.2 MPG, and as such those block numbers are especially impressive. More importantly, while he is out there, the Texas native is serving as an anchor on defense, and does everything that a defensive-centric C could be asked to do. He plays tough defense in the post, does not get abused on the perimeter, sets excellent screens and makes the hustle play most other big men his age do not, or cannot, make. He also takes the tougher defensive assignments from Davis, keeping the Pelicans star from overexerting himself on the defensive end.
Mirotic and Okafor were not the big-time acquisitions that dominate the headlines. They are, however, two key players in the run the Pelicans are on right now. So long as Mirotic continues his return to form and Okafor continues to be a brilliant defender, the Pelicans will once again serve as a threat to the blue bloods of the Western Conference come April.