The marathon that is the NBA regular season is more than a third of the way finished. Christmas Day basketball, which to some fans marks an unofficial Opening Day or at least a major first checkpoint, has passed, and the All-Star break is just over six weeks away. A number of teams that started fast out of the gate have sustained their hot starts, while others have slipped down the standings in their respective conferences. Some teams might be looking for more silver linings as they try and emphasize a more hopeful outlook on their respective situations.
Here are three such clubs with reasons to be optimistic in 2020, despite 2019 not going exactly to plan:
New Orleans Pelicans
It would be easy to attribute the Pelicans’ early-season struggles simply to a lack of Zion Williamson. The one-named prodigy has yet to play a regular season game and reports recently surfaced that the team is trying to teach Williamson how to walk and run differently as part of his rehab process. The prospect of his return is of course one major reason for hope, but New Orleans has recently made major strides, even without the 2019 No. 1 pick. After dropping 13-straight games at one point, the Pelicans enter 2020 having won five of their last six contests. Over that span, the team’s defense has improved significantly. New Orleans enters the new year with the second best defensive rating over the last six games, giving up only 100.5 points per 100 possessions compared to the 114.4 points per 100 possessions they were allowing through their first 28 games of the season.
As ESPN’s Andrew Lopez noted earlier this week, the team’s made adjustments in a number of defensive areas, namely in their pick and roll coverages, dropping their bigs back more instead of hedging or trapping as frequently. As head coach Alvin Gentry told reporters following the team’s victory over Houston on Sunday night, “We were just overly aggressive, I think, at the start, and it gave guards in this league who are really good players an opportunity to get downhill against our defense," Gentry said.
"Everybody makes adjustments over the course of the season and it's something that we felt like it may work better for us.”
New Orleans has tightened its rotations a bit as well, a good sign for a club whose bench is in the bottom third of the league in terms of point differential per 100 possessions.
The Pelicans now find themselves only 3.5 games out of the eighth seed in the Western Conference. Brandon Ingram has played what might be the best 30 game stretch of his NBA career, consistently making improved reads while handling the heaviest workload that he’s ever had. Plus the team is now defending substantially better.
Throw Williamson’s return back into the fold, and a team that until very recently looked like a true bottom feeder of the NBA, might actually mount a playoff push in 2020.
Portland Trail Blazers
Most broadly, it’s not unreasonable to question the overall outlook and direction of the Portland Trail Blazers—whether that be examining their personnel decisions this offseason or trying to assess what their ceiling might be in the future. But at least in the short-term, things might not get worse for the Blazers than they did throughout the first 30-some games of the season.
As the team gets healthier in the second half of the season, things can presumably only get better for the 14-21 Blazers.
After an offseason full of changes to their rotation, the team entered the 2019-20 season, hoping to see former lottery pick Zach Collins bloom. But just over a week into the season, Collins dislocated his left shoulder and needed surgery. (Plus, Portland’s frontcourt was already reeling from injuries as starting center Jusuf Nurkic suffered compound fractures to his left tibia and fibula last March and was in the midst of his recovery.)
While the 2019 Western Conference runner-ups enter the new year on a five-game losing streak, most recently falling victim to the Knicks on Wednesday night, there is reason for optimism. At times things feel like they couldn’t have been worse for Portland, but despite their struggles, the team’s playoff odds have hovered consistently around 50% in FiveThirtyEight’s Raptor projections. The injuries and inconsistent rotations have led to a sub-par first 30 games of the season, but possible returns from Collins and Nurkic could seemingly only provide added production, no matter how limited their minutes might be at first.
Nurkic said in mid-December his rehab was still “60%” complete and that he feels “every day hungry more.” While Collins’ November surgery will likely keep him out until March.
A trade for All-Star Kevin Love also still seems in play. Plus, Carmelo Anthony has given the team a jolt of both energy and production as the Rip City’s star backcourt continues its heavy lifting. Things haven’t been great for Portland over the past couple of months, but if their bigs get healthier seemingly the team should improve.
The Pacers have nothing to be ashamed of entering 2020 as they sport a 22-12 record as the calendar turns over. But they have one of the biggest reasons for hope as well. Entering the new year as tied for fifth in the Eastern Conference, Indiana has fared quite well without Victor Oladipo and is a near lock to make the postseason in most projection systems. Still, the team seemingly has plenty of room for improvement—namely in the fact that Oladipo will likely make his return in the near future.
On Monday, the former Hoosiers star was assigned to the Fort Wayne Mad Ants, the team’s G League affiliate, where he will continue his rehab. While the guard still seems to be around a month away from returning to game action, it seems likely he’ll be back practicing with the team within the next few weeks, barring any setbacks. When he does return, the Pacers will feel a boost, not just in terms of energy, but in terms of literal production.
Oladipo averaged a career-best 23.1 points on 47% shooting from the field during his last full season with Indiana. He made the All-Star teams in each of the last two years and has put himself at times in the outskirts of legitimate MVP discussions. The current iteration of the Pacers, led in large part by Malcolm Brogdon and Domantis Sabonis’ on-court chemistry and consistent production, have kept Indiana in the playoff race. But getting its star back could elevate Indiana up a tier in the Eastern Conference playoff race.
Even if it takes time for their star guard to get re-acclimated, the Pacers should be hopeful about what’s to come in 2020 and likely beyond.