New Orleans Pelicans will head into the new season with big expectations now Zion Williamson is fit again after he sat out the entirety of the previous campaign with foot and knee injuries.
The Pelicans managed to reach the playoffs last season despite the absence of their young star but were eliminated in the first round by Phoenix Suns. If they can keep their star men fit this year, they may be potential dark horses in the battle for the championship.
|What:||NBA Season 2022/23|
|Where:||USA and Canada|
|When:||October 18th 2022 - June 2023|
|How to watch:||Sky Sports, NBA Pass, bet365's Sports Live Streaming|
|Odds:||GS Warriors +600, MIL Bucks +650, BOS Celtics +700, LA Clippers +700, BKN Nets +700|
There should be no concerns over Williamson's ability, the first overall pick in the 2019 NBA Draft was named to the All-Rookie First Team despite playing just 24 games in his first season in the league after suffering a torn meniscus in preseason.
The Duke product enjoyed a far more productive second season and earned a first All-Star selection. Williamson averaged 27 points-per-game on over 60% shooting, 7.2 rebounds and 3.7 assists in 2020/21 but his injury problems remain an issue.
The 22-year-old sustained a fracture in his right foot in the summer of 2021 that required surgery. Initially it was hoped he would be fit for the start of the season but his return date was put back, and eventually in March it was confirmed he wouldn't be able to feature at all.
There are reasons for Pelicans fans to be optimistic as Williamson looks in good shape ahead of the new campaign. The power forward recently said he feels "great" and is "moving faster [and] jumping higher" at a recent New Orleans media day, but until he has played for a consistent run of games those questions over his fitness will remain.
Despite the absence of their key man, the Pelicans managed to stay competitive in the 2021/22 campaign and they were surprise qualifiers for the playoffs, via the play-in tournament.
New Orleans finished the regular season with a 36-46 overall record and that was good enough for ninth place in the Western Conference as they beat off competition from the likes of Los Angeles Lakers and Sacramento Kings to reach the postseason.
The Pelicans overcame San Antonio Spurs and then beat the Clippers in LA to book a playoff spot but went down in six games to Phoenix Suns.
The arrival of CJ McCollum during the 2021/22 season from Portland proved to be an inspired deal and the guard managed career-highs in points, rebounds and assists in his 26 regular season games with the Pelicans last season after arriving from the Blazers.
McCollum will partner Brandon Ingram as the Pelicans' starting backcourt next season, with Jonas Valanciunas at center, and Williamson and Herbert Jones the starting forwards.
That is a lineup that should be able to challenge any team in the NBA and with a supporting cast including Larry Nance Jr., Devonte' Graham, Jason Hayes and Willy Hernangomez, among others, the Pelicans will feel they can make a real impact in the season ahead - providing Williamson is able to play regularly.
New Orleans face a tricky start to the new campaign with two tough road games in the East as they head to Brooklyn Nets and then Charlotte Hornets.
They then entertain Utah Jazz before a run of five big games against conference rivals who will all feel they have genuine championship chances as they take on Dallas Mavericks (at home), the Suns, Clippers, Lakers and Golden State Warriors (all away).
It wouldn't be a huge surprise to see the Pelicans propping up the Western Conference after that incredibly tough opening but if they can pick up a few wins during that period then they will feel they have a real chance of claiming one of the top six seeds in the West.
If Williamson remains fit for the season the Pelicans could be outside contenders for the championship and they are +4000 to take the top prize, but realistically the target should be a little more modest.
It is worth noting that the 22-year-old has only played 85 games across two seasons and is effectively preparing for his third year, while he is yet to feature in the postseason.
As such, helping Williamson rediscover his form and improve further will be the team's priority and claiming a playoff place will be the target.
The Pelicans are -160 to make the play-offs and +400 to win the Southwest Division by finishing ahead of the Spurs, Mavericks, Memphis Grizzlies and Houston Rockets in the regular season.