The New Orleans Pelicans are all too aware of having to play short-handed, but they will be in the unfamiliar position of being closer to full strength than their opponent in Wednesday’s season opener against the host Memphis Grizzlies.
The Pelicans had star forwards Zion Williamson and Brandon Ingram for just 29 and 45 games, respectively, due to injury last season, but the Grizzlies will be missing their key backcourt player, Ja Morant. The star guard, who averaged 26.2 points and 8.1 assists last season, will begin serving a 25-game suspension for a second episode involving flashing a gun.
His absence comes as the Grizzlies are adapting to a new offense installed by former Bucks assistant coach Patrick St. Andrews during the offseason. Head coach Taylor Jenkins brought in St. Andrews to expand the spacing in the Grizzlies’ half-court offense in search of more versatility. “That’s our MO,” guard Desmond Bane said of the transition offense, “but we’re trying to improve in the half court.” The new approach spreads out all five players, affording more 3-point opportunities for the big men. “We’re kind of talking about having five guys out at once, trying to space the floor as much as we can and create advantages whenever we can,” guard Luke Kennard said. “We want to be a fast team, and we want to run and push the pace each and every night. Our big guys are having to run to the corner instead of down to the basket.” The Grizzlies learned Sunday that they will be without one of those big men. Starting center Steven Adams will miss the season because of knee surgery. They received better health news when guard Marcus Smart, acquired from the Boston Celtics in a major offseason trade, made his debut in the preseason finale after being sidelined because of abdominal soreness. The Pelicans’ big three of Williamson, Ingram and guard CJ McCollum, who played together in just 10 games last season because of injuries, are ready to go to start the season. The Pelicans were 1-3 in the preseason, playing their last game eight days before the opener. “We want to go into Memphis with our energy high,” coach Willie Green said, “feeling rejuvenated and having these practices to really work on our execution on both ends of the floor. So we’re feeling confident about that.” New Orleans also brought in a new assistant coach to try to improve its offense. Former Charlotte head coach James Borrego was tasked with improving the Pelicans’ offensive efficiency, especially on 3-pointers. “We don’t expect that at this point in the year that our offense or our defense is going to be the best that it could be,” Green said, “but we want to make sure that we continue to improve.” The Pelicans aren’t completely healthy. Starting forward Trey Murphy III, who blossomed in his second season last year, is sidelined until sometime next month because of offseason surgery on his knee. Memphis, which went 2-3 in the preseason, had the second-best record (51-31) in the Western Conference last season. It lost in six games to the Lakers in the first round of the playoffs. The Pelicans (42-40) finished ninth in the West and lost a home play-in elimination game against Oklahoma City.