Opening night is here! The NBA tips off with two games Tuesday night, the first of which involves the defending champions. The Toronto Raptors (58-24 in 2018) will raise their first-ever championship banner before hosting the New Orleans Pelicans (33-49 in 2018). Here is a preview for this inter-conference showdown, along with odds and a pick.
It was a franchise-altering offseason for the Pelicans, to say the least. When New Orleans traded their superstar Anthony Davis, they received a plethora of young talent to build around. Lonzo Ball and Brandon Ingram are expected to start and have significant roles for New Orleans, while Josh Hart will be a solid role player off of the bench. They also signed veterans J.J. Redick and Derrick Favors to add depth and experience to this young team.
The Pelicans also struck gold in the draft with the No. 1 overall pick, selecting Zion Williamson. Williamson won’t play in this one and will miss the next six to eight weeks recovering from knee surgery, but other first-rounders, Jaxson Hayes and Nickeil Alexander-Walker, should be a part of their rotation.
As for the Raptors, Kawhi Leonard was one-and-done in Toronto, delivering a championship but leaving in free agency. They also lost sharpshooter Danny Green, who signed with Davis’ Lakers. But Toronto brings back much of its core from last year’s team and added two new players on the wing in Rondae Hollis-Jefferson and Stanley Johnson. Both players will come off the bench and give the team additional scoring and athleticism.
By the Numbers
Both teams are without their superstars from last season, so expect some of these stats from last season to change significantly.
Under coach Alvin Gentry, New Orleans pushes the tempo on the court. They played at the second-highest pace last season, and now with Ball at point guard, expect that to continue. They ranked sixth last season in field goal percentage (47.3) and fifth in rebounds (47.3), as well as third in assists (27). The assist total should be around the same, while the other stats will likely take a hit without Davis.
The Pelicans weren’t a great team last year on defense either, ranking 22nd with a 112.4 defensive rating. We’ll see if that improves with this young roster in the new season.
Despite being a middle-of-the-pack team in pace, Toronto was an all-around solid group last season. Point guard Kyle Lowry captained an offense that finished in the top 10 in field-goal percentage (47.4, fifth), three-point percentage (36.6, sixth), and free-throw percentage (80.4, third), showcasing their ability to score a variety of ways.
With the two-way superstar Leonard, they were fifth in both offensive and defensive rating, but that should drop off a bit without him this season. One area the Raptors did struggle in last season was rebounding, where they were just 17th in the league overall and 24th in offensive rebounding, averaging less than 10 a game.
Players To Watch
There are many newcomers for the Pelicans, but their top scoring option is Jrue Holiday. Holiday, who will start at shooting guard and play alongside Ball, averaged 21.2 points per game last season and dished out close to eight assists. With Davis gone and a young group surrounding him, it wouldn’t be a shock to see Holiday have a career year.
For Toronto, athletic forward Pascal Siakam is primed to become the new top option. The 25-year-old averaged just under 17 points per game last season at 54.9 percent shooting, while also making nearly 37 percent of his threes. After introducing himself to the world during last year’s NBA Finals, the former first-round pick is primed for a breakout.
Odds and Pick
The Raptors are opening up the season as defending champions and as favorites against the Pelicans, listed at -7 to win Tuesday night. Points are expected in the contest, with the over/under placed at 231.5.
There’s a lot to like about the Pelicans this season. But for this one, I’m siding with Lowry, Siakam, and the Raptors. Toronto has enough lock-down defenders to give a young New Orleans team trouble, and they have a big advantage in their frontcourt depth with Serge Ibaka and Marc Gasol in addition to Siakam. Expect a championship effort in Toronto, and for the Raptors to win and cover.