Lowe: A dangerous West team on the rise, a key acquisition on the Suns and the Bucks' shrinking margin for error

If New Orleans makes the playoffs, its opponents will challenge Zion Williamson's defense. Gary A. Vasquez/USA TODAY Sports

This week, we highlight a dangerous team creeping up the Western Conference, a secret key to a long Phoenix Suns playoff run and a shrinking margin for error for Giannis Antetokounmpo and the Milwaukee Bucks.

Jump to Lowe's Things:
The dangerous Pels | What has gotten into McConnell?
Orlando's stars amplify each other | The player that can help Bridges
Where is Tobias Harris? | A Bulls hiccup
O'Neale's impact in Phoenix | Bucks' shrinking margin for error

1. The New Orleans Pelicans (and Trey Murphy III) are happening ... right?

The Pelicans' true level of seriousness has yet to be determined. On paper, their case is ironclad. Roaring through the softest part of their schedule has left the Pelicans with the league's fourth-best point differential. They are 10th in offensive efficiency and sixth in defense -- one of four teams in the top 10 in both.

They are 21-13 on the road and 20-17 against teams above .500. And yet accounting for injuries to opponents' stars, the Pelicans' only landmark win of the past two months came on the road against the LA Clippers -- a physical, playoff-style game. In fairness, the Pelicans have dealt with their share of injuries. They also blew out the Indiana Pacers at home two weeks ago -- a good win.

They had a solid grasp on the No. 5 seed and tons of media attention as they opened a tougher portion of their schedule Wednesday ... and got rolled at home by the Cleveland Cavaliers. The skeptics crowed, recalling New Orleans spotlight pratfall in the in-season tournament semifinals: This team is interesting, and weird, and sometimes awesome -- but they are not serious people.

We'll know more soon; the Pelicans face the Clippers on Friday, with games against the Boston Celtics, Milwaukee Bucks, Oklahoma City Thunder, Phoenix Suns, Miami Heat and Orlando Magic in the next two weeks.

The Pelicans are weird. Even with more time together, the starry trio of Zion Williamson, Brandon Ingram and CJ McCollum is minus-nine in 658 minutes. The spacing can get clunky.

The coaching staff never seems entirely sure about which center -- Larry Nance Jr. or Jonas Valanciunas -- fits better with certain core lineup combinations, or how much (if at all) to shift Williamson to center. There is a gray area between versatility and confusion; the Pelicans live there.

But something real is happening. You don't win on the road and pile up a top-five scoring margin over 65 games by accident. In some of those wins against bad and injury-ravaged teams, the Pelicans rampaged to huge first-quarter leads -- icy statements of supremacy: We are better than you, and we don't have time for this.