Ever since the New Orleans Pelicans won the ultimate draft lottery it seemed like only a matter of time before they became title contenders and Zion was a top player in the league. They had gotten a haul of young talent and picks from the Anthony Davis trade to surround their new centerpiece; the dream for any franchise. But every time this team is in the playoffs, it is as the scrappy underdogs who push teams to seven game series never really being given the “favorites” treatment. Zion has been anything but a superstar due to injury concerns and rumored weight problems that spread through social media. Now, the Pels are at the top of the West and slowly starting to look like the team we all expected after that draft night in 2019.
The summer of 2018 was a time to be alive for Pelicans fans. They had struck gold years ago with Anthony Davis, but had never been able to put together a team good enough to be competitive. Failed experiments such as Demarcus Cousins and Tyrek Evans eventually led for Davis to request a trade with the optimal destination being to team up with Lebron in L.A. New Orleans would end up getting a load of first round picks that are still paying out to this year, and another young star in Brandon Ingram. Later that summer, the Pelicans would later win the lottery and the rights to Zion. For a team this young breathing room was given, and the Pelicans early struggles in 2019 were forgiven. Yet, the progress you would expect were just not there and due to nagging injuries that kept Zion out for almost half the season we never really saw the full potential of this team. The Pelicans would make a coaching change the next year, Steven Van Gundy, and yet even with an All-Star season from Zion the team wasn’t making the improvements expected of a team with this much talent. With another losing season, the foundations of a contender were finally being laid.
The moves that summer might just define the future of this franchise. Bringing in Willie Green as head coach was a major step in the right direction, as seen by their first playoff appearance since the Anthony Davis era. The other big move made that season was trading for CJ McCollum, a veteran guard who brought the experience and talent to a backcourt that looked lost whenever Lonzo Ball was down with injury. The combo of these two paired with emergences of Trey Murphy III and Jose Alvarado and growth of Ingram made this team competitive in a stacked West even without Williamson.
Now, we are finally seeing a Pelicans team with a healthy Zion, star level Ingram, McCollum providing experience in the backcourt, and a supporting cast that could rival any team in the league. Both Ingram and Zion are averaging 20+ ppg and both have the ability to completely take over games. The fact that this team has two young “superstar” players speaks to the ability of this team to beat you in every different way. What really separates this team from the Pelicans of the past is the rest of the team. The Pelicans have four players outside of Williamson and Ingram averaging 10+ ppg, and this is the balance that we see from the top teams like Boston and Golden State. You have the stars, but the three and d guys and hustle players are what takes this team to the top. Trey Murphy, Herb Jones, and even Larry Nance give the Pels defensive options all over the floor and is a reason for their 108 defensive rating which is third in the league. There also has to be credit to Jose Alvarado and his culture of hustle and tenacity that seems to have seeped into the rest of the team.
This team is the real deal. They have the talent, the culture, the coach. Every part of the formula is checked. Now, it’s about seeing how good this team can really be.
Top Image: AP Photo/Gerald Herbert