From the Basement | Pelicans could turn New Orleans into basketball city

Scott Houtkin, Contributing Writer

pelicans basketball
Matthew Tate

With only one playoff series win in the last decade, the New Orleans Pelicans certainly do not come to mind as a top-tier NBA organization. Fans have seen the rise and fall of the Chris Paul (2005-2011) and Anthony Davis (2012-2019) eras and have come up short every time. However, the Pelicans have been quietly building a talented roster, and after a playoff appearance last season that consisted of two wins against the defending Western Conference champs, things are beginning to look up.

Most New Orleans locals would agree that their city has become a football hotspot. With future Hall of Fame quarterback Drew Brees leading the Saints through 15 successful seasons, including a Super Bowl victory in 2010, the city was home to a unifying team and a superstar they could count on to win.

Drew Brees’ departure for retirement last year turned over a new leaf for the Saints and signified a new era for not just the football team but for the entire city of New Orleans. The Saints lost the face of the franchise, and the city lost its rock. Fans eagerly anticipate the next wave of superstars in New Orleans, and I think they might avert their eyes to a different team — the New Orleans Pelicans. 

With a basketball arena that shares a parking lot with the much larger and more renowned Caesars Superdome, it is no wonder the Pelicans always seem to take a backseat to the Saints. A franchise initially located in Charlotte, the organization went back and forth between the two cities twice before finally settling down in New Orleans in 2007 and being renamed the Pelicans in 2013, previously being the Hornets. 

This constant organizational turbulence made it difficult to gain loyal fans in New Orleans, and it showed with the average home game attendance getting as low as 13,803 in the 2012-2013 season. However, the average home game attendance has been steadily climbing since then, and it’s coming at just the right time as the team is poised to be better than ever.

The 2019 NBA offseason has its footprints all over this roster and, more specifically, a week-long period in June that completely altered the direction of the organization. After Davis shut down contract extension talks with the Pelicans and requested that the team trade him, it became apparent that a rebuild was coming. The organization was to lose a bonafide NBA superstar that had been loyal to a losing franchise for seven seasons. 

Being a smaller market team without a superstar makes it challenging to attract top-tier talent in free agency, and this reality was slowly sinking in for the Pelicans. All hope seemed lost until a miracle happened at the NBA Draft Lottery on May 14.

The Pelicans had just a 6% chance of getting the first pick in the draft. They were tied with the Memphis Grizzlies and Dallas Mavericks for the seventh-highest odds of getting that first pick. All indications pointed to them receiving a pick towards the back-end of the top ten as they had the highest chance of getting the eighth overall pick at just over 37%. 

In a draft loaded with future NBA stars, one stood above the rest: ZionWilliamson. A 6 foot, 7inches, 280-pound prospect out of Duke University, Williamson has a rare combination of size, skill and athleticism that had NBA scouts drooling. Considered by many to be the most famous high school basketball player since Lebron James, his emphatic dunks and incredible athleticism made headlines everywhere. He claimed the No. 1 play on SportCenter’s Top 10 and received praise from some of the biggest celebrities in the country. Every team in the league wanted him, but only one could have him. 

The outcome went against all odds. The whole world assumed Williamson was going to New York City. The Knicks, the laughingstock of the league that year, were primed for the first pick as they had the greatest chance at 14%. The New York media was buzzing with the potential of Williamson playing there. He already had the fame, and he had the skills to be a big star in The Big Apple. But the ping pong balls gave the first pick to a different city. One with a similar nickname: The Big Easy.

With Williamson falling into their laps, the Pelicans could now move forward by trading Davis. They had a new face for the franchise arriving soon, and they needed new young players to pair with him. Less than a week before the draft, the Pelicans finalized the blockbuster trade that sent Davis to the Los Angeles Lakers for a multitude of young players and draft picks, none more important than forward Brandon Ingram. Ingram, also out of Duke University, was a young ascending player with lots of upsides. The Pelicans saw Ingram as a great complement to Williamson, both young players with very different skill sets. Ingram has a more slender build, but at 6 feet 9 inches, he can shoot in the mid-range exceptionally well. Williamson is a very physical player with a large frame who uses his strength to drive to the basket and finish through contact. Together, the Pelicans had a one-two punch that could grow into a successful tandem for years to come.

That wishful thinking has not come to fruition yet. Ingram and Williamson’s first two seasons in New Orleans consisted of lots of injuries with little success. They experienced consecutive losing records and missed the playoffs both years — this past season started off as more of the same. With Williamson out with a foot injury, Ingram spent the first half of the season leading a team that struggled to win games. The Pelicans were 22-32 more than halfway through the season, and it had all the makings of another forgettable season. However, this all changed at the NBA trade deadline.

A team with lots of young talent and no playoff experience, the Pelicans were looking for someone who could bring a winning mentality to the team. Just before the trade deadline, they got their wish by trading for veteran shooting guard CJ McCollum. McCollum had spent his first eight seasons with the Portland Trail Blazers, playing alongside superstar point guard Damian Lillard. In Portland, McCollum had 53 playoff starts, including a trip to the Western Conference Finals in 2018-2019. He was exactly what the Pelicans were looking for, a mix of veteran leadership and postseason experience that would be invaluable to a young team struggling to find an identity. 

With McCollum in the starting lineup, the Pelicans finished the season 15-14 and averaged nearly 10 points more per game than before. McCollum averaged 24.3 points per game on almost 50% shooting from the field and helped New Orleans reach their first playoff appearance in four years. The connection between McCollum and Ingram lifted the team almost immediately, and they have already become one of the best shooting duos in the league. 

The Pelicans are finally reaching the end of their rebuild. With the return of Williamson this season, New Orleans finally has the opportunity to see all of their stars playing together. We saw glimpses of his potential to become a superstar in 2020 where he averaged 27 points in 61 games. If he can stay healthy and put up that level of production again this season, the Pelicans could be up there with the top teams in the Western Conference. With Ingram and McCollum’s shooting from the outside paired with Williamson’s athleticism and versatile skill set, the Pelicans have a well-rounded “big three.” 

Surrounding their stars, the Pelicans have solid veteran playmakers in point guard Devonte Graham and center Jonas Valanciunas. They both return after solid seasons last year in New Orleans in which Graham averaged almost 12 points per game and Valanciunas averaged nearly 18 points with over 11 rebounds per game. In addition, the Pelicans have lots of depth with young stars like forwards Herbert Jones and Trey Murphy, guards Jose Alvarado and talented first-round rookie Dyson Daniels and center Jaxson Hayes. They also have veteran depth in forward Larry Nance Jr. and guard Garrett Temple. 

A big X-factor for this team is 2020 first round pick Kira Lewis Jr. The young point guard showed flashes of great play before going down in December last season with a knee injury. Lewis isn’t expected to be ready when the season starts, but if he can return at some point this season at 100%, New Orleans could add an extremely talented young point guard to an already loaded roster.

New Orleans is in a state of sports obscurity. Their beloved Saints are struggling to open the season, and ticket prices are steadily declining. They no longer have Brees or former head coach Sean Payton to keep them competitive. With a playoff absence likely this season in football, New Orleans may turn their attention to basketball. The Pelicans have all the pieces to not only make a deep playoff run but also to make the city buzz. With Williamson due for some spectacular dunks and Ingram and McCollum ready to shoot the lights out, the Pelicans will become must-see-TV. With a star-studded core and lots of young talent to help them stack up wins, the Pelicans are poised to bring basketball to the bayou.

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