The New Orleans Pelicans blueprint was on display in the 2022 NBA Finals.
The Boston Celtics may have finished two wins from completing the dream of winning their 18th title but their future serves at what the Pelicans have brewing. Eight years ago, the Nets’ acquisitions of Kevin Garnett, Paul Pierce, and Jason Terry were a gift that kept on giving for Boston. Three years after unloading those stars, Boston was an Eastern Conference finalist. One season after that, they took the Cavaliers to a seventh game in the ECF with a nucleus derived from the Brooklyn heist. An NBA Finals berth in 2022 set Boston back on the right path after Kyrie Irving’s departure sent them spiraling for tumultuous seasons that had them questioning everything.
Thursday night, the pressure will be on Pelicans President of Basketball Ops David Griffin and GM Trajan Langdon to put the Pelicans on a similar trajectory. Pursuing championship aspirations is the modus operandi for most front offices, but this summer is an especially crucial period for New Orleans. They have a plethora of resources at their disposal and the excuses are gone. Later this summer, they’ll be cuffing Zion Williamson to a $181 million extension. Zion’s last healthy season saw him average 27 points on 61 percent shooting from the field and 3.7 assists per game.
It’s been three years since New Orleans traded Anthony Davis for a haul that included Lonzo Ball, Brandon Ingram, Josh Hart, unprotected first round picks in 2019, 2022, 2024 or 2025 to the Pelicans and a pick swap in 2023. Los Angeles’ 2022 first round pick was part of the ransom exchange for Anthony Davis. The Lakers mortgaged their future for win-now stars. They got a little more out of James and Davis than the Nets did from K.G. and Pierce, but from the Pelicans perspective the future is rosy.
Ingram, who also migrated down to the Big Easy in that raft of players and picks from the Lakers, was named to his first All-Star team in 2021. The Lakers 2019 No. 4 pick was eventually dealt by New Orleans to Atlanta for picks 8, 17, and 35. Jaxson Hayes, Nickeil Alexander-Walker, and Didi Louzada. Alexander-Walker and Louzada don’t move the needle, but they were components in New Orleans’ midseason trade for CJ McCollum.
McCollum’s first half season in New Orleans was a bona fide success. Even without Zion in the lineup, McCollum was instrumental in stowing the Pelicans away in the Western Conference’s 10th seed, battling their way into the postseason and stealing two games from the Phoenix Suns. That glow up moment felt more like a preamble for what’s to come than an out-of-body experience.
Los Angeles’ calamitous season unexpectedly gifted New Orleans the eighth overall pick in the upcoming draft. Reportedly, the Pelicans are done accumulating young talent and have shown interest in shopping their 2022 pick from the Lakers for win-now compensation. That asset could be utilized in a sign-and-trade for a disgruntled star or straight up for a 2022 free agent. Whomever they target will likely be a floor spacer who can add a jolt to an offense that ranked 27th in 3-point rate and 19th in offensive efficiency.
Of course, none of this matters without a healthy Zion. When he’s not facing another round of rehab, setbacks, and more rehab, Williamson is a Shaq-Lite interior force. In 2021, Zion averaged 20.3 points in the paint per game, the most since Shaquille O’Neal’s 1999-2000 MVP season. Of all the up-and-coming 23-and-under stars, Ja Morant is in the best position to succeed, but the Pelicans have the best mix of veteran and high upside talent to match or surpass the Grizzlies ascension. The Pelicans are also owed two first round picks from Milwaukee that they acquired from trading Jrue Holiday before the 2020 campaign. That’s two consecutive champs who have the Pelicans to thank.
What New Orleans is constructing around Williamson is a complete 180 from the early AD years where the front office failed miserably at accumulating supporting talent. The Lakers’ bill wasn’t supposed to be so high this quickly, but the Pelicans are poised to reap the rewards and assemble a championship caliber squad around their own cornerstone franchise player.