The pressure is on in the Bayou for a multitude of reasons.
Zion Williamson’s generational talent is now being questioned with looming long-term injury issues, as he's yet to see the floor this season. Pelicans vice president of basketball operations David Griffin has also been under fire for transactions New Orleans has made to enhance its team around Williamson and All-Star talent Brandon Ingram.
Well, that move to take a step forward with emphasis just occurred for the Pelicans.
Tuesday morning, New Orleans acquired veteran guard CJ McCollum from the Portland Trail Blazers in exchange for Josh Hart, Nickeil Alexander-Walker, Tomas Satoransky, Didi Louzada, a protected first-round pick and two future second-rounders. (The protection on the first-round pick being dealt to Portland is 5-14 in 2022.) The Pelicans also netted athletic big man Larry Nance Jr. and rotation wing Tony Snell.
An instant starter, plus two capable bench pieces who bolster that unit, makes New Orleans a better on-court product. It’s incredible to see how the organization swindled Nance away from Portland alongside McCollum, an underrated aspect that will help the Pelicans become a more versatile team on both ends.
With the uncertain questions now hovering over the franchise with its potentially generational superstar in Williamson, this was a necessary move to push the needle in 2021-22 and beyond. McCollum’s presence will provide stability for the next two-and-a-half years in New Orleans’ backcourt. Also, McCollum will take plenty of pressure off Williamson and Ingram moving forward in the scoring department.
So far this season, McCollum is averaging 20.5 points, 4.5 assists, 4.3 rebounds on a pedestrian 53.2% True Shooting percentage. McCollum’s certified bucket-getting ability is underrated, because he’s never had a full year as a starter where he scored fewer than 20 points per game. As the third option in New Orleans, McCollum is an ideal roll of the dice by Griffin and Co.
In the Pelicans’ system under head coach Willie Green, a tree off Phoenix Suns head coach Monty Williams' renowned "0.5 offense," expect to see McCollum’s passing rise. McCollum is an underrated facilitator who can carry the load, especially when there are strong scorers alongside him. And as we all know, McCollum’s scoring could really push the Pelicans squarely into the Play-In tournament conversation post-All-Star break.
On the other end, Portland could go any direction but the obvious signs point towards a rebuild after trading McCollum, Norman Powell and Robert Covington. The Blazers reportedly could be in on Jerami Grant to appease Damian Lillard, but it’s a wait-and-see situation unfolding there.
New Orleans now has its starting lineup locked it for the next few seasons at minimum: Devonte’ Graham, CJ McCollum, Brandon Ingram, Zion Williamson and Jonas Valanciunas.
Is that a capable group to push the Pelicans up another rung on the Western Conference ladder? It’s totally possible, but Williamson is a complete wildcard for this scenario to unfold. Hopefully, Zion returns from his nagging foot issues and produces at an All-NBA level once again for the Pelicans. In the short-term, I’m intrigued to see how Nance fits into the Pelicans’ offense. He’s a player who could provide a real impact upon arrival without any adjustment period.
Williamson being at one-hundred percent alongside a 1-2 perimeter combo of Ingram and McCollum is impressive. It’s definitely an aggressive push, but one that has to be done; it's a cloudy immediate future with potentially luscious long-term results.
The Pelicans have a war chest of future draft capital they barely touched even after bringing aboard McCollum. Griffin has enticing salaries to make more moves down the line, but the Pelicans now become better while maintaining real flexibility.
Moving away from the deadline after this week, reassessing how the Pelicans stand in the Western Conference will be a fun exercise to monitor. New Orleans has all the ingredients to make a Michelin-star gumbo on the court, but the mixer (Williamson) needs to help bring it all together soon.
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