It wouldn’t be a stretch to suspect this year’s New Orleans Pelicans are last year’s Memphis Grizzlies. Two upstarts, led by a dynamic young talent — just sub Zion Williamson for Ja Morant — rising high in the West and taking the league by surprise if not by storm.
Or, just maybe, the Pelicans were destined and designed to arrive right around this time anyway.
A gradual and clever rebuild from the rubble caused by the forced Anthony Davis trade, coupled with Zion’s injury recovery last season, has produced the current leader in the West and a contender — already — that doesn’t appear to be an early-season tease .
The Pelicans bring rebounding, scoring in the paint, 3-point shooting, respectable defense, a productive bench and a coach who’s connecting with his talent. Yes, the NBA schedule isn’t halfway through, which makes you pump the brakes a bit, but: How many teams are this clean across the board?
And then, last weekend, they had a coming out — beating the Suns in a two-game set that saw the Pelicans play smarter and more inspired and accept the challenge much more eagerly than Phoenix.
They’ll require another temperature check this time next week, after a Saturday game in Phoenix (9 ET, NBA TV) where the Suns will surely be inspired, and a Monday match with Milwaukee. Those teams are more proven, more established winners over a bigger sample size. Still, the Pelicans are firing a league-wide warning shot after seven straight wins and, as a big bonus, they expect to have Brandon Ingram back any day from a toe injury.
They’ve also won 14 of their last 16 games, as impressive a stretch as any, losing only to the Celtics and Grizzlies. No shame in that. As for context: Zion missed the Boston game; meanwhile, against the Grizzlies, CJ McCollum was out and Ingram suffered his toe injury in the second quarter.
Therefore: With the possible exception of the Celtics, no team has romped for three weeks like the Pelicans, who are announcing their arrival by barking through a bullhorn.
“I know to a lot of people that’s not a big deal because it’s still early in the season,” Williamson said, “but for us to have that ranking right now, that’s big. We want to not only hold on to it but build on it.”
All the fun is largely made possible by Zion, of course. The compressed frustration with playing just 85 games in a three-year career is finally being unleashed and he’s looking more comfortable by the week. During the winning streak, Zion is averaging 30.0 points on 66.9% shooting and 9.0 rebounds. Should this continue much longer and the Pelicans keep winning, he’ll become a contender in the Kia MVP chatter, if he isn’t in the conversation already.
Western Conference Player of the Week things 🔥
— New Orleans Pelicans (@PelicansNBA) December 12, 2022
That was always among his goals; before the season began, and once it appeared his injury issues were in the past, Williamson said: “I want to be among the best, and I want this team to be among the best, too.”
That was made clear rather emphatically when Zion executed a 360 windmill dunk to close out the first of two wins against Phoenix. While the Suns turned big mad and screamed about Zion violating some precious unwritten rule — the Pelicans had the game in the bag — they didn’t take into account the level of annoyance Zion carried from being injured for so long and dealing with all the skepticism from that.
That 360 wasn’t just meant for the Suns. That dunk was for all he ended. It was a payback of sorts, for the unfairness of his injuries. Or a reply from Zion for all the doubts he heard about himself, in the most forceful manner he can provide.
Zion is the most efficient big-scorer in the NBA, shooting 61%, amazing for a 6-foot-6 player, but understandable considering how relentlessly he gets to the hoop. He takes fewer 3-pointers — only 14 all season — than any of the league’s top 15 scorers, even less than DeMar DeRozan, the game’s premier mid-range specialist. Everything about Zion is unique in relation to today’s analytics-dominated game: His height for a power player, his disregard for deep shooting, and his degree of quickness given his size.
And it’s all working.
“Someone mentioned Lawrence Taylor, as a comp from another sport, someone who is so completely alien in the time that he played,” said David Griffin, the Pelicans’ chief of basketball ops. “And maybe that’s true, and maybe Zion is similar to Charles Barkley in a way. But I don’t think there’s really a comp for Zion in this game right now. Zion is special and we’re really, really blessed that he can do the things he can do. Fortunately for us, he’s not the type of player who thinks this is all about him.”
That’s because what’s also working is the blueprint put in place by Griffin over the last two years. While waiting for Zion to fully heal, Griffin found uncut gems in Herbert Jones (a second-round pick) and Jose Alvarado (undrafted). He also flipped Josh Hart and role players to Portland for McCollum and Larry Nance Jr., and sent more role players to Memphis for Jonas Valanciunas and Trey Murphy. Suddenly, a franchise left shaken by the exit of Davis had a foundation in place.
Jones is a fluid small forward with a bit of old-school in him. He enjoyed a breakthrough last season in the playoffs when the Pelicans pushed the Suns to six games. Alvarado, too, made a name for himself in that series, especially being a constant annoyance to Chris Paul. And what also makes Alvarado special is his tendency to play 94 feet, applying pressure on the ball in the backcourt and sneaking up to steal inbounds passes. He has earned the backup point guard spot, ahead of Devonte’ Graham, who only a few years ago signed as a free agent.
New Orleans just extended Nance’s contract by two years at reasonable money, a wise decision given what Nance brings to the locker room and also his ability to rebound and play defense. Murphy is slowly improving almost by the game and brings 3-point shooting (40%) and will also score at the rim.
Griffin’s big addition was McCollum, a veteran with a polished offensive game that doesn’t over-rely on the deep shot. McCollum can create his own shot much like Zion and Ingram, giving the Pelicans three players who can generate offense off the bounce.
It all works for a team that’s centered around a growing superstar, but isn’t flourishing only because of him.
“People forget that the group we had on the court in the playoffs last year (without Zion) also made a hell of a run at the end of the year,” Griffin said. “We were 10-2 when Brandon and CJ played the last 12 games together.”
Griffin also found the proper coach in Willie Green, a first-timer who has the trust of the players, especially after Green didn’t panic when the Pelicans started 1-12 last season. It’s been bliss ever since. The Pelicans finished 36-46, took advantage of the Play-In Tournament to reach the playoffs for the first time since 2018, then pushed the Suns through six grueling first-round games.
Zion watched it all from the bench, burning inside, waiting for his chance. And now he and the Pelicans are finally whole and understandably feeling frisky here in first place.
Which means, a once-wayward franchise is doing a 180 and therefore will madly celebrate Zion Williamson’s 360, even if others won’t understand that math.
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Shaun Powell has covered the NBA for more than 25 years. You can e-mail him here, find his archive here and follow him on Twitter.
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