On April 17, 2019, Gayle Benson stood at the microphone in the Pelicans practice facility in Metairie and introduced David Griffin as the team’s executive vice president of basketball operations.
“We are here today to change the direction and future of our organization,” Benson said that day. “(Griffin’s) vision and plan fits with our goals, which is to bring an NBA championship to New Orleans.”
Fast forward to April 17, 2022 — exactly three years later — and the Pelicans began the first step of chasing a championship, playing the Phoenix Suns on Sunday in the first round of the playoffs.
No, the Pelicans won’t win an NBA title this season.
But making the first playoff appearance since 2018 and the first of the Griffin era is a clear indication the team is headed in the right direction, something that many weren’t so sure about just a few short months ago.
Griffin deserves credit for this long-awaited return to the playoffs.
Yes, he made some missteps along the way, particularly last September when he said he expected Zion Williamson’s injured foot to be healed by the start of the season. He made that situation worse later when he twisted those words to mean something else, and Williamson has yet to play a single minute this season.
Griffin has assembled a legitimate playoff team even without the guy who is supposed to be the face of the franchise.
He bluntly told us this could be done on his first day on the job.
“They say a small market can’t win. That’s bulls***.”
Let’s be clear.
The Pelicans haven’t actually won anything yet.
They haven’t had a winning season since 2018. And if the NBA hadn’t implemented the play-in tournament two years ago, we aren’t having this conversation. The Pelicans would have finished 9th in the Western Conference standings and we’d all be wondering how close this team really is to turning the corner.
Instead, they earned a berth into the play-in tournament and took care of business, beating the San Antonio Spurs and going on the road to beat the Los Angeles Clippers.
This is a team that looks nothing like your typical 8-seed. You could see how scrappy they are Sunday night. Despite a downright dismal first half shooting performance that had them trailing by 23 points, they cut the deficit to 6 before losing 110-99 to the team that more than likely will win it all in June.
Now add Zion to that mix, which inevitably is how Griffin’s tenure will be defined, and this looks like a top-3 team in the West.
Ask yourself this, how many teams in the NBA would you swap the Pelicans’ roster and coaching staff and allotment of draft picks for?
Not many, if any. A starting lineup of Ingram Ingram, CJ McCollum, Jonas Valanciunas, Herbert Jones and Williamson would give any team fits.
Griffin has assembled just the right blend of star power, promising young talent with the assets to add more, and a promising coach. It’s a formula that should make Pelicans fans optimistic.
Griffin and general manager Trajan Langdon deserve all the credit for that, particularly the last item on that list. It took Griffin less than a year to realize his hiring of Stan Van Gundy wasn’t the right fit. He quickly fixed the error and not only made a coaching change, but found a guy in Willie Green who has been just what this team needed.
Green navigated the Pelicans from a 1-12 start and got them to where they are now. Griffin provided the tools to do that, especially in February with the acquisition of CJ McCollum and Larry Nance Jr.
Griffin often preaches “sustainability” and has laid the foundation for something that looks like it can indeed sustain.
“It’s not easy to flip the switch and win a championship tomorrow,” Griffin said in his introductory news conference. “But if you start building to the ethos of the city, you can build something that attracts the right people. You want to build something that lasts and means something to this city.”
Time will tell if this all lasts.
But three years into the Griffin era, the future sure looks bright.