One year ago, the New Orleans Pelicans were in a bad place.
Headed into his third year in charge, executive vice president David Griffin was on his third coach. He inherited Alvin Gentry, and the two clashed. Griffin replaced Gentry with Stan Van Gundy, only to fire Van Gundy eight months later because of the veteran coach’s inability to connect with his players.
The Pelicans had also whiffed in free agency. They pursued Kyle Lowry but were spurned when he signed a three-year deal with the Miami Heat.
Most distressing of all, Zion Williamson was hurt. Williamson broke his foot at a summer workout, the team revealed at last year’s media day, an injury that cost him his entire third NBA season.
Improbably, the Pelicans have managed to change their forecast from dreary to sunny.
Williamson signed a five-year contract extension over the summer, and New Orleans enters the 2022-23 season with playoff aspirations. The front office has put together one of the most talented rosters in the franchise’s undecorated history.
How did New Orleans get back on track? Here were four moves of significance.
Hiring Willie Green
Green came aboard as head coach in July 2021. He had to navigate turbulent waters in his first few months on the job. He lost 12 of his first 13 games.
Things began to flip in late November. Green was able to get buy-in from players like Josh Hart and Brandon Ingram, who had been miserable playing for Van Gundy. Green encouraged Hart to attack off the dribble, and he worked with Ingram on making quicker decisions when the ball was in his hands. Both players had the most impactful seasons of their NBA careers.
Green had a great grasp on when to push his team and when to loosen the reins in Year 1. Before taking over in New Orleans, Green said he believed the most important part about coaching was the human element.
“It’s doing everything from a place of love,” Green said. “People feel that. And if I can develop a relationship with players, coaches, front office members, and I can be critical but out of love, they can receive it better.”
The Memphis trade
Two of the major pieces the Pelicans got in their Jrue Holiday trade with Milwaukee in November 2020 — Eric Bledsoe and Steven Adams — didn’t fit well in New Orleans.
In July 2021, the Pelicans traded the pair to the Memphis Grizzlies for Jonas Valanciunas. The cost to shed their contracts and get back one of the NBA’s most productive low-post scorers was A) moving down seven slots in the 2021 draft (from No. 10 to No. 17); and B) a 2022 Los Angeles Lakers’ first-round pick (top-10 protected).
Valanciunas averaged nearly 18 points per game and helped New Orleans finish in the top five in offensive and defensive rebounding percentage. He also embraced the organization immediately, as he signed a two-year extension worth $30.1 million before the regular season started.
The Pelicans wound up not having to send the Lakers’ 2022 first-round pick to the Grizzlies. They hung onto it because of the Lakers’ implosion last season. That allowed them to take Dyson Daniels, a 6-foot-8 Australian guard, with the eighth selection in June’s draft.
The 2021 draft
In the Pelicans’ first-round playoff series against the Suns, nine of New Orleans’ players averaged double-digit minutes. Three of those players were rookies. Green felt so confident in New Orleans’ first-year players, one-third of his playoff rotation was comprised of them.
Trey Murphy, the No. 17 pick in last year’s draft, played a handful of games in the G League before regaining his spot in New Orleans’ rotation in March. Murphy had some big moments in the homestretch of the season. He scored 21 points in the second half of a win over the Lakers in March, and he hit four 3s in the Pelicans’ play-in tournament win against the Clippers in April.
Herb Jones, whom New Orleans took 35th, was one of the NBA’s best perimeter defenders in his first year. He finished third among all players in steals (130) and fourth in deflections (243). Green could not take him off the floor. He led a playoff team in total minutes, a rare accomplishment for a second-round pick.
Jose Alvarado, an undrafted free agent, became an important contributor off the bench as the season progressed. He was a steady hand at backup point guard who loved getting under opponents’ skin. Nothing symbolized the Pelicans punching above their weight more than Alvarado forcing “The Point God” himself, Chris Paul, into multiple eight-second violations in the playoffs.
Trading for CJ McCollum
After trading Holiday, the Pelicans lacked a guard who could reliably create his own shot. In February, they addressed this weakness by acquiring CJ McCollum, a player who can cook like a Michelin star chef with the ball in his hands.
It is highly unlikely the team would have made the playoffs without McCollum. He averaged 24.3 points and 5.8 assists in 26 regular-season games with New Orleans. He poured in 32 points in the Pelicans’ play-in tournament win over the Spurs.
Besides offensive firepower, McCollum provided leadership. He was willing to speak up when Williamson went MIA during the season, and he and Williamson have been able to develop a healthy working relationship since.
“Since we added CJ, from the moment I met him, he has been a great teammate,” Williamson said in July. “CJ has been in the league a long time. He has already put me on game to a few things for longevity. Like I said, the Pelicans are always there and giving advice and offering solutions for help. I feel like I’m a great situation right now.”