Sports

The Pelicans have finally taken flight

Zion and C.J.... the best they can be!

Zion and C.J…. the best they can be!
Image: Getty Images

Bourbon Street in New Orleans exists in a loop. Every night the street clicks back into a state of debauchery, repeated with perverse precision. Lonely men drift in and out of red neon strip clubs holding cans of Natty Light. Police on horses stroll between sleeping bums, screaming preachers, pools of urine, and pizza boxes. In a place where sin is legal, cops are as useless as an ashtray on a bike. There is no controlling chaos. Bourbon and Canal Street are only a fraction of what New Orleans has to offer as a city. New Orleans was the largest slave market in the United States. This infamy created a melting pot of cultures, religions, and traditions. Today, the city is one of the densest cultural hubs in the country, offering visitors upper-echelon experiences in dining, contemporary art, and mysticism.

People come to Bourbon Street to act out their depraved imaginations before returning home to mediocrity. It’s both a tourist trap and a Caligula-themed simulation. And while Bourbon Street is one of the last places freaks can fly their flags, one element isn’t noticeably absent. You’re more likely to find a public bathroom than a group of people donning Pelicans jerseys. And why would you? Since arriving in the city from Charlotte in 2002 —first the Hornets, now the Pelicans — the team’s success has been as dark as Bourbon Street’s ethos.

Throughout its 20-year history, the team has been to the playoffs eight times, and has only gotten out of the first round twice. Even worse, the Pelicans have been one of the worst perpetrators of drafting then trading superstar talent. First it was Chris Paul, who came to the team as the fourth overall pick in the 2005 NBA draft. He took the team to the playoffs twice during his six seasons in town. It was apparent early that Paul was special. He was the best all-around guard since John Stockton, and seemed to have a limitless ceiling. By his third season, he averaged 21 ppg while leading the league in assists (11.6 per game) and steals (2.7 per game). But the front office failed to surround Paul with enough talent to keep him content in a small market. He was traded to the Clippers in 2011 for an underwhelming package of role players.

Next came Anthony Davis, the No. 1 pick in the 2012 Draft. He’s another Top 75 Player of all time and still one of the best big men in the NBA with the Los Angeles Lakers, but, as with Paul, New Orleans lost Davis, too. The Pels again failed to build a contender around their superstar. Their best attempt was trading for the problematic DeMarcus Cousins, a talented but temperamental forward who had only known losing in Sacramento. Cousins was a free-agent-to-be that following summer, and when he tore his ACL in a January game — subsequently missing the playoffs —the Pels let him walk that summer for nothing. By the end of the following season, with Davis again the sole All-Star on the roster, he demanded a trade. As the second generational talent to leave the franchise in less than a decade, they were at least able to snag a better package for their superstar this time and valuable draft capital.

Before the 2019 NBA Draft, the Pelicans had a six percent chance of winning the lottery outright. But when it comes to the draft, at least, New Orleans has always had a bit of luck. They won the prize pick that year, Duke superstar Zion Williamson, the most heralded talent since LeBron James in 2003. Williamson was Herculian his first two seasons, averaging 27 ppg (61 peercent FG) by his second season. Weight issues and a fractured fifth metatarsal in his foot kept him out of the 2021-2022 season. During his season-long rehab, the detractors came out of the woodwork. Many wondered if Zion would ever stay healthy. Memes regarding Zion’s weight gain littered the Twitterverse. Trade aggregators began building what it would look like for the Pels to lose their third superstar. Then, in the middle of last season, current GM David Griffin pulled off the franchise’s best trade by acquiring C.J. McCollum from the Portland Trailblazers without giving up key pieces. This was the type of trade the Pels were usually on the losing end of. It was only the second time New Orleans had “won” a trade (Cousins being the first).

 McCollum’s leadership and talent were felt immediately. The Pelicans finished last season with a 36-46 record — good for ninth in the Western Conference — and a chance to make the playoffs through the Play-in Tournament. McCollum paired with All-Star Brandon Ingram to form a formidable core along with criminally underrated center Jonas Valančiūnas, scoring guard Devonte’ Graham, and tough-as-nails rebounding maestro Larry Nance Jr. Remember the aforementioned draft luck? Griffin nailed the 2021 Draft, by nabbing defensive ace Herb Jones (35th pick), and sharpshooter Trey Murphy III (17th pick), while also signing gnarly undrafted guard Jose Alvarado. Suddenly, the Pelicans were competitive. After making the Play-In Tournament last postseason, they took the Phoenix Suns to a dragged-out six-game series, proving the veterans and the rookies had gelled into a legitimate threat for the future under promising young coach Willie Green.

 For the first time in franchise history, New Orleans can claim an elite front office, coach, core, and superstar. This is the best the Pels have ever been set up for the present and future. All the pieces have lined up to give New Orleans a team that matches the prominence of the city’s culture and history. With Ingram and McCollum as an All-Star level second and third options, and complimentary pieces providing depth and offensive diversity, all the Pels need was their first-option centerpiece to return to health and complete the championship puzzle. Look out, here comes Zion.

Judging by the Pels’ first preseason game, the power forward came into this season in the best shape of his young career. Adding Zion to a talented core puts this team in a rarefied place they have never been before: Contenders. The Pels should challenge at the top of the West along with the Nuggets, Clippers, and reigning champion Warriors.

 After a history of losing two of the best players the game has ever seen to trades, the Pelicans have finally built a surrounding cast around its superstar Zion that will make it difficult for him to ever bolt. He signed a five-year rookie extension worth $193 million this summer. And while signing an extension is not a sign he is destined to spend his entire career with the Pels, it does give the team a five-year timeline to show Zion they are committed to putting the past behind them and finally give Bourbon Street a reason to celebrate something as much as it doess debauchery.

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