With the NBA playoffs in full swing, there is no series shocking fans more than the one between the one seed Phoenix Suns and eight seed New Orleans Pelicans. Despite having the best record in the league all year, Phoenix finds themselves in a 1-1 series with a Pelicans team that barely made it through the play-in tournament.
But what does this playoff success mean about the Pelicans? Can this team contend in the west for years to come?
The McCollum Effect
Before the acquisition of CJ McCollum, the Pelicans were struggling, to say the least. New Orleans started 1-12 this season, two of them coming by a margin of over 30 points. Brandon Ingram was the only high volume scorer on the roster, and the burden of carrying a whole team did not work well with the young star.
At the trade deadline, the team struck a deal with the rebuilding Portland Trail Blazers for McCollum, a veteran with deep playoff experience. The deal paid instant dividends, going above .500 after the all star break and rose in the standings enough to make the play-in tournament.
The addition of the guard also opened up scoring for the aforementioned Ingram. In their recent victory over the Phoenix Suns, the small forward dropped 37 points, the leading scorer in the entire game. CJ McCollum provided the necessary leadership and scoring spark to take the Pelicans beyond the lottery and compete in the playoffs.
New Orleans Youth Movement
Not only does New Orleans have the roster to compete now, but they also have a young core that can lead them into the future. With their first selection in the 2021 draft, Ziare Williams, who is developing into a nice addition to the rotation.
Their second-round pick, Herb Jones, is a mainstay in the rotation and is a serviceable defender and spot up shooter at the young age of 23. Along with Jones and Williams, rookies Jose Alvarado and Trey Murphy have also gotten crucial playoff minutes, despite their low draft stock.
Even if one of these players develops into a star, the Pelicans are set up great for the future.
The Zion Factor
Of all the young ballers present on the Pelicans’ roster, one name is not present for their series against Phoenix, and it is the team’s brightest star. Zion Williamson has the potential to be the next face of the entire NBA, and is a top candidate to be the next superstar to leave their team.
However, with New Orleans’ unexpected success, there is reason to believe that Williamson will want to stay. When last seen on the court, the 2019 first overall pick averaged 27 points per game while leading the league in field goal percentage.
With him back in the lineup, New Orleans now has a legitimate big three and a supporting cast that can take them deep into the NBA calendar.
Assuming that the team is at full health, I predict New Orleans will make the playoffs, and do so without the assistance of the play-in tournament. I see them as a 5 seed, over the Dallas Mavericks, Utah Jazz, and Minnesota Timberwolves.