Future bright in New Orleans as similarities between Suns and Pelicans obvious
The end to the 2021-22 season for the New Orleans Pelicans came abruptly and it was dramatic.
The Pelicans led by 10 points at the half (58-48), led 85-82 going to the fourth quarter and even led 104-103 with two minutes left in the game.
A championship caliber team then showed its mettle in the final two minutes, led by a former New Orleans star in Chris Paul who was as close to perfect as you can possibly get as the Suns emerged victorious 115-109 before a sellout crowd at Smoothie King Center to win the series four games to two.
New Orleans fans can take comfort in knowing that it took a perfect shooting game from Paul, foul trouble for CJ McCollum and Devin Booker returning earlier than anticipated for the Suns to fend off the Pelicans.
The loss hurts but the experience gained in the process for the Pelicans was invaluable.
You have to crawl before you can walk.
You have to walk before you can run.
These Pelicans crawled out of the gate, got to the walking stage by mid-season and were running by late in the season with the addition of McCollum and getting Brandon Ingram healthy and playing at a very high level.
Jonas Valanciunas was simply outstanding all season long.
Trey Murphy emerged later in the season to be the kind of player the Pelicans hoped he would be when investing a first-round draft pick in him.
Herb Jones was a Godsend, one of the very best rookies in the NBA and he has a tremendous future.
Jose Alvarado was a great story, an absolute steal as an undrafted player.
Larry Nance Jr. was an important addition and provides energy and intelligence off the bench.
Naji Marshall was a solid bench contributor and when called on, Willy Hernangomez performed competently.
Jaxson Hayes showed some growth but still has a way to go to become a threat on the offensive end of the floor.
Kira Lewis will look to return from injury to be part of the rotation.
Devonte Graham had his moments but would seem to have a cloudy future in New Orleans with his large contract.
Then, there is the ongoing subject of Zion Williamson, who did not play this season and was the subject of much conjecture.
Will Williamson ever remain healthy enough to be counted on?
Does Williamson want to be here long-term?
Is Williamson the kind of person and player you want to build around and to be the face of the franchise?
At one time, a huge mural of Williamson stared down everyone who made their way to Smoothie King Center, dotting the wall of the Champions Square parking lot facing the arena.
That is no longer there.
The stars are now Ingram and McCollum.
Can Williamson reclaim that status?
Poor messaging by the front office of the team led many to believe that Williamson would play early and often this season.
Poor messaging by Williamson and those surrounding him saw him disappear for months.
Williamson has not shared any message publicly since training camp.
A source close to Williamson tells me that Williamson and his camp are impressed with Willie Green and the direction of the franchise.
Is that enough to quell his concerns about moving on to a bigger market?
If Williamson buys in and if his teammates buy into him, the ceiling for these Pelicans is quite high.
If Williamson does not buy in and his teammates are lukewarm about him, the ceiling could still be high through a trade which could bring significant assets to New Orleans.
Here is hoping the former is true, as opposed to the latter.
In 2020, the Phoenix Suns were a team struggling to find their identity at 26-39.
Then, the concept of The Bubble was planned and enacted.
Then, the Suns awakened.
The switch was flipped.
The light came on.
Monty Williams saw his young team go 8-0 in Orlando, playing superb basketball but narrowly missing the playoffs with a 34-39 record.
Then came 2021.
The promise shown in The Bubble was fully realized as the Suns, led by Paul and emerging stars in Devin Booker and DeAndre Ayton won the Western Conference and lost in the NBA finals to Milwaukee.
Williams was a solid coach in New Orleans and was unjustly and unwisely fired in 2015 following a winning season and playoff appearance.
On his next career stop in Oklahoma City, Williams suffered through the enormous tragedy of losing his loving wife, displayed amazing grace and class through the pain and emerged on the other side of it as an assistant with Philadelphia before Phoenix wisely hired him as its head coach in 2019.
Williams has improved dramatically as a game coach since he began in New Orleans in 2010. He connects with his players as well as any coach in the NBA. That is obvious, based on the way his team plays and the respect they show for their coach and vice versa.
Upon his hire in 2019, one of Williams’ first moves was to hire Willie Green as a top assistant coach.
Green had played for Williams in New Orleans in 2010-11.
The impression made on Williams by Green was lasting.
Their relationship is lasting and will always be, despite the fact that Green is now coaching a rival Western Conference team that may soon rival his Suns.
It was a moving experience to watch the love between Williams and Green following the game six loss for the Pelicans.
It was equally moving to see virtually every Phoenix player embrace Green and the hugs were genuine, heartfelt.
It was moving to listen to Paul talk eloquently and with great praise about New Orleans, the city, the people and about his former teammate and assistant coach.
Now, we will sit back and watch what David Griffin can do to improve his roster for the 2022-23 season.
Another good draft would certainly help significantly.
Selling the franchise, Green and the future to Williamson is most important.
A healthy Williamson will be like adding the top pick in the draft all over again to next season’s Pelicans.
Imagine Valanciunas being a fourth option offensively.
That is an enticing thought.
The Pelicans emerged this season behind the addition of a veteran leader in McCollum with a group of largely young but talented players.
Based on the way the Pelicans finished this season, they are squarely on the bubble between being an also-ran and being a winning team that can genuinely contend in the Western Conference.
Based on the way the Suns finished the 2019-20 season, they were squarely on the bubble between being an also-ran and being a winning team that could genuinely contend in the Western Conference.
Phoenix did just that in the 2020-21 season and has carried that forward.
New Orleans could do just that in the 2022-23 season and carry it forward.
The comparisons, the similarities between the two franchises are clear and cannot be ignored.
The Suns are a good model.
The Pelicans are following that model in their quest to become a model franchise.
Pelicans fans are hoping for a similar result to the Suns for their team moving forward.
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Born and raised in the New Orleans area, CCSE CEO Ken Trahan has been a sports media fixture in the community for nearly four decades. Ken started NewOrleans.com/Sports with Bill Hammack and Don Jones in 2008. In 2011, the site became SportsNOLA.com. On August 1, 2017, Ken helped launch CrescentCitySports.com. Having accumulated national awards/recognition (National Sports Media Association, National Football…