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New Orleans Has Something to Believe In, With or Without Zion

Even with their best player sidelined, a spunky Pelicans team is giving the top-seeded Suns all they can handle and providing hope for the future

Getty Images/Ringer illustration

A few minutes after clinching the Pelicans’ first playoff appearance in four years, Brandon Ingram gets a rare interview in front of a national audience on TNT’s Inside the NBA. Following a 30-point performance that helped New Orleans beat the Clippers in the West’s final play-in game, he’s peppered with questions about making his first postseason and how his team saved its season after a 1-12 start. His teammates Jose Alvarado and Naji Marshall appear three minutes later to interrupt the interview and big up the scrawny star. And then Ingram takes off his headset, reciprocates the love, and makes a bee line down the tunnel at Crypto.com Arena with his arms spread like an airplane, ready to glide into the spotlight.

“At that moment I was thinking about how I’ve never been in the postseason,” he tells me a day later. “Every time I was watching these games on TV and now you get a chance to showcase talent on one of the biggest stages.”

The Pelicans took a windy road to get to the playoffs. Zion Williamson hasn’t played in almost a year because of a broken foot, and the question of when he might return has loomed all season. A few questionable moves last offseason gave way to a rough start, with New Orleans stuck at the bottom of the West through the season’s first three months. But a trade deadline deal for veterans CJ McCollum and Larry Nance Jr., along with the impact of new coach Willie Green and a couple of key young players, turned the Pelicans into the hottest team in the second half, with wins in seven of its last 10 games.

Now, after splitting the first two games against the top-seeded Suns, the Pelicans are eager to show that they belong alongside the league’s best teams—and that, because of the camaraderie and strong culture they’ve built along the way, they can hang in the upper echelon long past these playoffs.

“We’re the real deal,” Nance tells me. “And this team can be a force that will last years to come.”

When the trade with the Trail Blazers happened two days before the February deadline, the Pelicans were 10 games under .500 and Nance was high above the clouds, on a flight to Chicago to undergo surgery on his right knee. His phone began to buzz—“nice little tweet notifications,” he says—and he says there was an “initial shock.” He called his wife, Hailey, then McCollum, who assured Nance he’d be in good hands.

“Hey, I’ve been in winning teams my whole career,” Nance recalls McCollum saying. “Trust me, this is a good situation.”

“For whatever reason,” Nance says, “the confidence and the level he said it at was just like, ‘OK. I’m rocking with you.’”

A few days later, Nance was holed up in his room at the Peninsula Hotel, recovering from the arthroscopic procedure that would sideline him for another month, when he got a text from an unknown number. It was Trajan Langdon, New Orleans’s general manager. “I came to Chicago,” the text read. “Would love to see you, see if you’re doing all right.” So Nance got his crutches, went down an elevator, and met his new boss in the lobby for lunch.

Langdon could relate to Nance. Not only had he played for the Cleveland Cavaliers, with whom Nance spent three and a half seasons, he says he also had two surgeries on his knees.

“I know it’s a tough time for any professional athlete,” Langdon says. “I just don’t know what’s going to happen. As an organization, we just show support for our players when they go through those tough moments. We didn’t know Larry that well, he had just gotten traded, so for us, it was important to be there to show him support once he became a Pelican.”

The two talked about the injury and Nance’s future in New Orleans. By the end of the outing, a lasting impression was made.

“For me, that goes a long way,” says Nance, who had been traded to Portland just six months prior. “That level of personability and the human aspect of it goes a long way. So these guys definitely understand that aspect of it and, like I said, we got really good people.”

At the time of the deal, Nance had been inactive because of the knee injury for more than a month. But Nance had been on the Pelicans’ radar for some time. McCollum had been a target even longer. “From the time I got the job in New Orleans,” says vice president of basketball operations David Griffin, who took over in the spring of 2019. But McCollum wasn’t available—until the Blazers decided to rebuild.

“There’s an irony in the fact that the only reason we were in a position to get him is that one of my better friends in the league, Neil Olshey, was fired in Portland,” Griffin says. “Because he was never going to trade CJ.”

Before he executed the deal, Griffin sought the opinion of Ingram, the longest-tenured player on the roster. “Brandon was very much in favor of the idea of making a play like that,” Griffin says. “He was a fan of CJ, which I think is really the most important part of it. It’s not unlike Steph receiving Kevin Durant—that’s Brandon Ingram’s locker room.”

“He had it set in stone of who he wanted,” Ingram adds. “I just listened to him. So my initial thought was, Griff’s going to do something good because he knows this guy. How he’s shaped this organization. We know that we’re going to get a really, really good guy. A really, really good player.”

After McCollum’s addition, the Pelicans found new life. During an eight-game stretch toward the end of the regular season, they went 6-2, beating out the Lakers and Spurs for ninth place in the West and winning two play-in games to claim the eighth seed. “The whole point of coming here was to compete,” McCollum tells me.

McCollum’s playmaking and dynamic scoring has obviously helped; he’s averaged 24.3 points as a Pelican. But he’s also provided leadership for an organization that’s put an emphasis on character in their acquisitions but needed someone to galvanize them.

“He’s vocal,” Griffin says. “There’s not a whole lot of chatter; it’s a quiet room. And so what CJ’s done is, I think, give everybody a comfort in using their voice. And he’s such a good team-first guy that I think he’s put everybody in a comfortable space.”

He’s also been a willing teacher.

“He’s there for anything,” Ingram says. “I always have a listening ear, especially for the ones that really know the game. He’s been there. He’s been telling me throughout games what to do. He’s been telling me after games what he sees.”

Despite its progress with McCollum in the fold, New Orleans got a quick reminder of how far it still has to go in Game 1 on Sunday against the Suns. Phoenix took an early double-digit lead and cruised to victory. Chris Paul provided a vintage performance, scoring 19 of his game-high 30 points in the fourth quarter, while Phoenix’s third-ranked defense held the Pelicans to just 38 percent from the field.

“Regular-season basketball is checkers, playoff basketball is chess,” says Nance, who went to the Finals with the Cavs in 2018. “There are adjustments—there are so many in-game adjustments. We have four different coverages that we can possibly switch through in a given night almost for each guy. So there’s just so much more thinking and more mental fortitude that goes into each game and each possession.”

In times like these, it’s hard not to think about how good the Pelicans could be already if it had its best player on the floor. Though he’s reportedly now playing five-on-five against New Orleans staffers, Williamson has spent the series dishing out high-fives on the sideline.

“I think I saw something—ESPN or Bleacher Report, whoever it was—came out with their rankings of futures, right? And I think the Pelicans were 21,” Nance tells me a few hours before Game 2. “That’s a joke. That’s a joke.”

Then he directs his gaze at Williamson, who’s starting a post-shootaround workout.

“This team is here and this team is for real,” he says. “And we have a top-10 asset that hasn’t even touched the court yet.”

According to ESPN, Williamson and the organization have a “difference of opinion” on whether he is healthy enough to play. It’s one of several incidents since Williamson was drafted no. 1 in 2019 that suggest a complicated relationship between the team and the third-year big man. It took two weeks for Zion to get in touch with McCollum after the blockbuster trade, a fact the veteran guard readily shared with TNT during All-Star Weekend. Williamson has also not-so-subtly been showcasing his dunking ability for cameras.

McCollum went on to defend his young teammate, and Williamson’s stepfather, Lee Anderson, has said Zion is happy with Green and the team’s addition. But it’s likely that the extension-eligible Williamson and the franchise will need to decide their future together without the 21-year-old having played a game this season.

Zion could be the missing piece to the puzzle. The Pelicans have three rookies in their playoff rotation: Alvarado, Trey Murphy III, and starter Herb Jones, who’s already a candidate for the All-Defensive Team. Jaxson Hayes, picked seven spots after Williamson, starts in the frontcourt. And while McCollum has picked up right where he left off last postseason with the Blazers, scoring 25 and 23 points in the first two games, Ingram is hitting another level. In a shocking Game 2 win on Tuesday that saw Devin Booker leave early with a hamstring injury, Ingram had 37 points, 11 rebounds, and nine assists.

“I’m more excited for the guys than I am for myself,” he tells me afterward. “I’m doing it with the guys I really love. It’s just fun. I can’t describe it for real.”

Ingram arrived in New Orleans three years ago, when he was traded from the Lakers in a deal for Anthony Davis. He’s since grown into an All-Star, and found a home along the way.

“I’ve always looked at it as an opportunity to showcase myself,” he says. “As an opportunity to bond with players. Because I come from a close-knit family and it obviously shows when I go and hug my teammate and I’m shaking my teammate’s hand. We all have a really, really good bond.”

With reports saying that Booker has suffered a Grade 1 hamstring strain, possibly keeping him out for two to three weeks, the Pelicans have an opportunity to do more than simply announce their arrival. A win over Phoenix would not only be the fifth time that an 8-seed has upset a 1-seed since the playoff format expanded to 16 teams, it would be just the third series victory for New Orleans since the franchise’s inception in 2002-03. But Ingram would rather we all keep overlooking them for now.

“I just want them to continue to stay asleep,” he says. “Continue to sleep on us and see what we bring.”