The Pelicans rolled into Friday’s games with the third-best record in the NBA’s Western Conference and one major “if.”
New Orleans is seen as a serious threat to crash the contenders’ party on the left side of the country… if they can attain and maintain a measure of good health. The Pels are a more-than-respectable 24-14 with Zion Williamson missing nine games (and more to come with a strained hamstring) and Brandon Ingram out for 23 of those 38 (with no definitive timetable for a return from his toe injury).
Even with all the uncertainty, the club seems to have established a standard of play. NBA execs point to the acquisition of CJ McCollum from Portland 11 months ago as a major cohesive factor.
“I think they turned their s*** around when CJ came on board, just because he’s such a pro and he’s such a legitimate scorer,” said one.
With younger stars maturing and others accepting roles, the Pelicans are looking more legitimate overall.
But in the playoffs?
“Even more in the playoffs,” an opposing general manager told Heavy Sports. “New Orleans is real. When they have their main guys, they’re legit. When they’ve got CJ and Zion and Brandon Ingram playing, that team’s legit.
“They’ve got decent role players. (Jonas) Valanciunas gives them a presence against some teams more than others, and then Herb Jones has become a decent player with his defensive length and he’s making some shots periodically. That’s a good team.”
A good team led by a very good coach. Willie Green worked hard to carve out a 12-year NBA career as a player, a 6-foot-4 guard fighting through an early knee injury to succeed. He’s now in his second year in the top position after three years as an assistant at Golden State and Phoenix.
“I love Willie Green,” said one league executive. “When teams were going over coaching candidates a couple of years ago, the intel on him was that, ‘Oh, he’s quiet.’ And I’m like, ‘He’s not quiet. He just doesn’t talk just to talk like most coaches do.’
“The guy’s an intense competitor. He was a fierce competitor as a player. High character individual. I root for his success. He’s a hard-working, credible person, and I think that translates to a team. He’s a really good coach now, and he’s going to be even better.”
But even with Green’s direction, the main actors still have to be able to take the stage. In other words, the Pelicans ain’t flyin’ without Zion.
“Yeah, if they’re going to win playoff series, they’re going to need a healthy Zion for sure,” the exec said. “And they need a healthy Ingram and they need a healthy CJ McCollum. Without any one of those guys, they’re going to be in trouble.”
Timberwolves in Limbo?
In Minnesota, there is question whether good health will be enough to put the Timberwolves on the right path. The early returns on pairing 7-foot-1 Rudy Gobert with 6-11 Karl-Anthony Towns were not great on a number of fronts, and the latter has now been out more than a month with a calf strain.
They were 10-11 with Towns and are 9-10 without him after beating the Clippers on Friday.
“They’re going against the grain of how the game is being played nowadays,” said one league source. “The problem there is defense. Gobert goes right into his spot and does what he normally does. Karl-Anthony Towns now has to defend on the perimeter, and that is a whole ‘nother world for him.
“You can go against the grain, but you’ve got to have the ability to dominate within the context of what you saw yourself playing. They’ve got to become a dominant rebounding team and use the presence of Gobert to become a damn good defensive team. Those are the things they were looking to improve, and it’s clear they’re still, at best, a work in progress. But sometimes you may have to take a step back before you can take a step forward.”
Celtics’ Road Follies Past
Dribbling down memory lane, we came across a couple of interesting anecdotes from a 2004 Celtic road trip while locating the Ricky Davis-Monty McCutchen moment mentioned in Thursday’s story.
Before tipoff on December 13th of that year, Paul Pierce walked up to the Clippers’ public address announcer in what was then known as Staples Center.
“It’s Paul Pierce,” he told the PA guy, drawing the name out slowly. “Get your tongue warmed up.”
The Truth was a prophet. He scored 33 points in the Celts’ double-OT win, but he got some extra mentions of his name from the six fouls that limited him to just 27 minutes.
Four nights prior to that game, the Celtics were in Portland for their only national television exposure of the season. Because of that latter TV circumstance, some of the timeouts were of greater length than usual.
The Celts had broken their huddle and were heading back onto the court when referee Greg Willard signaled for them to go back to the bench. TNT was still in a commercial.
“Oh, c’mon,” said Doc Rivers, then in his first season as Celtic coach. “I ran out of stuff to say.”