Zion Williamson had thrown in 36 points on just 19 field goal attempts in a 127-116 waxing of Philadelphia, and it appeared New Orleans had put the pieces together.
“New Orleans is real,” one league exec told Heavy Sports at the time. “When they have their main guys, they’re legit. When they’ve got CJ (McCollum) and Zion and Brandon Ingram playing, that team’s legit.”
Finally, followers of the club could laissez les bons temps rouler.
Alas, the good times rolled into a familiar wall two games later when Williamson injured his hamstring. From there, the Pels were, well, hamstrung. Zion did not play another game, and they skidded to ninth in the West and a home loss to Oklahoma City in a play-in game.
Fortunately for the franchise and where it goes from here, head of basketball ops David Griffin is unlikely to ever need treatment for delusion.
“It was tough,” he said of the tumble in a conversation with Heavy Sports, “obviously part of it being driven by injury. But even when we were No. 1 in the West and semi-healthy, we still didn’t have the whole group together. So we feel like there’s a lot of untapped potential there, but we’ve got to do a better job of having people be available.
“And also, honestly, there’s not enough of a sample size to know that we’re any good, so we’re really anxious to find out what we’re capable of.”
Zion Williamson’s Health Critical to Pels Success
That capability is inextricably tied to Williamson, who has played just 29 games since the end of the 2020-21 season. He’s an All-Star when he plays; he’s a screaming void when he does not. Earlier this week, the 6-foot-6 23-year-old truck admitted he needs to lose weight to ease the pressure on his lower extremities — perhaps settle for being merely stocky.
His boss understands that change is needed.
“I think first of all he’s trying to do the right things,” Griffin said as the Pelicans summer league entry was taking the court here. “I think when you start from that place, that’s good.
“He’s got incredible potential to be sort of game-changing for even the league as a whole. But at the same time the volatility around the injury situation has been really severe. So at this point it’s going to be a function of how can we get him in the best place to succeed, and what’s he willing to do to ensure that happens? And I think right now his head’s in the right place, and we’ll just have to hope for the best.”
‘We’ve Got the Right People on the Bus’
Therein lies the frustration for New Orleans. In basketball, with just five players on the game board at a time, one injury can have an oversized effect.
“I think every team’s susceptible to that,” Griffin said. “The thing that’s challenging about us is we had eight guys miss 10 games or more, 15 games or more even. And when it’s that much of your roster, basically what we did was, our stars went down and then we rode the wheels off the rest of the guys.
“So we’ve got to be in a situation where we can keep a group healthy, and part of that’s being more mindful on the front end of how we manage a season. There’s some things that are in our control that we need to do better. I think we’ll learn how to do those things, but we feel like we’ve got a whole lot of work to do. We just feel like we’ve got the right people on the bus trying to figure it out.”
The question is whether the bus can make the trip without frequent stops at urgent care facilities. In the light of summer, Griffin is optimistic.
“I think we’re excited about where we’re at as a group,” he said. “We’ve got a group of guys that really enjoy playing with each other, enjoy playing for our coaching staff (led by the estimable Willie Green). We’ve made some changes to the staff that we’re excited about. James Borrego’s going to give us a great deal. Being able to get Jordan (Hawkins) in the draft was important to us from a shooting standpoint. The Cody Zeller signing’s big for us in the frontcourt. So we’re optimistic. We feel like we’re moving in the right direction. And being able to get Herb Jones on the contract we did is a real plus for us.”
Being able to get their stars on the court will be the greater challenge — and, if successful, reward — for the Pelicans.