FOR AS LONG as I’ve followed basketball, I’ve never known a team to quietly exist in ambiguity in the NBA for as long as the New Orleans Pelicans have. With generational superstars coming few and far between, this team has had talent pass through its organization like a sail boat on Lake Pontchartrain. Whether it’s Chris Paul, Anthony Davis and the late “Pistol” Pete Maravich, or even lesser stars like Eric Gordon, Peja Stojakovic, or David West, one thing’s for certain; the talent this team has had has come and gone without much notice because of the lack of culture and identity that the team or fanbase have embraced.
With that being said, the 2019-2020 season can serve as an inflection point in the organization’s existence with the arrival of Zion Williamson and conversely, the departure of superstar Anthony Davis. Prominent sports writer Andrew Lopez (@andrewrobertlopez) had this to say about the Pelicans rise in popularity with the arrival of new players:
“Whenever you bring a generational-type talent like Zion Williamson on board – not to mention a social media darling like Lonzo Ball or to a lesser extent Brandon Ingram – the public eye is going to turn to you. Williamson is the most-hyped prospect to enter the NBA since LeBron James and it showed. It the first 24 hours after the Pelicans won the lottery, more than 3,000 season ticket packages were sold. Networks want eyes as well, which is why the national games are front-loaded.”
The buzz surrounding rookie Zion Williamson and polarizing prospect Lonzo Ball helped give the Pelicans an opportunity to be seen by the public, granting them 30 nationally televised games before Mardi Gras and approximately a 42% increase in social media exposure on Twitter and Instagram. In addition, while fan opinions might be more biased, they are just as motivated. At the Pelicans Trailblazers game last night, I had a chance to talk to Shreveport native and Pelicans fan Jay Brainard, who had this to say about the team now with respect to their historical reputation:
“I grew up on Chris Paul. When he left, I was crushed, but also expected it. The thing with a city like New Orleans is we have so much else going on we never really took the time to get into basketball. Cause of that, I don’t think we treat superstars well. Having the Smoothie King Center right next to the Superdome gives it kind of a second fiddle, or little brother feel to it.”
Maybe the Pelicans can’t establish the flashy, Hollywood culture of the Lakers or the tough, grind-house mentality of the Pistons, but they can definitely define a culture to embody in the near future. The additions they’ve made to their roster certainly help their cause.
In some ways, the tumultuous, disorganized make-up of the Pelicans roster at the moment resembles their time as an NBA franchise. Owned by Tom Benson (owner of the Saints) and improperly funded, the team started as the New Orleans Jazz, was reborn to Charlotte as a new organization, moved back to New Orleans and kept the Hornets team name, relocated to Oklahoma City after Katrina, and then moved back to New Orleans and took on the Pelicans team name. Confusing, I know. However, if they’re able to turn a corner and make the most of the opportunity they’ve been presented, they could garner enough media presence to become a household franchise and stay in New Orleans for good.
There is so much upside to this team, with two former number 2 picks oozing with potential and franchise player qualities (Lonzo Ball & Brandon Ingram), the most recent number 1 pick (Zion), and several savvy, high IQ veterans (Jrue Holiday, Derrick Favors, JJ Reddick, etc). However, their 5-9 record and early sea- son setbacks don’t tell that side of the story. Zion’s currently out with an injury, they’ve been battling small injuries to the rest of their team; it seems that the only entirely positive takeaway from the first month or so of the season has been Brandon Ingram’s play, averaging 20+ PPG on great shooting percentages.
The Pelicans now have the ability to create their own expectations and definition of success, whether it be the cohesiveness of their team chemistry, development of young players, or team record and ability to compete. That’s entirely up to the front office and the players. Recently acquired shooting guard Josh Hart and veteran Jrue Holiday spoke on Josh’s “The Light Harted Podcast”, where Jrue had this to say about this season and seasons to come: “We’re gonna make a deep playoff run at some point. I don’t know when, but we’re gonna. We got all the pieces. Just gotta start winning games.”
While the benign optimism of a team leader is expected, it’s commendable how inspired he seemed even after such a lackluster first month of the season. The Pelicans may be “relegated to obscurity” for the time being, but that doesn’t mean it has to remain this way. They now have a recipe to succeed on and off the court; it’s all about how they execute over the next couple of years.