The date is November 12, 2021.
The New Orleans Pelicans have just lost to the NBA Championship favorite, the Brooklyn Nets, 120-112. Jonas Valanciunas scored 20 points and grabbed 12 rebounds, but tonight it was in vain – he’s basically been all alone out there for several games. Zion Williamson has yet to take the court, and may not for several weeks. Brandon Ingram is nursing his own injury. Kevin Durant and James Harden combined for 77 points, led by Harden’s 39. Garrett Temple and Nickeil Alexander-Walker are likely stretched too thin as starters, those two joined by Valanciunas, Josh Hart and Devontae Graham.
The Pelicans are now 1-12. We don’t know if Zion wants to be here, yet it’s likely he is the only avenue for this franchise to turn around.
Did you enjoy rummaging through that time capsule? Because that feels like several years ago, not several months. It was difficult to imagine this team would take us on the ride we just had, enjoying the show put on by perhaps the most enjoyable New Orleans basketball team I can remember.
It wasn’t just about winning with this crew – and hey, let’s face it, there haven’t been plenty of winning clubs in franchise history. But there’s rarely been such a time where the arrow has pointed up in all facets to such a degree. This team is young. This team is fearless. This is a team that refuses to lay down and will fight you till the bitter end.
And this team is FUN.
Stars are stars, of course, and we have those. Brandon Ingram was one of the breakout stars of the postseason. He made difficult shots look easy, much like the aforementioned Durant has done for years – defenders contest his shots, but more often than not to no avail. CJ McCollum controls games like few guards we’ve had over the years. Valanciunas wolfs down rebounds while spreading the court and scoring on the interior.
But where the Pelicans really turned heads – where did this bottomless pit of determined role-players come from?
Jose Alvarado hiding in the corner, sneaking in to steal the ball from an unsuspecting point guard, getting in a future Hall of Famer’s face and frustrating him all the while. Jaxson Hayes bouncing around like a giant pogo stick to challenge shots. Trey Murphy earning more and more trust as the season went on, bringing energy and long-range shooting. Naji Marshall attacking the basket from the wing. Larry Nance Jr. – the latest of the group to arrive – creating extra shot, after extra shot, after extra shot through his work on the glass.
And then, of course, there’s Herb Jones.
For America at large, Alvarado was maybe the young Pelican role player that most loudly announced his arrival, due to his back-and-forth with Chris Paul in the Suns series.
But Jones won New Orleans’ heart months ago, and he keeps winning it. Of all the moments that the team’s brought us this season and of late, the ones that hype me most are when Jones flies toward a 3-point shooter to swat his shot – and by that I mean THROW his shot into the stands. “Not on Herb” was not just a catchphrase: he made everyone he guarded work hard, and more often than not he was defending a star.
Now, instead of Williamson being this team’s only hope, he’s someone to dream on – his 27 points per game on 61 percent shooting is something to add to an already successful mix.
And – the cherry on the sundae – this is also a team with a wealth of draft capital being shipped in from out west. The Los Angeles Lakers effectively tanked for the Pelicans this season, and New Orleans could have a chance to add another high lottery pick, ping pong balls willing, in two weeks if fortune smiles upon them. If the Lakers’ play this season is any indication of the future, there could be more where that came from.
I guess the lesson is, things can change in a hurry, just as they did from that November night. Just ask the Pelicans.
Or the Nets, for that matter.