The NBA successfully introduced the play-in tournament last year to keep these late parts of the regular season entertaining and once again, it has led to a few interesting moves that otherwise would not have even been considered by front office executives.
The New Orleans Pelicans and the Sacramento Kings made “win-now” trades before last month’s trade deadline in an aggressive bid to secure the last play-in spot in the Western Conference. The Pelicans brought in the 30-year-old CJ McCollum while the Kings curiously swapped the up-and-coming Tyrese Haliburton for two-time NBA All-Star Domantas Sabonis.
Historically, these kinds of transactions which mortgage the future for a short-term boost were once reserved for fringe or middle-of-the-pack playoff teams looking to take a leap into the upper echelon of their respective conferences. Now, this mindset has trickled down to a lower tier and into the race for 10th place or, more specifically, the last play-in berth.
The effect of these tactics on the future of the teams that employ them remains to be seen, though it cannot be denied that, at least from the NBA head office’s perspective, it has successfully made things much more amusing for the league’s fans.
New Orleans and Sacramento crossed paths recently in a crucial match in the race for the play-in and an early test for their new-look rosters. The Pelicans pulled away in the second half for a statement 125-95 victory that extended their winning streak to three and, more importantly, improved their record to 26-36 to keep them in the much-coveted 10th spot of the Western Conference standings.
The newly-acquired McCollum, who mostly played shooting guard during his eight and a half campaigns with the Portland Trail Blazers, has seamlessly shifted to point guard in his first seven games with New Orleans. He entered their match with the Kings averaging 28 points, 5.9 rebounds, and 5.6 assists then proceeded to carve them up 17 points, six rebounds, and a season-high nine assists.
The boost from McCollum’s arrival is the latest twist in what has been one of the most interesting seasons in recent history, not just for the Pelicans, but among any of the teams in the NBA.
2019 first overall pick Zion Williamson has yet to play this season due to his prolonged rehabilitation from a foot injury. The uncertainty surrounding his health, coupled with his rumored preference to play elsewhere, looms largely over this team. His stature as a potential franchise cornerstone and the success of Ja Morant, who was picked right after him by the Memphis Grizzlies, has pushed this situation further into the mainstream media discourse.
Initially, Williamson’s absence and an early season injury to Brandon Ingram contributed to a 1-12 start to their season and many pegged them as a contender for the worst record in the league at that point in time. Instead, they rallied and slowly accumulated wins, eventually creeping up the standings and into contention for the last play-in spot with a rag-tag group.
This empowered them to make a trade for McCollum that has been successful so far over a limited sample size. They now have three players in McCollum, Ingram and Jonas Valanciunas who are borderline All-Stars on their best day and should be enough to help them complete their push for the play-in.
Typically, this kind of “Big Three” would be admonished by pundits for their low ceiling and potential in terms of playoff positioning. However, in this play-in era of the NBA, this group is classified as the product of an all-in move.
Their goal of qualifying for the play-in is well within reach, but it remains to be seen how this will affect their long term prospects. The addition of McCollum and his subsequent strong play may help convince Williamson, once he eventually suits up again, to fully commit to this situation–at least for next season.
If willing, McCollum and Ingram profile as the kind of ancillary scorers that can thrive off the version of Williamson that was named an NBA All-Star last season. The 21-year-old Williamson was a downhill force who paired his renowned athletic ability with an emerging playmaking skill set that made him impossible to cover.
Valanciunas may not fit in the long term here, given that he is more of a traditional center, though the recent emergence of the rim-running Jaxson Hayes makes him expendable. Still only 21 years old, the 6’11 Hayes has started the last four games for New Orleans as their power forward alongside Valanciunas in a surprisingly successful two center line-up that is reminiscent of a bygone era.
While the trade for McCollum is a risky move that takes away a potential high lottery pick from the Pelicans that can help them down the road, the exposure that Hayes and their fifth starter, rookie Herb Jones, receive in these games that have actual postseason stakes is a silver lining. They may not draft a flashy and highly-touted prospect in the upcoming draft, but the current young players that they have on their roster will benefit from it.
Everything will fall into place for them if, and that is a big “if” at the moment, Williamson can return to form and stick around in New Orleans. This supporting cast that they are building compliments him nicely and looks promising.
If the situation with Williamson does not pan out though in terms of health or his willingness to commit long-term, then this iteration of the Pelicans is doomed to continue their franchise’s dance in and out of the league’s middle class. The backdrop could be worse, although it is far from what they expected when they drafted Williamson almost three years ago.