Regardless of how the next few months unfold, David Griffin sounds a lot like a top-flight executive who is at peace with his first season at the helm of an up-and-coming NBA team but shows a particular bounce in his step about what’s next.
With Adam Silver not expected to make a decision on the remainder of the 2019-20 season until sometime in May at the earliest, Griffin went ahead and enumerated the highs and lows of the completed portion of the schedule to reporters on a conference call yesterday, but he also advised that we pay close attention to what’s developed since league play was suspended last month to COVID-19.
“I think it’s fairly clear with the things that have come out of this group since the shutdown, we’ve got really good high-character humans here,” Griffin said. “The culture here has changed a great deal for the better, and I think players love being a part of what we’re building.”
Griffin ultimately classified this New Orleans Pelicans season as a success based more on the off-the-court developments than anything accomplished on the hardwood. In proving that point, Griffin singled out recent donations made by JJ Redick and Zion Williamson in his opening statement to media, which he felt mimicks owner Gayle Benson’s typical generosity well within her New Orleans community.
“To that end, really proud of Mrs. Benson in the fashion that she always has, stepped to the forefront and made sure people were taken care of in different ways in the community,” Griffin said. “As part of her organization, sort of following her lead, really proud of what JJ Redick has done, along with his wife, Chelsea, in giving $150,000 to the Lineage Logistics plan which is working with Second Harvest Food Bank. Obviously, Zion Williamson was the first of us to jump out there and make sure that people were being cared for. To see a 19-year-old man want to be a leader in the community to the level that he does was certainly heartwarming and makes us feel like we’re doing a pretty solid job of growing the culture in the way we want to, and sort of modeling a lot of what Mr. Benson and Mrs. Benson were able to achieve on the Saints side.”
Of course, there was plenty of positives to draw from the on-the-court side of things, too, even if circumstance goes on to prevent the Pelicans from rising to the challenge or falling short in their quest towards the playoffs.
“In terms of (wanting) to play meaningful games coming down the stretch, I think we feel like we will have been cheated out of that potentially if we don’t get to play, but I think we were very clearly in that space,” Griffin said. “We were in a position where we were very clearly going to play meaningful games.”
Despite owning a losing record of 28-36 overall, the Pelicans were very much trending in the right direction, a playoff trajectory, if you believe they would have caught the Grizzlies and warded off the rest of the competition for the 8th seed in the Western Conference as did many projection models.
Since December 18th, the Pelicans have won 22 of 36 games and they sport a top 10 offense and defense. In short, they’re a radically different team than the one which limped out of the gates and then suffered through a franchise-worst 13-game losing streak.
“Once Derrick Favors came back after missing that month basically, we started to sort of have a defense that was rooted in a much better place,” Griffin said. “I think we’ve started to show some growth at that point, and that growth continued as we led into the period where Zion came back and that sort of became our third season.”
Zion Williamson, undoubtedly the finest first-year player who has little chance of catching Ja Morant for the Rookie of the Year honors because he missed the first 44 games of this season, exceeded many expectations. He scored with such ease, dominating the paint unlike anything ever witnessed previously in the league, and made highlights commonplace. However, he was not the lone Pelican impressing onlookers.
“Brandon Ingram was carrying us offensively, he was an All-Star,” Griffin said. “Zion comes back and he had to assume kind of a less ball-dominant role, a little more ancillary role, and he did so almost seamlessly. Lonzo Ball continued to get better throughout the season, really starting in December. I think you’ve started to see him crescendo in a positive direction since Zion came back. Nicolò Melli was probably – along with Lonzo – the player who was most impacted by Zion’s absence in the first place because he’s such an important compliment for us as a high basketball IQ floor-spacing big that plays well off of the thrust that Zion creates in our offense. I think you’ve seen him start to really blossom, show himself as well. Josh Hart, what he does as a junkyard dog and a defense-first guy…that matters more to Zion because we don’t struggle to score and we need to put more focus on defense. I think the thing that everybody sees is that Jrue Holiday has gotten better literally month after month this year. He was playing at a really, really high level when the (season) was shut down.”
That’s a mouthful of praise aimed at five players not named Zion and yet one shouldn’t get the sense that Griffin was overly biased in his breakdowns. The Pelicans are more than just a generational talent that’s going to blossom further in time; Ingram is another foundational piece and Ball may not be far behind. They’re just a young team filled with immense potential while surrounded by savvy but highly effective veterans.
“The one thing I think is really clear as we’ve gone through the process is from doing these encore broadcasts of games is that we have a young core that’s exciting, we have a team that I think is on the precipice of being very good, and just scratching the surface of what we’re capable of, so we’re optimistic if we are able to re-start in any form or fashion that we’re going to be a team that’s one to be reckoned with.”
New Orleans hasn’t lived up to billing for the entire season, but they’ve shown enough to deserve a fair chance to slide up into that 8th seed, provided the NBA starts things back up before calling it quits. If we’re left waiting for next year, the Pelicans promise to be just as enticing.