IN THE FINAL tonight during the All-Star break, New Orleans Pelicans guard CJ McCollum, striker Brandon Ingram and coach Willie Green went out for a small private dinner at FLINT by Baltaire in Phoenix.
The Pelicans had gone 1-4 since the trade on Feb. 8, sending Josh Hart, Tomas Satoransky, Nickeil Alexander-Walker and Didi Louzada to the Portland Trail Blazers for McCollum, Larry Nance Jr. and Tony Snell. At 23-36, they had only a 10% chance of reaching the playoffs, according to ESPN’s BPI forecasts.
Ingram and McCollum are ball-dominating playmakers, and in his first season as head coach, Green needed to figure out how to put both players in positions of success.
So the three talked and enjoyed a cabernet sauvignon. McCollum, one of the NBA’s leading wine connoisseurs who runs his own winery in Oregon, had ordered a 2015, but they were served a 2018, a critical mistake. McCollum was quick to make the mistake, and they decided on a 2017, a quick fix.
This, they say, was the turning point in Pelican season, a trio gathered around a table with oysters, french fries, donuts, sorbet and the wrong wine.
“I think it set the stage, the tone, for the rest of the season, in a way that allowed us to connect on another level,” McCollum told ESPN. “It allowed us all to be on the same page to express what we want and feel we can achieve together, how we want to do it.”
McCollum, a nine-year veteran, told Ingram during dinner that he wanted to have an open line of communication with him, and would discuss the game on every occasion.
“It was effective for me to hear him say everything he said,” Ingram says. “Everything he said he had been through that he had gone through in the league. His perspective on the game, he said I could communicate to him that I needed. It was helpful to me.”
The Pelicans went 13-10 after the All-Star break and ended the regular season as No. 9 seed. While Ingram has missed 13 games since switching, New Orleans is 8-2 with McCollum and Ingram in a row. Ingram is listed as likely for Wednesday’s play-in game against the San Antonio Spurs.
McCollum never missed an after-season while playing alongside All-Star Damian Lillard in Portland. But for these team dinners to continue this season, it is McCollum who will have to lead this young Pelicans team, which has very little playoff experience and is still without its franchise superstar.
LEADS TO The Trail Blazer’s locker room inside the Moda Center is a reminder of one of the most iconic plays of McCollum’s tenure with the organization. The picture shows McCollum getting up, his wrists swirling, the ball drifting in the air against the basket as time ticked down late in Game 7 of the 2019 Western Conference semifinals against the Denver Nuggets – one of the lasting memories of his time in Portland.
Every day, when Lillard goes to the locker room, he is reminded of his friend’s achievements. The two had three seasons with 50 wins. They once reached the final of the Western Conference – McCollum’s shot on the wall lifted them there – but they knew they had hit their ceiling.
“We knew it was going to come eventually. We had that conversation. We knew this day was going to come, but when the day actually came, it was like ‘for hell,'” Lillard says. “We achieved a lot. But s —, all good things come to an end.”
Lillard and McCollum always sat next to each other on the team plane. They vacationed together. They drove to and from home games together. Even their mothers became close.
Every year on Media Day, the two promised to hold each other accountable throughout the season, no matter what.
“It’s weird, man. It’s weird to see him enjoy playing with someone else,” Lillard says. “It’s almost like a little bit of jealousy, like … man he’s having fun playing with them. I’ve always said that me and CJ are real [partners]. That’s really my friend. I always knew what he was capable of. “
So much of what he did in Portland was trying to balance his style with Lillards.
McCollum says his leadership style came from his parents. His mother stressed the importance of communication and holding others accountable. His father taught him that if you want respect from people, you have to give it back.
Sometimes, he learned, it meant being direct – and blunt.
“CJ backed me up about it, and then he was the person who was one – the hole,” Lillard says. “He wants to say what needs to be said. I’m wearing different hats with everyone on this team. CJ was like, ‘Will you win? Your BS-ing. You have to work on your game.’ I think he will bring that kind of presence. “
Nance, who was included in the deal with Portland, says he has seen McCollum embrace his role as a veteran leader in New Orleans. In Portland, Nance says, McCollum supported Lillard in conversations with teammates. Now, he says, McCollum is “the one trying to convey the message.”
“I can be an a – hole at times,” McCollum says. “I’ve been very direct, very blunt, but I can also be an encouraging teammate and show different types of leadership roles. But based on the way Dame needed me, I had to be the guy, not true, for us to could succeed. “
McCollum no longer has an All-Star veteran to be the primary voice in the franchise. He needs to talk now – and he knows it.
ON A RECENT four games, a seven-day West Coast road trip, the Pelicans had several team dinners, including one at an Italian venue close to their hotel in Los Angeles and a steakhouse in Sacramento. But it was not the location that mattered; it was the seating arrangement.
With both, McCollum was sitting next to Zion Williamson, who had been away from the team when McCollum arrived in New Orleans while recovering from a season-long foot injury. The two talked for hours, joking, tying ties to each other, a duo that the team hopes can be fundamental in the years to come.
“You give us another dynamic rolling finisher. You give us a player who can play out the dribbling, who is also selfless, who also wants to win,” said Pelicans executive vice president of basketball operations David Griffin. “It’s exciting to think about what they can achieve together because their mentality fits really well with each other.”
When the season ends, McCollum says he plans to take over at Williamson’s house to get to know him even better and do the same with other teammates. He will also arrange meetings for the team in Las Vegas during the Summer League, he says.
“And I think that’s how you build chemistry,” McCollum says. “How to build cohesion.”
While McCollum’s leadership style has been important to New Orleans off the field, it is his influence on the field that has been even greater.
“First and foremost, by his game,” Ingram says when asked why McCollum’s message has been so well received. “Comes out and tries to be consistent every single night. Guys respect him and have seen him in this league.”
In his first 25 games with New Orleans (if you subtract a five-minute performance, zero points in the regular season finale), McCollum has an average of 25.2 points, 6.0 assists and 4.6 rebounds per game. fight at 49.5% shooting. All of these characters would be career-high over an entire season. He also has an average of 39.9% shooting from 3 with a consumption rate of 29.5%.
Part of the team’s recent success was switching to a new starting lineup with McCollum on point guard, Ingram and rookie Herb Jones on the wings and Jaxson Hayes and Jonas Valanciunas on power forward and center.
This lineup has given an offensive rating of 122.6 in 142 minutes with a net rating of 8.2. Since Feb. 14, the Pelicans have won five games with 30 or more points – a new franchise record for a single season, according to ESPN Stats & Information.
McCollum’s former backcourt buddy, who says he’s seen more Pelicans’ games this season than he has in his entire career, is hardly surprised by the success.
“I thought when the deal happened, when I looked at the talent they have in New Orleans, in my head I thought he was exactly what they needed,” Lillard says. “Look at their team, they got the talent, they got the youth mixed with a little bit of experience, and you throw him into the mix, and you really got something. I think it’s taking shape.”
So while the Pelicans will have to move out of the playoffs without Williamson, the team is optimistic about how McCollum can lead the young franchise and its eager, injured superstar.
“We certainly believed in CJ and his abilities on the floor,” Green says. “We saw a ton of movies of him in Portland … He’s a competitor. We see it all connected here in New Orleans.”