McCollum-Nance Trade Has Been Unsung Heart of Pelicans Recent Success

Nearly two years after the fact, the Pelicans are finally beginning to realize some of those lofty expectations stemming from the trade with the Portland Trail Blazers that saw CJ McCollum and Larry Nance Jr. land in New Orleans.

There are a number of reasons for the Pelicans’ steady climb up the standings, which currently has them slotted in sixth place but sitting only a game out of fourth in the difficult Western Conference. The 17-8 record since a Nov. 13 team meeting, which was organized by McCollum and Nance, has been buoyed by the best defense in the league over this period, with the ninth-rated offense proving an asset often as well.

Outside of the 44-point defeat to the Los Angeles Lakers in the In-Season Tournament — hey, the lures of Las Vegas can be incredibly enticing, the Pelicans have been highly competitive in every instance during the last 25 games. Seven of the eight losses were by six points or less; 12 of the 17 wins were of the double-digit variety.

The Pelicans could honestly be riding a 12-game winning streak. They lost to the Memphis Grizzlies twice and the Houston Rockets once by a combined five points during a four-game stretch sandwiched in between a pair of four-game winning streaks. Several key possessions ending differently during clutch-time minutes and all eyes would surely be on the Pelicans right now.

As is, Cleaning the Glass says only the Oklahoma City Thunder have been a more dominant team since the second week of November. Mimicking this 25-game stretch over the course of the entire regular season would net approximately a 63-19 record for the Pelicans.

The New Orleans franchise has won 50 games or more just once in their 21-year history.

So, it’s time to give due to the impressive display of basketball witnessed over the last seven weeks.

Behind the wall of statistical data, individual improvement and a number of players finding a good rhythm are responsible for the Pelicans’ winning ways, though, a burgeoning solidarity in the locker room feels as important. Maybe even more so. There’s ample evidence of players becoming increasingly more on the same page both on and off the court, especially Brandon Ingram, Zion Williamson and McCollum.

Following the Pelicans’ 129-109 victory over the Lakers, the vibes were immaculate on New Year’s Eve, highlighted by a fun exchange between the Big 3 that exhibited genuine camaraderie.

CJ was in the process of opening a McCollum Heritage 91 at his locker when suddenly the cork popped loudly and champagne sprayed out. Some of it landed in BI’s direction. After a quick check of his braided hair, he, CJ and Zion shared a hard laugh and engaged in full-hearted discussion.

A similar interaction occurring two seasons ago is impossible to imagine. Williamson was sidelined for the entirety of the 2021-2022 campaign. He spent a number of weeks in Portland, away from the team, working on his rehabilitation. And when the trade with the Trail Blazers was announced, Williamson and McCollum famously didn’t talk in the immediate aftermath, leading to analysts like JJ Redick to call Zion a “detached teammate.”

Williamson appeared in only 29 games last season. He suffered a hamstring strain on Jan. 2 and never returned to the court. There was also additional controversy. Williamson stated that he wasn’t in a good place mentally to return for the final days. David Griffin responded by saying that Williamson was never medically cleared to return. And then McCollum in his season-end presser seemingly put all the cards on the table, stating matter-of-factly that the teams’ stars have find a way to be more available, pointing out how he persevered through several injuries to appear in 75 games.

Williamson admitted on an episode of Gil’a Arena over the summer that he could have done things better and was “in the process of fixing those wrongs.” While the evolution of his conditioning and mentality didn’t progress as quickly as hoped, there’s a definitive light at the end of the tunnel.

Following the Dec. 28 victory over the Utah Jazz, Williamson told media, “My body is definitely getting to where it needs to be. Slowly but surely, figuring it out.”

Williamson is paying attention to game footage too, trying to learn from mistakes.

“Something I picked up from one of the greats,” Williamson said after the victory over the Lakers. “I don’t want to misquote, but I feel like Kobe might have said it. ‘You can go watch highlights of your good games, but it’s those bad games. You’ve got to sit there and watch the whole thing to see why the result was the result.’ It’s not just that game, but other games where I feel like I just played bad or I wasn’t there for my team. Watch the whole game. There’s room for improvement but keep building.”

Williamson has looked more explosive in games recently. His stamina appears better as he’s able to sustain effort levels throughout the course of games. Against the Lakers, he scored multiple times over and around Anthony Davis, one of the best rim defenders in the league.

As far as the trio of Ingram, McCollum and Williamson as a whole, the results have been mixed but are turning much more positive. While the Pelicans are 12-5 in games that all three have touched the court this season, they have a pedestrian +0.4 3-man net rating. Things looked much bleaker (-6.0 3-man net rating) prior to last week’s win over the Jazz. The two most important takeaways are 1) the Pelicans still managed to win games at a good clip — the great supporting cast of role players deserve a large shoutout and 2) the upwards trend is likely due the stars playing with greater cohesion.

Ingram, McCollum and Williamson have posted eerily identical averages over the last four games.

PointsReboundsAssistsTurnoversTrue Shooting %
Brandon Ingram20.
CJ McCollum21.
Zion Williamson21.

The group is starting games more strongly and there’s been improvement in closing contests. McCollum has taken it upon himself to get the team storming out of the gates.

“I haven’t played as aggressively as I probably should consistently, trying to figure stuff out, trying to get people touches, trying to understand our offense a little bit better,” McCollum said after the Dec. 28 win over the Jazz. “But I’ve just got to be aggressive and take the shots that are there, try to get up 3s — we don’t shoot a lot of 3s in our first unit so I’ve got to get 3s up along with paint touches. We’ve got to play fast so I’ll make sure that we do that for the rest of the season.”

It behooves McCollum to continue to force the issue early. When he’s scored four or more points in the first quarter, the Pelicans are a perfect 11-0 on the season.

We’re also beginning to see more late-game actions involving Ingram, Williamson and McCollum.

“The more we’re out there,” Williamson said. “The more we can see matchups. The more we communicate. Like CJ might like his matchup, or BI might get it going or I might get it going early so I think we’re just trying to exploit matchups.”

The Pelicans top three players have not only been sharing offensive responsibilities incredibly well, establishing a fearsome three-prong attack that could soon be a consistent weapon in clutch-time minutes, they’re also making great strides defensively.

One has to think this is what the New Orleans front office envisioned when they made the trade with Portland several years ago.

While McCollum’s rotations have largely been on the mark and he’s chosen his spots well on when to gamble this season — he’s on pace for career-best steal and block percentages since becoming a starter in the league, Ingram and Williamson haven’t always made the best use of their athleticism and length all over the court. There’s been glimpses in the past for sure, but nothing as sustained as what we’re seeing now.

Against the Jazz, Ingram took upon the defensive assignment from McCollum to guard Colin Sexton, who scored a quick nine points out of halftime. Ingram wound up holding the Utah guard to 1-of-5 shooting from the field. Then in the next matchup versus the Lakers, Ingram started the game on LeBron James. One of the greatest to ever lace them up managed to score only five points on 2-of-5 shooting against Ingram.

While McCollum’s guidance has been much more obvious due to his stature on the Pelicans and across the league as the president of the National Basketball Players Association, don’t overlook Nance’s impact. He’s often been one of the most vocal members in the locker room. Now he’s able to walk the walk after finally taking the requisite time to get his body fully healthy.

The one thing that keeps coming back to me was watching how hard Nance attacked each training session after reaggravating a right rib fracture. Hours before the Pelicans announced he would miss 4-6 weeks with the injury, media watched Nance work up a full sweat to maintain a high level of conditioning while keeping his basketball skills as fresh as possible.

Nance consistently followed the same script for the next four weeks before returning against the Jazz and posting a dominant line of nine points, seven rebounds, five steals and one block in 25 minutes of action.

While continued good health remains the most pivotal factor moving forward — Williamson and Ingram having missed a combined nine games this season, be mindful of the fact that McCollum and Nance have set great examples for the rest of the Pelicans since their arrival in New Orleans time and again. The message may have taken a bit of time to sink in, but it’s apparent that we’re in the midst of witnessing the maturation of the younger core, directly leading to the stronger play on the basketball court over these last 25 games.

That gives hope that the Pelicans are in a better position today to deal with whatever adversity lies in store and they’ll be able to continue to push for one of their better finishes in the standings in franchise history.

For more Pelicans talk, subscribe to The Bird Calls podcast feed on iTunesSpotifyStitcher or Google Podcasts. You can follow this author on Twitter at @OlehKosel.


4 thoughts on “McCollum-Nance Trade Has Been Unsung Heart of Pelicans Recent Success

  1. Nicely written Oleh. I thought LNJ stepped up big the other night against Wolves when JV got in foul trouble. This team can be special if it stays healthy and create good ball movement. I like that we can go 10 deep with TMIII, Jose, LNJ, Naji and Dyson coming off the bench and are starters are not having to play 40 minutes a game. We didn’t have the tired legs on B2B Wednesday.

    Brutal 9 day, 5 tough road games starting Sunday with Kings, Warriors, Nuggets, and Mavs twice. But we have shown we can beat some good teams on road with wins this year at Memphis, OKC, Clippers, Kings, Cleveland and Minny.


  2. On another note, is there any way to make commenting easier like when TBW was with SBNation. We miss some of the regulars we use to have that made the games so enjoyable such as ShapeShifter, Reasonable Observer, Where is King Cake Baby and even Fred Jones. Just wondering.

  3. Hey NOH,
    Asked a while back and they are happy with the way it is. Good luck to the Pels!!

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