From 1-12 to a playoff trip, Pelicans delivered array of surprises

Larry Nance Jr. arrived in the Crescent City two-thirds of the way through the NBA regular season via a February trade, joining a Pelicans team dismissed by many as a non-factor in the Western Conference. After playing a key role in New Orleans reaching the 2022 playoffs, Nance was asked Friday if his three months in the Big Easy met his expectations.

“No, it’s not what I expected,” Nance responded. “It’s way better.”

While Nance was describing his own perspective, he could just as easily have been summarizing the Pelicans’ 2021-22 season as a whole.

It wasn’t reasonable to expect a team that started 1-12 to claw its way to a playoff berth, considering how few times that’s ever happened in league history. Or to expect that same squad would battle tooth-and-nail in a six-game, first-round series vs. the NBA’s best team, outscored by a total of just nine points by Phoenix (in the case of catalytic reserve Jose Alvarado, the Suns matchup literally cost him part of a tooth).

It was not logical to expect three rookies – Alvarado, second-round pick Herbert Jones and mid-first-rounder Trey Murphy III – to figure so prominently in the Pelicans’ second-half surge and four postseason wins. With a combined 11 years of NCAA experience, the trio eventually proved to be more pro-ready than anyone projected last summer.

It seemed far-fetched to expect that a first-year head coach would be able to guide a club out of an enormous early-season hole in the West standings, but Willie Green emerged as the ideal leader for a young roster that needed to remain positive and keep fighting.

It wasn’t rational to think the Pelicans could find their way out of a 3-16 record in late November while playing the season without an NBA All-Star from the previous year, forward Zion Williamson.

It wasn’t sensible to expect a Feb. 8 multi-player trade with Portland would be such a game-changer for New Orleans – given how rarely pre-deadline deals drastically change a team’s fortunes – but the impact of CJ McCollum and Nance was undeniable.

“(McCollum) was exactly what we needed in every way, on and off the court,” Pelicans Executive Vice President of Basketball Operations David Griffin said Friday. “His fit with our group as a human couldn’t have been better. (Nance) was the same. They just jumped right in with our group.”

The trade helped New Orleans play winning basketball over the final months of the regular season, including going 10-2 with forward Brandon Ingram in uniform from the All-Star break through a pair of play-in tournament victories. The Pelicans surpassed virtually all outside projections by becoming a force by the spring. To Green, that now means New Orleans will not be catching the NBA by surprise again. Which is exactly what the Pelicans should want.

“My message to our team is that there will be expectations (in the future),” Green said of what he told players Friday as they headed into the offseason. “We won’t sneak up on anyone. That’s good. That’s what lets you know you’re a good team. That’s what we’re striving to become.”