The first time he spoke publicly after being named lead basketball executive of the New Orleans Pelicans, David Griffin said, “You are either all the way in or all the way out. There is no in between.”
This proclamation was made about Anthony Davis.
Outwardly, Griffin maintained that the team’s relationship with the disgruntled star could be repaired. But privately, Griffin understood that Davis never would play another game for the Pelicans—not after how uncomfortable he made the situation for everyone within the organization.
On June 15, 2019 — 33 days after he was hired — Griffin dealt Davis to the Los Angeles Lakers. The Pelicans got back three players (Brandon Ingram, Josh Hart and Lonzo Ball) and three first-round picks.
Wednesday marked the three-year anniversary of the trade, which has been bountiful for New Orleans, and should be for years to come.
New Orleans’ biggest get in the trade was Ingram, who has developed into a cornerstone franchise. He earned an All-Star appearance in his first season with New Orleans. Although he has not made it back since, many within the organization believe he reached new heights as an all-around player last season.
Ingram posted career-best passing numbers. He looked comfortable in coach Willie Green’s offensive system, a staple of which is quick decision-making. By playing a smidge faster in the half court, Ingram became more difficult to stop.
The numbers supported the theory that Ingram never has been more impactful. When he played, the Pelicans went 29-26. When he sat, they were 7-20.
Of the three players who came from Los Angeles to New Orleans, only Ingram is left. The Pelicans were not interested in forking over big money to Ball last summer, so he ended up with the Chicago Bulls on an $85 million deal. Hart was in the midst of a career year when he was sent to the Portland Trail Blazers in February as the centerpiece of a trade to acquire CJ McCollum.
Adding McCollum was the nudge the Pelicans needed to become a playoff team. Out from under Damian Lillard’s shadow, the 30-year-old thrived at lead guard, where he averaged 24.3 points and 5.8 assists in 26 games.
McCollum poured in 32 points in the Pelicans’ play-in tournament win over the San Antonio Spurs, and he scored 32 points in the team’s April 1 road win over the Lakers, which not only boosted the Pelicans’ playoff odds but increased their chances of holding onto the Lakers’ first-round pick in this summer’s draft.
The Pelicans got to keep the Lakers’ 2022 first-round pick only if it landed in the top 10 (the result of a trade they made with the Memphis Grizzlies in August). The pick, indeed, conveyed. They hold the No. 8 selection in Thursday’s draft.
For the next two years at least, the Pelicans and Lakers will continue to be intertwined. The Pelicans have the option of swapping first-round picks with the Lakers in 2023. Then in 2024 or 2025 — whichever year the Pelicans prefer — the Lakers will have to fork over one last first-round pick, their final payment on Davis.
The NBA landscape changes quickly, but the Lakers’ outlook does not look rosy.
LeBron James is entering his 20th season, and he is under contract for only one more year. Russell Westbrook is owed $47 million next season, a number that will make him hard to trade without also surrendering a first-round pick. Then there is Davis, who should be in the prime of his career but has played in only 76 of a possible 144 games the last two seasons because of injuries.
The Pelicans are in a much better place than they were three years ago when Davis’ time with the team was coming to an end. They ended a three-year playoff drought despite not getting a single minute from Zion Williamson, who was recovering from a broken right foot. Williamson is eligible to sign a five-year extension starting July 1.
Over the next few seasons, New Orleans’ ceiling could come down to Williamson’s health and willingness to embrace becoming a face of the franchise. If he is all the way in, a franchise that has never advanced past the second round of the playoffs can reach unprecedented heights. If he is not, then by Griffin’s definition, that can mean only one thing: He is all the way out.
As Griffin said three years ago at the start of this rebuild, there is no in between.