ON THE FINAL night of the All-Star break, New Orleans Pelicans guard CJ McCollum, forward 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 Feb. 8 trade that sent 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 just had a 10% chance to reach the playoffs, according to ESPN’s BPI projections.
Ingram and McCollum are ball-dominant playmakers, and Green, in his first season as head coach, needed to figure out how to put both players in positions to be successful.
So the three talked and enjoyed a cabernet sauvignon. McCollum, one of the NBA’s premier wine connoisseurs who operates his own winery in Oregon, had ordered a 2015, but they were served a 2018, a critical error. McCollum was quick to call out the mistake, and they settled on a 2017, a quick solve.
This, they say, was the turning point of the Pelicans’ season, a trio gathered around a table of oysters, french fries, donuts, sorbet and the wrong wine.
“I think it set the stage, the tone, for the rest of the season, kind of allowed us to connect on a different level,” McCollum told ESPN. “It kind of allowed us to all be on the same page to kind of express what we want and feel we can accomplish together, how we’re going to do it.”
McCollum, a nine-year veteran, told Ingram about dinner that he wanted to have an open line of communication with him, looking to discuss the game at every chance.
“It was impactful for me hearing him say everything he said,” Ingram says. “Everything that he said that he’d been through, that he’d gone through in the league. His perspective of the game, him saying I could communicate to him however I needed to. It was helpful for me.”
The Pelicans went 13-10 after the All-Star break and finished the regular season as the No. 9 seed. While Ingram has missed 13 games since the trade, New Orleans is 8-2 with McCollum and Ingram in the lineup. Ingram is listed as probable for Wednesday’s play-in game vs. the San Antonio Spurs.
McCollum never missed a postseason while playing alongside All-Star Damian Lillard in Portland. But in order for those team dinners to continue this season, it’s McCollum who is going to need to lead this young Pelicans team, one that has very little playoff experience and is still without its franchise superstar.
LEADING TO THE Trail Blazers’ locker room inside the Moda Center is a reminder of one of the most iconic plays in McCollum’s tenure with the organization. The picture shows McCollum rising up, his wrist flicked, the ball drifting in the air toward 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 walks to the locker room, he is reminded of his friend’s accomplishments. The two had three 50-win seasons. They made it to the Western Conference Finals once — McCollum’s shot on the wall lifted them there — but they knew they’d hit their ceiling.
“We knew it would eventually come. We were having that conversation. We knew this day would come, but when the day actually came, it was like ‘Damn,'” Lillard says. “We accomplished 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 took vacations together. They’d ride to and from home games together. Even their mothers became close.
Every year at media day, the two would promise to hold one another accountable during the season, no matter what.
“It’s weird, man. It’s weird to see him enjoying playing with somebody else,” Lillard says. “It’s almost like a little bit of jealousy, like … man he’s having fun playing with them. I always said me and CJ are really [partners]† That’s really my friend. I’ve always known what he is capable of.”
So much of what he did in Portland was trying to balance his style with Lillard’s.
McCollum says his leadership style came from his parents. His mom emphasized the importance of communication and holding others accountable. His dad taught him that if you want to get respect from people, you have to give it back.
Sometimes, he learned, that meant having to be direct — and blunt.
“CJ backed me up on that and then he was the person that was the a–hole,” Lillard says. “He’ll say what needs to be said. I’m wearing different hats with everybody on this team. CJ was just like, ‘Do y’all wanna win? You BS-ing. You need to work on your game.’ I think he’ll bring that type of presence.”
Nance, who was included in the trade with Portland, says he’s seen McCollum embrace his role as a veteran leader in New Orleans. In Portland, Nance says, McCollum backed up Lillard in talks with teammates. Now, he says, McCollum is “the one trying to impart the message.”
“I can be an–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, I needed to be that guy, right, for us to be successful. “
McCollum no longer has an All-Star veteran to be the primary voice of the franchise. He has to do the talking now — and he knows it.
ON A RECENT four-game, seven-day West Coast road trip, the Pelicans had multiple team dinners, including one at an Italian spot close to their hotel in Los Angeles and a steakhouse in Sacramento. But it wasn’t the location that mattered; it was the seating arrangement.
At both, McCollum was seated next to Zion Williamson, who had been away from the team when McCollum arrived in New Orleans while he recovered from a season-long foot injury. The two talked for hours, joking, bonding with one another, a duo the team hopes can be foundational for years to come.
“You give us another dynamic rolling finisher. You give us a player who can make plays off the dribble who is also selfless who also wants to win,” says Pelicans executive vice president of basketball operations David Griffin. “It’s exciting to think about what they can achieve together because their mentalities fit each other really well.”
When the season ends, McCollum says he plans on going over to Williamson’s house to get to know him even better, and doing the same thing with other teammates. He’ll also set up meetings for the team in Las Vegas during Summer League, he says.
“And I think that’s how you build chemistry,” McCollum says. “That’s how you build cohesiveness.”
While McCollum’s leadership style has been important for New Orleans off the court, it’s his on-the-court impact that’s been even greater.
“First of all by his play,” Ingram says when asked why McCollum’s message has been so well-received. “Coming out and trying to be consistent every single night. Guys respect him and have seen him in this league.”
In his first 25 games with New Orleans (subtracting a five-minute, zero-point performance in the regular-season finale), McCollum is averaging 25.2 points, 6.0 assists and 4.6 rebounds per game on 49.5% shooting. All of those marks would be career highs over a full season. He’s also averaging 39.9% shooting from 3 with a 29.5% usage rate.
Part of the team’s recent success was shifting to a new starting lineup with McCollum at point guard, Ingram and rookie Herb Jones on the wings and Jaxson Hayes and Jonas Valanciunas at power forward and center.
That lineup has posted 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 by 30 or more points — a new franchise record for a single season, according to ESPN Stats & Information.
McCollum’s former backcourt mate, who says he has watched more Pelicans games this season than he has in his entire career, is hardly surprised by the success.
“I thought when the trade happened, looking at the talent they have in New Orleans, in my head I was like, he’s 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 advance out of the play-in tournament without Williamson, the team is optimistic about how McCollum can lead the young franchise and its eager, injured superstar.
“We definitely believed in CJ and his capabilities on the floor,” Green says. “We watched a ton of film of him in Portland. … He’s a competitor. We’re seeing it all come together here in New Orleans.”