Before Feb. 8, New Orleans Pelicans executive Vice President of Basketball Operations David Griffin was getting dragged for the team’s sorry state he oversaw. The Pelicans were 21 and 32, headed toward another disastrous season until that point. At the same time, Zion Williamson avoided the team at all costs, rehabbing a fractured right foot on the other side of the country in Portland. In his third year at the helm, Griffin was en route to bombing in New Orleans. The Zion-to-Knicks rumor mill was swirling. The Pelicans seemed headed for an infinite rebuild if they lost their seemingly disgruntled superstar before signing his rookie max extension. Desperate and in dire straits, Griffin knew he had to perform a miracle to retain his job and turn around the hope and luck of one of the league’s most misbegotten franchises.
All that changed on Feb. 8.
C.J. McCollum, the sharpshooting, All-Star-leading an aging core in Portland, is headed towards a total rebuild. After abdominal surgery, Damian Lillard was out for the season, and the Blazers were making no secret about their epic tank. Seeing an opportunity to improve the roster, Griffin pounced, fleecing the Trailblazers for McCollum, while only giving up Josh Hart, Tomas Satoransky, Nickeil Alexander-Walker, and Didi Louzada, as well as a protected 2022 first-round pick, and two future second-round picks. With this trade, the Pelicans paired another All-Star with a blossoming centerpiece, Brandon Ingram, while keeping the rest of the Pelicans core intact.
This trade alone should have vaulted Griffin into the front of the Executive of the Year race. But he wasn’t done yet.
Included in the deal was a salary cap-saving move by the Blazers to include Larry Nance Jr., who never worked out in Portland as a floor-spacing big with elite athleticism and playoff experience while with the Cleveland Cavaliers. Griffin knew what Nance could be since he traded for a young Nance when he was Cleveland’s top front office exec.
For the Pelicans, Nance has reached full potential. Nance was the X-factor for the Pelicans bench unit before being eliminated in a tough-as-nails six-game series with the Phoenix Suns. The double-double machine was part of the reason the Pelicans almost had a chance this series until Devin Booker returned and made all of New Orleans put some respect on his name. In addition, Nance’s defense, hustle, and offensive rebounding gave the Pelicans a constant threat on the glass when starting center Jonas Valančiūnas took a breather.
Speaking of Valančiūnas, McCullom wasn’t Griffin’s first brilliant trade this season. During the summer, Griffin swapped outdated dinosaur Steven Adams for Valančiūnas. The Lithuanian Viking brought floor spacing and toughness to a Pelicans team in need of frontcourt help with the sidelining of Zion. Valančiūnas is rarely discussed in NBA circles and remains one of the league’s most underrated players. Matching up against the Suns’ Deandre Ayton, he out-motored the young big and routinely posted double-doubles throughout the series.
Before the season, Griffin signed Devonte Graham from the Charlotte Hornets after choosing not to re-sign Zion favorite Lonzo Ball. Graham wasn’t great, but he showed he could be a solid backup now that a certain rookie has emerged.
Jose Alvarado might be the next great New York point guard. The Queens native battled the Point God, Chris Paul, every minute they shared the court. Alvarado is a feisty, tenacious defender who plays with a BallIsLife panache and frustrated CP3. It’s a testament to Griffin’s scouting department in New Orleans that Alvarado went undrafted before signing with the Pelicans. The other two Pelicans rookies, Herb Jones (drafted 35th) and Trey Murphy III (drafted 17th), played significant roles in the playoffs. Murphy showed a real knack for perimeter, shooting 47 percent from three in 20 minutes per game.
Meanwhile, Jones emerged as one of the best rookies of an already stacked 2021 Draft Class. Jones’ defense is a combination of Lu Dort and Bruce Bowen. While owning one of the most unassuming NBA names, he’s a 6-foot-7 phenom who can switch on all three perimeter positions, play the passing lanes, and block three-point attempts with ease, thanks to his elite athleticism. The Pelicans might have won this year’s draft, which is rounding out to be one of the best ever.
Griffin’s success in trades and the draft make him the clear front-runner for the annual award of Executive of the Year. Sure, the Chicago Bulls might have been splashier, but the moves the Pelicans made were more under the radar (Valančiūnas, Jones, Alvarado) and contributed to a better playoff performance overall. While the Bulls’ window is a mere two-to-three years, providing Zach Lavine re-signs, the Pelicans look to be competitive for at least five. And that’s without mentioning the elephant in the room — Zion Williamson. Seeing that he’s healthy and signs the Max Rookie Extension this summer, the Pelicans will be adding 27 PPG to an already star-studded line-up. If everyone returns next year, the Pelicans will trot out a starting five of Alvarado, McCullom, Ingrahm, Zion, and Valančiūnas. Holy hell, that’s good.
It’s good enough to win Griffin back the respect he almost lost as an exec, and may be good enough to win it all next year. Imagine the French Quarter parties if that happened? We are talking about the man who helped bring a championship to the Cleveland Cavaliers. Stranger things have happened.