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The New Orleans Pelicans are one of the NBA's surprise success stories this season -- well, they're only a surprise if you haven't really been paying attention. Slowly but surely, the Pelicans have laid the groundwork since the 2019 trade that sent franchise superstar Anthony Davis to the Los Angeles Lakers in exchange for Brandon Ingram, Lonzo Ball, Josh Hart and four first-round picks.

Win totals in the 30s and three coaches in four seasons didn't necessarily bode well for the franchise's future, despite Ingram blossoming and the immediate impact of No. 1 overall pick Zion Williamson. But things took a U-turn toward relevance last February, when the Pelicans acquired longtime Portland Trail Blazer CJ McCollum, along with Larry Nance Jr. and Tony Snell in exchange for four players, a protected first-round pick (which didn't convey) and two future second-rounders.

McCollum's impact was immediate, with the 6-foot-3 guard averaging 27 points and seven assists in his first 12 games in New Orleans, while hitting 40 percent of his 3-pointers. And with Williamson missing the entire season, McCollum provided a much-needed second scoring option to Ingram, and a ball-handler capable of running the offense.

Ten games under .500 when McCollum was acquired, New Orleans went 13-13 to finish the season, improbably earning a play-in spot and then beating both the San Antonio Spurs and Los Angeles Clippers for a first-round playoff berth against the top-seeded Phoenix Suns. The Pelicans battled in a six-game series that was much closer than many thought it would be, giving them the necessary experience and confidence for this season's rise.

With the return of a healthy Williamson in 2022-23, the Pelicans got off to a 23-12 start, becoming one of the most successful teams in the Western Conference. So much for potential -- New Orleans has established itself as a legitimate contender.

The trio of Williamson, Ingram and McCollum has been absolutely devastating. In 172 minutes, with all three on the floor, the Pelicans have a dominant net rating of plus-16.5, while scoring a robust 121 points per 100 possessions. The whole notion of "there's only one ball" seems to have been figured out rather quickly.

But recently, injuries have struck. Ingram hasn't played since Thanksgiving due to a toe issue, and Williamson has missed the last six games with a hamstring strain. It's times like this when McCollum's presence is even more important.

"He's kind of carrying us right now with guys being out," Pelicans head coach Willie Green said. "We need him to score a bit more and he's doing it. He's more than capable."

McCollum has been on a tear, averaging 29.4 points on a scorching 46 percent 3-point shooting (while taking more than nine attempts per contest) over his last five games. New Orleans has gone 3-2 over that stretch, staying afloat while two of their three stars recuperate.

As the president of the National Basketball Players Association, McCollum is one of the most respected leaders in the league, and his voice is essential on a roster where, at 31, he's the oldest player who gets regular minutes. (Garrett Temple is 36, but isn't normally in the rotation.) He's a steadying force on and off the court, which has helped the Pelicans mature from a frisky, young upstart to a genuine threat to come out of the Western Conference.

"He's a pro, and he's always ready," Green said of McCollum. "Even when he started the season a little slow, he's gotten himself going. It's incredible to see how consistent he is in his efficiency on the floor."

So far McCollum and the Pelicans have looked like a match made in basketball heaven -- which is saying something after the trade was generally met with skepticism. He's widely considered one of the best players in the league to never have made an All-Star team, and while that's not likely to change this season, it doesn't take away from his impact on his new organization.

"The basketball side of it has been everything I thought it would be and more, and the guys have been great," McCollum said. "The organization, the front office has been fantastic. Everything they said they were going to do, they've done. Everything I said I was going to do, I've done. So it's been a really happy relationship in terms of development, in terms of how I move around the locker room, how I move in the community, how I play, how they've coached me, how they've stayed on me and continue to try to get the best out of me."

With a host of young talent and seemingly endless draft assets, New Orleans is in position to maintain this success for years to come, and potentially evolve into one of the NBA's elite franchises.

"I think you've got to commend our front office," McCollum said. "They've drafted well, they've developed well and they figured out a way to make some trades to get the right pieces in that kind of mesh collectively, which is hard to do. A lot of times trades don't work out well, or as well as you think they're going to. You've got to get the right character guys, and you have to have the right culture and be able to amend and change some things within the culture too. And I think they've done that."