The New Orleans Pelicans had the best of luck in jumping to the top spot of the 2019 NBA Draft Lottery. Anthony Davis had requested a trade out of the city, which felt like a curse when it concerns basketball. Chris Paul had to suffer through not only those long Hurricane Katrina travel years but also the ownership of George Shinn. Davis watched DeMarcus Cousins chase a wayward free throw and wind up limping away with an Achilles injury. Then came the whirlwind of emotions after landing the rights to Zion Williamson.

Keeping Williamson happy and healthy has been tougher than imagined depending on who is asked, but acquiring CJ McCollum was the most audacious gambit the Pelicans have pulled off to date. Unfortunately, there is no easy way around some conversations. The Pelicans are now facing a triple threat-level stress test they have to address with McCollum, a universally respected veteran and the NBPA President.

Sooner or later EVP David Griffin and Willie Green will have to address three critical issues with McCollum: his playing time, role in the starting lineup, and the implications of a looming contract extension demand attention.

Pelicans restricting vet minutes

New Orleans Pelicans guard CJ McCollum (3) dribbles against Oklahoma City Thunder forward Jalen Williams (8)
Stephen Lew-USA TODAY Sports

Getting to the NBA Playoffs healthy is hard enough. Doing so on mid-30s legs after logging 30-35 minutes a night over 82 regular season games is impossible. Even LeBron James has needed nights off and complete mid-season vacation trips to Miami over the past decade.

CJ McCollum’s playing time has been a balancing act for the Pelicans. Last season, the 32-year-old averaged 20.0 points, 4.3 rebounds, and 4.6 assists in 66 games at 32.7 minutes a contest. His professionalism, preparation, and steady leadership were valued just as much as his offensive prowess. However, to ensure his longevity and peak performance, especially during the playoffs, the Pelicans might consider a strategic reduction in his regular-season minutes.

This approach could help maintain his health and energy levels for the crucial end-of-season games. Those NBA Play-In Tournament appearances are getting old, but not as old as those legs will be if McCollum has to carry the team for long stretches again next season. He shot 42.9% from 3-point range over the entire season but only 24.1% against the Oklahoma City Thunder and 18.2% in the two Play-In games.

McCollum has to accept that Father Time is undefeated and that a lighter load during the regular season is a good thing. It's beneficial to the team more than his bank account perhaps, but that is where McCollum is at in his career. Accepting a 26-30 minute role knowing that some games will require the extra effort leading to 33-36-minute nights should be more of a relief than a humbling experience.

CJ McCollum's status as a Starter

The humbling experience for every long-time start eventually comes during the opening tip, the closing five minutes, and the NBA Playoffs spotlight. McCollum might have to give up the status of a starter but should be secure in his spot closing games. He should also expect to see an increase in minutes in the games that matter most. It is not quite yet time to relegate McCollum to a matchup-dependent offensive supernova. He may have a shot at Sixth Man of the Year, though.

McCollum’s status as a starter has been undisputed. The Pelicans have shown better results with him in the lineup, boasting a 42-24 record when he plays. His experience and scoring ability make him an integral part of the starting five. Yet, the team must also develop depth and flexibility in their roster to adapt to any unforeseen circumstances that may arise, such as injuries or tactical changes.

Inserting Trey Murphy III into the starting lineup is practically a necessity at this point. Willie Green has to find more time for Murphy III and Zion Williamson to play together. That may come at McCollum's expense depending on how the Pelicans address a Jonas Valancuinas-shaped hole in the frontcourt. Starting Herb Jones at the five keeps McCollum on for the tipoff but does sacrifice size against practically every opponent.

Contract extension or trade coming

The Pelicans inked McCollum to a two-year, $64 million contract extension to keep the respected veteran locked up through the 2025-2026 season. This move solidifies the team’s core alongside Zion Williamson and Brandon Ingram, should those two All-Stars remain paired together. The challenge now is to maximize the value of this investment by integrating McCollum’s skills with the team’s long-term strategy, ensuring that his presence contributes to a sustainable championship-contending model.

That means relying on McCollum less by design and limiting his value for New Orleans. He is already having problems initiating offense for others and creating separation. The market may dictate a high salary cap hit thanks to the NBA's $76 billion broadcast deal, but there is surely a middle ground. McCollum chose the city and organization as a trade destination for a reason. Should both sides agree, the Pelicans have a clear path forward with McCollum.

By carefully managing McCollum's playing time, clarifying his role as a starter, and agreeing to a contract extension, McCollum and the Pelicans can aim for a deep playoff run and possibly a shot at that ever-elusive NBA Finals trip in the coming years. Any disagreements would necessitate that trade offers be not only considered but sought out. New Orleans cannot risk losing McCollum a year after dealing with a tepid Brandon Ingram market.