NBA Draft Lottery Basketball

David Griffin, New Orleans Pelicans executive vice president of basketball operations, holds up placards after it was announced that the Pelicans had won the first pick during the NBA basketball draft lottery Tuesday, May 14, 2019, in Chicago. (AP Photo/Nuccio DiNuzzo) ORG XMIT: ILND110

Why does perception matter?

The NBA reveals concrete evidence like wins, losses, playoff appearances and world championships, so the benefits of external imagery should be marginalized. In a purely logical world, those outside forces would be considered a sideshow and not worthy of any mental investment from a franchise.

But, the past two weeks displayed precisely why image matters, even when the winners and losers are neatly packaged.

One blazing sentence comes to mind.

“Is Zion Williamson going back to Duke?”

Those were the words filling up inboxes, social media feeds and text messages across New Orleans the day after the Pelicans improbably won the NBA lottery. The initial firestorm of local excitement was reflexively followed by rampant national speculation.

Just hours after executive vice president David Griffin lifted the No. 1 card in the air, national pundits hammered the notion of Williamson — the most famous college player to enter the draft in a generation — landing with a success-starved franchise in the league’s smallest market. Instead of shining optimism, Pelicans fans were served hearty doses of conjecture, conspiracy and guesswork on some of the nation’s most popular outlets.

It created a bizarre backlash against New Orleans for striking it rich in the most random of circumstances. In turn, the negativity elicited insecurity from fans and fueled doubt from skeptics, somehow turning a purely celebratory occasion into a bizarre controversy.

This wouldn’t happen to most places around the NBA. But after 17 years of mostly fumbled opportunities and nondescript branding, here were the Pelicans, getting beaten up on national television for having the audacity to win the lottery.

It’s unimportant the denigration ignored several aspects of reality, like Williamson never actually questioning the Pelicans’ competence or the $20 million bounty (with endorsements) he’d be walking away from to return to college. Within two days the hubbub died down, thanks in part to Lee Anderson, Williamson’s stepdad, who told Jordy Culotta on Baton Rouge radio that he was ready to join the Pelicans.

The whole ordeal was revealing and displayed where the franchise stood in the national landscape.

And it served as a lesson. The climb to respectability is steep.

It laid bare the degree of difficulty faced by Griffin and owner Gayle Benson as they attempt to methodically convince the public they are capable of piecing together this afterthought of a team into a prized contender. While the ultimate goal is winning, changing the team’s perception smooths the road to get there.

On the ground level, the seeds to rejuvenate the franchise have been planted and are already paying dividends. Griffin’s engrossing vision and Benson’s increased investment allowed them to poach general manager Trajan Langdon from Brooklyn and athletic trainer Aaron Nelson from Phoenix.

Will those two immediately change the team’s image? No.

But it plainly demonstrates working for New Orleans is no longer considered taboo in league circles. Langdon and Nelson represent a revamped mentality around Griffin, showing the league these Pelicans are operating differently than before.

“I think he’s all-inclusive,” Langdon said, harkening back to working with Griffin in Cleveland. “He brings in people he trusts and relies upon and he empowers them. He doesn’t micromanage people. He gives them a lot of autonomy and wants them to be stars in their roles and wants them to grow while they’re in their roles.

“That’s something that really drew me when he approached me for this job. I know I can learn a lot from him and I’m all about a challenge. I think this opportunity gives me that.”

That reputation matters.

There’s no hiding this transformation will be difficult. Even with the No. 1 pick in tow, the Pelicans are playing from behind compared to most of the league.

But, Griffin’s belief is the shifting of perception starts with front office hires and eventually trickles to players and, in time, to the public. While wins and losses will ultimately define Griffin’s era in New Orleans, the national belittling in the aftermath of the lottery is representative of where the Pelicans are building from.

And while Griffin recognizes the long bend of history he’s fighting against, he also sees the corner being turned.

“I think when you win the lottery in the midst of all those other things we are doing, it starts to really lend itself to changing a narrative and I think you’ve seen that now,” Griffin said last week. “And Trajan can speak to this too, just externally I think from where the organization was the day I met with them for the first time … to where it is now, is a really profound turnaround of sorts in terms of narrative.”