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 had just 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, doughnuts, 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 over 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.