Big Problem in The Big Easy? The Uncertain Future of Zion

The Pelicans made some questionable moves in the offseason, as they try to build around superstar Zion Williamson. With a lackluster roster, an unproven coach and a future that remains cloudy, New Orleans can not afford to keep striking out.

Chad Smith profile picture
Sports Editor
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There is one certainty in New Orleans, and that is that Zion Williamson is a generational talent. Beyond that, not much is known about the direction of the Pelicans. In the era where disgruntled superstars either get their way or leave, things are starting to get a little uncomfortable in terms of the future of this franchise.

This will be Williamson’s third season and his third different head coach. After playing a more ball-dominant style as the point forward last season, Williamson demonstrated his ability to facilitate to his teammates, in addition to finishing plays. Many of the latter were alley-oop passes from Lonzo Ball, who has moved on to greener pastures. The pair were close on and off the court, but New Orleans was content with letting him walk.

The Pelicans essentially swapped Ball and Steven Adams with Devonte’ Graham and Jonas Valanciunas. The front office believes that Valanciunas will be a much better fit alongside Williamson and Brandon Ingram. While it makes sense on paper, things don’t always work out that way. Much of this depends on how Willie Green uses his lineups, and what kind of chemistry the players develop. The challenge will be spacing the floor with shooters around Williamson.

New Orleans averaged 10.6 made three-pointers per game last season as a team, which ranked 27th in the league. They connected on just 34.8 percent of those shots, which was only better than Orlando, Houston, Oklahoma City and Cleveland. That is especially troubling when you consider that Ball was responsible for one-third of those made shots. Without a serious deep threat on the roster, the paint will get even more congested for Williamson this season.

To say that Zion lived in the paint last year would be a massive understatement. The big man dominated inside and did it with great efficiency. His 27.17 PER was the fourth-best in the entire league, trailing only Giannis Antetokounmpo, Joel Embiid and league MVP Nikola Jokic.

Williamson had a 34.2 usage rating last season, which was tied for 28th in the league. That will surely increase this season with the departure of Ball and a lack of proven point guards on the roster. The wear and tear is not usually a concern for 21-year old players but this is a different specimen. The league has never seen a body type like this one. His combination of size, speed, athleticism and explosion is not comparable to anyone else. He does have a history of injuries, which is why the front office wants to try to protect him.

One of the major nuggets to come out on Media Day was executive vice president of basketball operations David Griffin announcing that Williamson is recovering from offseason foot surgery. According to Griffin, Williamson broke the fifth metatarsal in his right foot while working out prior to Summer League. The former top overall pick will likely not play in any preseason games but should be ready for the start of the regular season.

One major reason why Williamson has grown weary of his long-term prospects in New Orleans is how the team handled him during last season. A knee injury sidelined him for what was supposed to be three weeks. That turned into three months as the forward grew frustrated with the situation, according to reports. Whether or not there is a rift, time is running out for Griffin and the organization.

The Ben Simmons saga has been under a microscope all summer. Damian Lillard put the heat on management in Portland. Karl-Anthony Towns is growing impatient with his situation in Minnesota. All across the league, there are examples of star players either getting what they want, or threatening to leave. For a franchise like the Pelicans, it could have even more dire consequences.

It was only two years ago when this organization had a similar situation play out with Anthony Davis. After seven seasons in New Orleans, Davis wanted out. Although the Pelicans collected a truckload of assets in return, they have yet to turn them into sustained success. Ingram has been a solid piece, being named an All-Star and the 2019-20 Most Improved Player, but the team has continued to struggle.

The two Duke products have produced some incredible numbers over the past two seasons, but it has not translated to wins for the team. The Pelicans were 30-42 (13th in West) in Zion’s rookie season and finished 11th last year with a 31-41 record. The ten teams that finished ahead of them last season have either improved or mostly stayed the same. Even the teams below them should be better this season, so while the playoffs are still the goal, it will not be easy for the team that resides in The Big Easy.

The offseason for the Pelicans was not great by any stretch of the imagination. They managed to bring back Josh Hart and Willy Hernangomez on three-year deals and added Garrett Temple. Graham was a nice addition but he is not a starting-caliber guard, and a clear downgrade from Ball. They offered Kyle Lowry more money in free agency but he turned them down in order to play for a championship in Miami. A Chris Paul return was rumored to be a possibility as well, but that never seemingly came close.

New Orleans has a checkered past in terms of being able to build a contending team around a star player. Whether it is big men like Williamson and Davis, or point guards like Paul and Jrue Holiday, it has just never come to fruition. Others, like Baron Davis and Julius Randle, have excelled after leaving. With expansion and relocation being a real possibility in the coming years, New Orleans cannot afford to let this happen again.

Right now Zion is saying all of the right things, which is not much of a surprise. He has always been incredibly generous and polite, while also laying out the truth. Should his tone change this season, it could signal that the young phenom is ready to move on.

Griffin had demonstrated the ability to build around a superstar. He played the role of the architect in Cleveland when he constructed a championship roster around LeBron James. That can be misleading, as James had already won three titles in Miami, and had a dozen seasons under his belt. It does help when your roster has arguably the greatest player to ever step on a court. Still, credit must be given for the moves that were made.

The real test will be this season, which could be a make-or-break year for a lot of people within the organization. Williamson is still under contract for two more years but should he not sign a long-term extension next season, he could become a restricted free agent and sign a qualifying offer with another team. This is highly unlikely because he would earn far less money and the Pelicans could still match, but it would be a clear indication that he wants out. New Orleans must act now before it even gets to that point.

New Orleans must prioritize surrounding Zion with better talent. If they fail to do so, it could be deja vu for the franchise as another generational talented big man walks out the door.

Chad is a Basketball Insiders contributor based in Indianapolis.

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