Zion Williamson has been captivating fans since his high school days and has had high expectations ever since. But after missing the playoffs in his first two seasons, he can become an unrestricted free agent in the Summer of 2023, and which, by the way things have gone this offseason, could become a soon reality.
Pelicans' fans should be perplexed by the level of nostalgia going on right now. Josh Hart reportedly unhappy reminds me of Eric Gordon's grievances. Stan Van Gundy would be the new Alvin Gentry. That makes Zion Williamson the next Anthony Davis. But while Pelicans' fans feel they are living in the past, the Grizzlies, who have a star from the same draft class, just competed in the playoffs, all because they did a better job in building their complementary roster. On top of that, Jrue Holiday and A.D have been integral pieces in the last two championship teams. So what has been done to diffuse a potentially inevitable time bomb?
Losing Lonzo Ball was like reading the first page in a manual called 'How To Lose A Generational Superstar For Dummies'. Sure Lonzo's role completely changed under Van Gundy's reign (more on that later), but he adapted astoundingly from an overrated gag to a legit marksman from range almost seamlessly. The apparent hundred-to-one shot that Lonzo would make this transformation to then getting it blown out the water only added merit to why he was the second pick in the stacked 2018 NBA Draft. He was shooting 8 threes per game at 38% percent while implementing one-legged fadeaways and quirky floaters.
But the second Eric Bledsoe was traded to New Orleans; the two point guards had to share backcourt duties which was always a disaster. At best, you can say Bledsoe's stats in New Orleans are on par with his career averages, so fans were just demanding too much. A more realistic take would be to point out he just had his lowest field goal percentage since 2016-17, again this being a player primarily used as a knockdown shooter. But now Lonzo's stock has skyrocketed as a legit shooter - his biggest flaw now squashed - and will revert back to his more comfortable floor general role in Chicago. But will people look back at Lonzo Ball's time with Zion/ Brandon Ingram and think what could have been?
On the bright side, a new coach means a new era! The only downside is this is about to be their third era in Zion's third season; that stuff can age a young star. But there is no doubt that Van Gundy had to go, especially after Williamson's camp leaked their displeasure with his rigid system. That seems about right when you look back at Van Gundy's track record dealing with youth. At least fans can say he unlocked 'Point-Zion', it only took him long enough after seeing him play a similar role in Duke, except now it made no systematic sense with the roster built around him.
Let's see if you can solve this puzzle: Zion has the ball in his hands, → Zion drives down the paint, → Zion gets double-teamed → ?
Well, the answer should be to hit a wide-open three-point threat, but unfortunately, the Pelicans were 25th in three-point attempts and worse, 26th in three-point percentage. Luckily Adams and Bledsoe have now been traded for Jonas Valanciunas, which should incrementally open space up for Zion that much more. The Adams and Bledsoe signing was what threw the Pelicans in purgatory in the first place because that 'win now' approach always sacrifices youth, and it failed them miserably when they didn't even win. So the quicker they were gone, the quicker they could move on.
Hopefully, the newly added Devonte Graham can space things around too. But the argument that the Graham signing of 4-years, $47 300 000 is an overpay because Charlotte was not going to sign him again with their influx of guards is a good way of distinguishing which of your friends know basketball and which don't. Graham will likely thrive in a role more sustainable than what he had in Charlotte, and much clearer than the playmaker changed spot-up shooter Lonzo Ball was accustomed to.
In fact, the Pelicans removed a lot of their bad contracts. Other than Graham, who's making $11 million this season, Valanciunas, who's on $14 million, Josh Hart, who is taking home $12.5 million, and Ingram, on $29 million but is locked in for four more years. These are the only Pelicans not on a rookie deal or a minimum contract. But does this fit the timeline of Zion's plan?
Zion could be making more money than Luka Doncic, who, according to ESPN's Bobby Marks, could be eligible for a 5-year, $201.5 million extension. If Zion makes an All-NBA team, along with the salary cap expected to rise, Pelicans could try and entice him more. It would be the same concept as Bill Russell demanding his contract be raised to one dollar more than Wilt Chamberlains'. Only rivals can bring out that pettiness.
With first-time head coach Willie Green seeming to be a perfect candidate to unleash 'Point-Zion', since he has worked thoroughly with and was heavily endorsed by Chris Paul, an All-NBA selection is definitely in the books. There have only been 20 seasons where a player averaged at least 27 points, 60% from the field, and played in at least 60 games. Zion had one of them as a 20-year-old last season.
But Zion seems to be a one-team kind of guy, and the big market angle is sorely overblown. A star does not need a New York or a Los Angeles to get their recognition. Zion has already signed the biggest shoe deal ever. But he does need a winning team to be recognized for something more than a charismatic, explosive star who is 'must watch' rather than being 'feared'.
The Pelicans still lack wing defenders like the Clippers or '3 and D' players like the Jazz. Their best move would be to follow the Pheonix Suns template, who, before their defeated Finals run, had missed the playoffs entirely. They already had a generational star but brought in experienced playoff veterans. Then swamped the rest of the spots with these '3 and D' players. Troy Murphy III, with their 17th pick, could be that '3 and D' player eventually. While Jaxon Hayes could be the unsung hero in this department if he took more than one three every ten games. He still knocked them down at a 43% rate while hitting his free throws at 76% percent, so there is hope for Pelican fans.
Other than that, Kira Lewis seemed to be the fastest rookie I've ever seen who I can't remember ever being able to finish in the lane. Nickeil Alexander-Walker did ball out in a very developmental Olympic tournament for Canada. Didi Louzada might be a cheaper alternative than the reportedly unhappy Josh Hart. Lastly, Thomas Satoranski might be a playmaker, but he will not create space, so at least they didn't lose Lonzo for anything?
The West is only getting harder as the Championship Lakers, injuries aside, they just scraped through only to lose in the first round. For the Pelicans season to be a success, they have to impose their way into the playoff picture. If not, Zion will either follow the route of LeBron, Wilt, and Shaq and leave for the better basketball city where he has the chance to win. Or almost more upsettingly, waste his prime for a team whose front office doesn't deserve him like the entire Celtics big three before the big three, Payton (post-Kemp), Dominique, Pistol Pete, McGrady, Oscar's 10 seasons on the Royals, and many more.