Despite Zion Williamson not playing a single game, the New Orleans Pelicans had an encouraging 2021-22 NBA season. They squeaked their way into the Western Conference Playoffs through the NBA Play-in Tournament and took the Phoenix Suns to six games in a heated, first-round series matchup. This came with first-year head coach Willie Green steering the ship.
New Orleans made a blockbuster midseason trade, acquiring CJ McCollum from the Portland Trail Blazers. This helped spark their playoff push. Now the Pelicans face a pivotal question: do they extend Williamson? The answer is no.
Here are three reasons why the Pelicans should trade Williamson this offseason.
Friction between Zion Williamson and New Orleans Pelicans is worrisome
Williamson is an incredible talent. The 2019 No. 1 pick has dazzled the basketball scene. He has been a force to be reckoned with who gets a great deal of points through physicality in the paint. All the while, he skies above the rim and can handle the rock.
Williamson has appeared in 85 games across his three seasons in the NBA. The combination of knee, ankle and foot injuries have contributed to that figure and came on the heels of a knee injury in his lone season playing for the Duke Blue Devils. There’s legitimate reason to be worried about Williamson’s long-term health given his offensive tendencies at 6-foot-6, 284 pounds.
Then there’s Williamson’s supposedly shaky relationship with the Pelicans’ higher-ups. There was controversy over Williamson’s minutes reduction in the NBA bubble two years ago, which supposedly played a role in then-head coach Alvin Gentry’s dismissal. Then Stan Van Gundy was fired after one season as head coach which was followed by offseason rumors of Williamson wanting out of New Orleans.
- Zion Williamson stats (career): 25.7 points, seven rebounds and 3.2 assists per game while shooting 60.4/33.3/68.3 across 85 games
Williamson, who didn’t play this season due to a foot injury, was spotted doing 360° dunks before playoff games. Why is that relevant? New Orleans and Williamson reportedly disagree on the severity of his injury.
In other words, there appears to be discord between the two sides on Williamson’s medicals, an emotional topic which can lead to mistrust. Meanwhile, the Pelicans are on their third head coach in three years. Surely, there’s a falsehood or two about their relationship, but where there’s smoke, there’s fire: the Pelicans have a dicey relationship with their star.
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New Orleans Pelicans have nucleus without Zion Williamson
As previously alluded to, the Pelicans are coming off an auspicious season without Williamson. In his absence, their roster flaunted potential across the board.
McCollum and Brandon Ingram are each prolific scorers. The former is accustomed to sinking perimeter jump shots, scoring off the dribble and serving as either a primary (this season) or secondary source of offense (his time in Portland). Regarding the latter, Ingram has continually improved as a scorer and all-around player, becoming the driving force of the Pelicans’ operation.
Center Jonas Valanciunas is a sturdy and versatile offensive big man in his prime. Rookie Herbert Jones showcased the ability to be a stout defender and athletic scorer. Jose Alvarado is a scrappy player and lockdown defender. Trey Murphy III can sink outside jump shots. Devonte’ Graham is a plausible shooter and playmaker. Speedy point guard Kira Lewis Jr. should return from a torn ACL next season, adding another piece to the mix.
Green is a mere year into his coaching tenure. Another training camp and season will allow the Pelicans to get more accustomed to his system and build chemistry. This is especially the case with McCollum, who joined the Pelicans in the thick of the regular season.
New Orleans has two legitimate scorers, a reliable center, some proven players yet to reach 30 and a bevy of enticing youngsters. Plus, the Pelicans’ theoretical return on Williamson would further supplement their establishment.
New Orleans Pelicans can get a haul for Zion Williamson, save money
It’s difficult to gauge what the Pelicans would get for Williamson in a trade. When healthy, Williamson has been a star, but he also has a uniquely ominous track record with his health. That said, it’s safe to expect a compelling player on a rookie deal and an imminent lottery selection as a bare-minimum baseline.
Yes, Williamson could play the entire 2022-23 season and make the Pelicans look foolish for trading him. But it’s a greater risk for them to bank on Williamson staying healthy/mending their relationship with him than trading him. Getting what they can for Williamson, presumably from a rebuilding team or one looking for direction, is the prudent play for the Pelicans.
New Orleans also has minimal payroll flexibility. Ingram and McCollum are making $30-plus million per season and Williamson will likely command a max deal. In trading Williamson, the Pelicans get players on cheap deals and draft capital. They delay giving out another mammoth contract and add depth.
Another option for New Orleans is cashing in on Williamson’s current trade value, rerouting some of the assets they acquire plus existing pieces in the building for a long-term point guard (Dejounte Murray? De’Aaron Fox?).
It will be a tough pill to swallow, but the Pelicans can’t afford to give Williamson a max deal. Williamson hasn’t done enough to justify a deal of that magnitude. Get what you can for him as soon as possible.