No more pretending that the Pelicans are not Zion Williamson’s team.
Williamson – a 20-year-old who has played 24 career games – is New Orleans’ longest-serving player.
This will make him the youngest and oldest player to open a season in NBA history. The previous record holder: Brandon Ingram (21) with the 2018-19 Lakers.
What does it mean to build around Williamson? It’s more complicated. The Pelicans both traded a great player (Jrue Holiday) mostly for draft picks and hired a coach (Stan Van Gundy) who puts the present first.
Reading between the lines: New Orleans is calling on Williamson and his other young players to grow up fast.
Brandon Ingram did it last year. Sent to the Pelicans in Anthony Davis’ trade, Ingram was denied the maximum contract extension desired. He went on to become an All-Star, won Most Improved Player and got his maximum deal from New Orleans in Restricted Free Agency.
Williamson and Ingram are one hell of a punch to build. They offer a long trail.
That’s why the Pelicans might jump on a great (desperate?) Offer of Bucks for Holiday. New Orleans had three first-round picks and two picks. If Giannis Antetokounmpo leaves Milwaukee, those unprotected 2025 and 2027 picks and 2024 and 2026 swaps could be extremely valuable. Antetokounmpo could easily stick around and help the Bucks send some picks in the late 1920s. But the upside is tantalizing.
The Pelicans’ Path to a Great Team: Williamson and Ingram continue to grow and those Bucks picks turn into another star either by landing high in the right lottery or via trading.
But New Orleans isn’t just waiting for the distant future. Van Gundy will demand more defensive responsibility (and maybe even better conditioning). He’s a win-now coach who won’t let Williamson slip in all the ways the talented big-time did last year.
Not that the Pelicans are simply asking Williamson and their other young players to sink or swim under Van Gundy.
New Orleans returned a first-round pick, two second-round picks, George Hill (a good player, albeit older) and another filler to the Thunder for Steven Adams. Adams replaces Derrick Favors (who left for Jazz) as crutch center next to Williamson. While Williamson performs best offensively when surrounded by ground spacers, he just can’t keep up defensively in the middle yet. Adams will do the dirty work in the meantime.
Not only was the cost of the trade high for Adams, the Pelicans also granted the 27-year-old a two-year, $ 35 million extension. This is not of great value to someone whose adjustment is a necessary evil at best.
The holiday trade also brought Eric Bledsoe to New Orleans. The Bucks were due to move on to Holiday for the playoffs. But for a team just trying to make the playoffs, the Pelicans don’t face an extreme downfall in Bledsoe. He’s a good regular season player thanks to his defense and driving skills.
Yet the total of the pelicans might be less than the sum of their parts. An expected starting lineup of Lonzo Ball-Eric Bledsoe-Brandon Ingram-Zion Williamson-Steven Adams sorely lacking in shot / outside spacing. Maybe JJ Redick (a Van Gundy favorite from their time with the Magic) or Josh Hart will start.
New Orleans has a lot of depth, including No. 13 selection Kira Lewis (a nice selection) and new cheap big men specialists Wenyan Gabriel (defensive) and Willy Hernangomez (offensive). This could be important in a compressed season amid the coronavirus pandemic.
Pelicans are trying to establish a culture, which can be best done by winning. They have a chance.
I am even more impressed with how they have strengthened their long-term asset base.
Off season rating: B