Should Zion Williamson engineer an escape from the hapless Pelicans?
Tuesday night was a dream for the New Orleans Pelicans. They won the 2019 NBA draft lottery, and are first in line to select Zion Williamson, the most highly coveted prospect since the Pelicans last held the top overall pick in 2012, when they selected Anthony Davis.
The lottery didn’t just represent the dawn of a new era. It allows New Orleans to cling to hopes of keeping six-time All-Star Davis, following last year’s will-they-won’t-they trade saga. Davis is heading into the final year of his contract, and adding Williamson may be the team’s only path to keeping Davis long term. That’s a lot of pressure to put on an 18-year-old.
It didn’t appear to be Williamson’s dream night. He left the lottery proceedings immediately after the results were announced, with some reporting he had his heart set on playing in New York. In a basketball world in which we hyper-analyze everything, Williamson’s quick exit could be interpreted as disappointment (it should also be noted that Williamson’s stepfather says his son is “excited” about playing in New Orleans.)
And who can blame him? The Pelicans have been a mess since their inception, when they were called the Hornets. They’ve had ownership issues, have a less than fervent fanbase in a town where the NFL team is a symbol of resurgence post-Hurricane Katrina, and show little signs of long-term vision, despite being gifted a once-in-a-generation talent in Davis. New Orleans have won 50 games just once in franchise history. They maxed out at 48 wins in the Davis era, with a combined record of 251-323 during his seven-year run.
The ill-informed wonder how a player as talented as Davis has struggled to drag his team to contender status. Perhaps he’s just not as good as everyone says, they say. The opposite is true. Davis is special. It’s as if he was constructed in a lab for the modern game. He plays with physicality, grit and guile. He can be a battering ram to the rim, a step-ahead playmaker, or step outside and make shots – few other players can even contest his shot; his release point is too high. The fact Davis hasn’t been able to drag the Pelicans past the second round of the playoffs is not a knock on his greatness, it’s indicative of just how poorly the franchise has been run.
Team ownership is a huge question mark. The Benson family went through a rift at the end of Tom Benson’s life. The former owner of the Saints and Pelicans disinherited his daughter and her children and made his wife Gayle his primary heir. It resulted in a long-running, at times vicious, lawsuit. Gayle Benson still owns the team. And she has already shown a sternness that the nicey-nice franchise so often appeared to lack. Dell Demps, the lousy GM employed since 2010, was ousted in favor of former Cleveland GM David Griffin this offseason.
Griffin was a champion in Cleveland working alongside LeBron James. Life is always easier as an NBA decision-maker when the greatest player of his generation is in your starting five. But Griffin did an excellent job in Cleveland holding everything together until the Kyrie Irving saga disintegrated everything they had hoped to build. He has the chops to build a contender.
Now he walks into a fresh saga: what does Davis want? And how does that impact Zion? Just the thought of Zion and Davis is enough to send any basketball fan doolally. The possibilities are endless. Both can guard all five positions. Either can be a creator or destroyer. A hypothetical pick-and-roll with Williamson as ball-handler would be pretty close to unstoppable.
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Could that tantalizing prospect be enough to get Davis to stay, even just for the short term? Apparently not. Shams Charania of The Athletic reported post-lottery that Davis’ stance on a trade has “not changed”. Griffin will be preparing for two worlds: one in which he moves Davis now and starts a rebuild around Zion in earnest; another in which he drags the Davis saga towards next year’s trade deadline, hoping Zion’s excellence convinces him to stay.
But what about a third scenario. What if Williamson decides he doesn’t want to play in New Orleans? What if he had his heart set on New York or any of the other teams who entered Tuesday with better lottery odds? What if he doesn’t trust ownership (not that the Knicks help there)? What if he doesn’t want to play hoops in a football town?
It’s at least worth considering the possibility. A draft is an act of wage suppression masquerading as an exercise in parity. It exists because the owners cannot control themselves. Put Zion on the open market with the current NBA rules and every owner in the league would chuck a max slot his way before he has played a second of professional hoops (and it would be earned). Open Williamson up to the free market, one without the league’s current salary cap, and it’s not crazy to think he could be in line for a $50m-a-year payday.
Instead, his professional future is decided by a group of ping-pong balls; his salary determined by the rookie wage scale agreed upon by the NBAPA – a group made up of veterans already playing in the league who have no incentive to help the young pups get their payday.
The one thing Zion does have is leverage: no young star entering the league has had so much since LeBron. Williamson’s skill, celebrity, and financial situation (he will sign the largest shoe deal in history in the coming months) mean he can go toe-to-toe with any franchise, particularly the Pelicans, who are notoriously cheap.
There are precedents in the NFL. Eli Manning forced through a draft day trade to the New York Giants after the San Diego Chargers selected him first overall in 2004. John Elway famously ditched the Baltimore Colts for the Denver Broncos after the former selected him with the first pick in the 1983 NFL draft. Elway had leverage: he threatened to play baseball for the New York Yankees.
Williamson finds himself in a not too dissimilar spot. The Davis situation is one of the messiest in the league. Other teams in the lottery are dysfunctional (that’s why they’re drafting in the lottery), but few are in quite the state of disarray as the Pelicans.
Tuesday night was perfect for the Pelicans. They went from planning for a Davis-less future, picturing lean years as they rebuild from the very bottom up. Now, they get to envision a Zion-Davis world and the possibility of championship parades on Bourbon Street. But if Zion opts to flex his considerable muscle, that dream will become a nightmare.
At least we know one thing for sure: the NBA didn’t rig this one.