What does the future hold for New Orleans?

It feels like the New Orleans Pelicans have been here before. After trading away Anthony Davis to the Los Angeles Lakers two years ago, many considered the Pelicans to be in excellent shape. They received Brandon Ingram, Lonzo Ball, Josh Hart and draft picks in exchange for Davis and drafted Zion Williamson first overall that same year. Ingram blossomed into an All-Star last year and Ball improved significantly, posting several career-high marks this season. The franchise recently parted ways with their head coach Stan Van Gundy after just one season and the team has not gelled, despite the individual brilliance of Williamson and Ingram. According to a report by The Athletic’s Shams Charania, Joe Vardon and William Guillory, trouble seems to be brewing already as Williamson’s family no longer want him in New Orleans. The star forward is just entering his third season, but speculation about his future has already begun.

Photo by Eric Drost, distributed under a CC BY-SA 2.0 license

On paper, Williamson appears to have quite a bit of help, lining up alongside fellow All-Star Ingram, Ball, Steven Adams, Eric Bledsoe and promising young center Jaxson Hayes. Bledsoe and Adams came over from Milwaukee and Oklahoma City respectively, after a four-team trade sent long-time franchise mainstay Jrue Holiday to the Bucks. The Pelicans were also able to obtain several draft picks in return for Holiday, allowing the franchise to add to its already impressive list of assets.

However, Bledsoe has not performed up to expectations and was reportedly available at the trade deadline, according to Sam Amick of The Athletic. Bledsoe’s defensive capabilities and outside shooting should have been of interest to playoff contenders, but interest was minimal. Bringing in Adams and signing him to a contract extension right away is another move that left many scratching their heads. Adams signed a two-year, $35 million contract extension with New Orleans soon after the trade and his fit with Zion is questionable at best. Zion needs room to operate in the paint and recently made history to become the only player to average at least 27 PPG on 60% shooting from the field. To be clear, Adams is very good at what he does—rebounding, protecting the paint, setting hard screens and finishing in the paint. However, whether those traits are a good fit alongside Williamson in today’s pace and space league is doubtful. Adams only has one year remaining on his contract and could be an asset at the trade deadline, if the Pelicans wish to move on from him.

Before fracturing his finger and putting an end to his season with just five games left on the schedule, Zion had been historically dominant and became the fourth-youngest player in NBA history to be named an All Star. His strength and athleticism make him near impossible to contain even for the best defenses in the league. The fact that Williamson is already producing at a historic rate at such a young age should be downright terrifying for the rest of the league. If he can stay healthy, there is no telling what he could accomplish. Despite his otherworldly athleticism, Williamson’s defensive effort has been questioned by many, averaging only 0.6 blocks per game over his two seasons in the league. He has the tools to defend multiple positions but whether he can unlock that part of his game consistently is yet to be seen.

the offseason

One key decision appears to have been made, with Phoenix Suns assistant Willie Green reportedly finalizing a deal to become the eighth head coach in franchise history according to ESPN’s Andrew Lopez. Green, 39, has been an assistant coach with the Phoenix Suns for the past two seasons and spent three seasons on the Golden State Warriors coaching staff in the years prior. A 12-year NBA veteran, Green has played for New Orleans in the past, and has made stops in Philadelphia, Atlanta, Los Angeles and Orlando.

“Me, Brandon[Ingram] and Zo, the three of us have a great relationship. I really would want Zo to come back. He knows that.”

zion williamson on the impending free agency of lonzo ball

The future of Lonzo Ball in New Orleans is another item on the Pelicans’ agenda as he is set to become a restricted free agent this offseason. Ball averaged career highs in scoring (14.6 PPG), free throw percentage (78.1%) and field goal percentage (41.4%) this year, showing significant improvement across the board. Williamson and Ingram have advocated on his behalf and reportedly want him back next season, according to ESPN’s Andrew Lopez. Williamson recently confirmed as much stating, “Me, Brandon [Ingram] and Zo, the three of us have a great relationship. I really would want Zo to come back. He knows that.”

New Orleans also owns the 10th overall pick in this year’s draft, with reports suggesting the Pelicans may look to trade the pick for more immediate help. Zach Harper of The Athletic reported that some around the league expect a trade in the coming days or on draft night “for some veteran help.” Whether this is the right move is unclear, given the Pelicans are more than just a single piece away from breaking into the playoff picture in the ultra-competitive Western Conference. In what is projected to be a deep draft, the probability of acquiring an impact player at ten is considerably higher than usual, giving the Pelicans much to mull over. However, the Pelicans could afford to make such a move given its impressive cache of draft picks acquired in the Davis and Holiday trades. If an opportunity presents itself to trade for a disgruntled superstar, New Orleans will have the assets to pull off such a move.

In related news, rumors have swirled regarding the future of superstar guard Damian Lillard with the Portland Trailblazers, after yet another first-round exit this postseason. According to ESPN’s Brian Windhorst, Lillard has denied the rumors but stated, “I haven’t made any firm decision on what my future will be. There’s really no need for anyone else to speak for me or report this or report that.” Whether he will request a trade is yet to be seen, but if he does, the Pelicans may come calling with a tantalizing offer. Brandon Ingram, Nickeil Alexander-Walker and Jaxson Hayes may all be on the table in addition to the draft picks New Orleans has managed to accumulate. However, the Blazers have plenty of leverage should Lillard request a trade, as he is still under contract for four more years and this discussion may have to be revisited in the future. Regardless, should the Pelicans acquire him without giving up Ingram, a trio of Lillard, Williamson and Ingram could be nearly unstoppable. With a new chapter on the horizon for New Orleans, this offseason could prove to be critical in the long run. If they can live up to their potential, there is no telling what the future holds for this team.

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