By Jon Whited
David Griffin, the Pelicans’ GM, didn’t waste any time making a splash in New Orleans after arriving just two short months ago. Griffin pulled off a blockbuster trade sending the disgruntled superstar PF Anthony Davis to the Lakers. In exchange for Davis, the Pelicans received PG Lonzo Ball, SF Brandon Ingram, PG Josh Hart, three first round draft picks and the opportunity to swap picks at a time to be determined later. The draft picks include the 2019 no. 4 pick, a 2021 first rounder if it falls in the top 8 (otherwise it rolls over to a 2022 unprotected first rounder, which is much more likely), a 2024 unprotected first rounder with the option to roll that unprotected pick over to 2025, and New Orleans’ option to swap picks with L.A. in 2023.
The team has belonged to Davis since he was drafted, but he wasn’t the only star on the team as New Orleans will return all-star level talent, Jrue Holiday, at the guard position. While he has never received the praise around the league he deserves, Holiday, the one-time all-star and deserving of as much this past season, where he averaged 21/8/5 and earned 2nd team All-Defense honors following last year’s 1st team selection. With his production, the addition of Zion, and the young Laker pieces, New Orleans should remain relatively competitive in a stacked Western conference. They most likely won’t win many games and are likely to end up back in the lottery, but they will make you earn it each night playing against them.
With three years left on his deal at $26-27 million/year (a fair deal for Holiday), that is the only significant financial commitment the Pelicans currently have (all new Pelican pieces are still on relatively cheap rookie deals and no one else on the New Orleans roster from last year is signed past next season). At 29, you would imagine Holiday still has a few years of his prime left (last year was his best yet – he might get even get better) and his contract is reasonable on a team with a bunch of young talent. The question is how does he fit with Lonzo in the backcourt. It isn’t an ideal fit with an obvious lack of shooting (neither shot better than 33% from three last year) but it allows Holiday to play off the ball and become more of a scoring threat for this young team. Assuming the young Pels run the high-paced tempo one would expect, this might also be a good fit for Ball to use his playmaking, vision, and passing with another guard ready to carry the scoring load. Overall, I think Lonzo’s ceiling is the 4th best player on a championship team where he asked to run the point, create for others, and play defense (he’s not a good enough scorer to be the 3rd best player on a title team). This could be his destiny in New Orleans if Zion lives up to the hype and they hit on a draft pick or two over the next two years. No matter the offensive fit, they will have one of the best – if not the best – defensive backcourts in the league with the pairing of the new backcourt mates. Another option – and I haven’t heard the Pelicans exploring this yet – is to trade Holiday and completely rebuild. but at that point, it would be tough to get the proper value for Holiday as I feel he is underrated and just about every team has a good lead guard already. I would suggest they keep Holiday in hopes the rebuild starts sooner than expected, and the last couple years of his contract would be meaningful years for the franchise as they try to quickly rebuild around Zion and compete for the playoffs within a couple of seasons. You can always trade him later too if the rebuild doesn’t progress as quickly as they hope.
In addition to adding young talent to the backcourt, New Orleans also added young depth at the wing position in Brandon Ingram and Josh Hart. Ingram, the no. 2 pick in 2017 draft, still has great upside as an all-star caliber scorer in this league. Don’t forget, while he had an unremarkable season after everyone expecting to see the “jump” from him in 2018-2019, he still averaged 18.3 PPG on 50% FG for the dysfunctional Lakers squad in his 3rd season. So, there are signs of production, but he still has room to improve outside of his frame, specifically his three-point shooting (and free-throw shooting), finishing strong at the rim, and playmaking for others. If he puts in the work and makes improvement in these areas, Ingram could be the prize of the trade for New Orleans and has an all-NBA ceiling still despite three underwhelming years since being drafted. Hart, the former NCAA champion at Villanova and an important bench piece for the Lakers the past two seasons, will provide some much-appreciated versatility and shooting off the bench. At his reduced price on a 2nd round-rookie deal, he can be seen as a steal for the Pelicans.
While the Lakers are building for the present to maximize the remaining years of LeBron’s seemingly endless prime with the inevitable re-signing of Davis (covered in Tuesday’s piece on blackandyellow.blog), the Pelicans are doing the opposite and building for the future with a haul of young talent and draft compensation. A future that looks brighter than any team seemingly destined to return to the draft lottery next year. Even with similar endings, this feels a huge turnaround from last year with a franchise player itching to leave. As with seemingly everything in the NBA, New Orleans required a significant amount of luck to kickstart such a bright future as they entered this year’s lottery with a 6% chance at landing the #1 pick. The Pelicans still jumped up six spots and all of the sudden feel confident in trading Davis to then go full rebuild mode. A rebuild centered around the consensus first-overall pick in the 2019 NBA Draft, Duke forward and athletic wunderkind Zion Williamson. (Editor’s Note: Equally as important, the Lakers jumped up seven spots to grab the no. 4 pick, one of the prized assets in this monster trade. It’s difficult to imagine this deal working without some lottery luck on both sides.)
In addition to the good haul of current young players, the Pelicans acquired hope for the future, something this franchise had little of at season’s end with AD dangling both feet out the door. It obviously sucks to lose a generational talent, but anytime you can replace one with another in Williamson, it tends to soften the blow. Zion is as hyped a prospect we’ve seen since Kevin Durant, and rightfully so. He had one of the most incredible freshman seasons in NCAA history, showcasing his incredible athleticism, “Energizer Bunny” motor and zeal for the ball with a high basketball IQ to match. In the social media era we live in, the hype around Zion may be impossible to live up to, save maybe LeBron, and we’ve all been conditioned to think of him as a once-in-a-lifetime type superstar. The Pelicans are just hoping he can live up to Anthony Davis standards and they will be business. One thing they do expect is that Zion will bring more playoff success than Davis was able to (AD only made the playoffs twice and never made it out the 2nd round in the Big Easy). Even though his ceiling and floor are both sky high, that is a lot to ask for out of any prospect, but if anyone can reach impossible heights, Williamson seems like a likely candidate. His game should quickly translate to the NBA with his already NBA-ready body (listed unofficially at 6’ 7” 284 lbs – did I say NBA? I meant NFL) and his athleticism. His work ethic and his basketball IQ will hopefully be the tools that allow him to reach his ungodly potential. No matter what his ultimate destiny is, Zion brings excitement to a city that can use it after Anthony Davis took a huge dump on them last year, quitting on the team after trade demands were leaked by his agent (and LeBron’s BFF), Rich Paul.
We mentioned earlier that Los Angeles had to jump seven spots in the lottery for the rights to the no. 4 pick in this year’s draft. With that luck, this pick then becomes arguably the most important piece in securing this blockbuster deal. The question now becomes do the Pelicans keep that pick? Or do they trade it for more assets? The interesting thing with the no. 4 pick is this draft is esentially a 3-man draft with the consensus Zion – 1, Ja – 2, and R.J. – 3. Usually, this means teams are going to be looking to trade, or acquire as many picks as possible. The Hawks have the no. 8 and 10 picks they would like to consolidate, but that seems like too much. Boston has three picks in the first (no. 14, 20, and 22). If either of these teams really likes someone at four, you might see the Pelicans trade down and accumulate more picks acquiring even more young talent in the process. If they acquired the no. 14 pick from Boston (among others), they could target Nickeil Alexander-Walker to provide more play making, shooting, and defensive versatility (he has shades of Malcolm Brogdon – not as smooth though).
After the top 3 in this draft, there is a drop off and the certainty is no longer there. You might be just as likely to find a key piece at no. 8-10 as you are at no. 4 given the guys projected to go in that range (there isn’t much separating them). So, it will be interesting to see what Griffin and the Pelicans decide to do with it, but it comes down to whether you have “your guy” at no. 4 or not. If do, go ahead and take him; if not, trade down and keep stockpiling assets – a Bill Belicheck-type move, to borrow from anotehr sport. Either way, they should definitely float the pick to see what is out there as interest ranges from the Hawks, Grizzlies, Timberwolves and Celtics.
Everything in this trade centers around hope. The Pelicans hope that they didn’t underpay while giving up one of the league’s best players. Zion hopes that he’s not destined to end up in the same position – frustrated with the front office and demanding a trade – that bogged down his predecessors. The league hopes that this becomes a marketing boon for a city that has – let’s be honest – never been too enthused about basketball with the New Orleans Saints right next door. These young Lakers hope that they can be re-energized by the change of scenery and zip code to craft the career they were promised.
And all of those Atlas-style expectations ride high on the broad shoulders of Zion. If he can make the unrealistic probable, he can turn this around faster than people think and achieve heights Anthony Davis never did. There will be growing pains, to be sure – every superstar goes through that crucible – but for how long? LeBron didn’t make the playoffs until year 3, and Jordan the same. Will these young Lakers flourish in a new zip code and give Zion the supporting cast or second banana Anthony Davis never had? Or will New Orleans falls short in the Zion era as they did with Davis, and Chris Paul before him?
Only time will tell, but for now, hope is enough.