When the New Orleans Pelicans leapfrogged six spots to land the No. 1-overall pick in the 2019 NBA Draft, they received the a golden ticket to selecting the 6’7, 275-pound tank that is Zion Williamson. No longer were they the team tethered to Anthony Davis, strong-arming his way to Los Angeles by hook or by crook. With their luck of the ping pong ball draw, the Pelicans became a team with a new face.
The question now is, how do they build around it? The good news is they have plenty of options, thanks to the bounty of prospects and future picks they received from the Lakers in the Davis trade.
Williamson is a player the likes of which the NBA has never seen. He is of the LeBron James, Charles Barkley ilk, though his most superficial comparison has been to Rodney Rogers. He was one of the best players in college basketball history, a transcendent talent who will make the Pelicans more relevant than they ever dreamed after trading their best player ever to the Los Angeles Lakers.
But to properly build around him, new Pelicans GM David Griffin must answer these three questions.
1. Is Jrue Holiday part of the future?
“[Davis is] like 90 percent of the reason that I stayed,” Holiday told reporters in late January after Davis requested a trade. “He’s a talent that comes once in a generation. A 7-footer who can do everything at his skill level.”
That talent is now gone and has been replaced by another. But what does it mean for New Orleans’ floor general?
Holiday signed a five-year, $131 million contract in 2017, of which he has three years and $77.8 million remaining. He has proven to be one of the best two-way guards in the NBA, but he also just turned 29 years old.
Keeping or trading Holiday sets the pace at which the Pelicans move forward. If they keep Holiday, they’re making a run for it right now. If they trade him, it’s safe to gather New Orleans is fully rebuilding around Williamson and is in no rush to do so overnight.
There would be no shortage of suitors for Holiday on the market. The laundry list of teams that could use his services include Phoenix, Orlando, Detroit, Indiana, Minnesota, and Chicago.
Or, Griffin could opt to keep Holiday and re-tool with a playoff-ready roster for Williamson’s rookie year.
2. To keep or not to keep pick No. 4
This year’s class is considered by many to be three players deep (Williamson, Ja Morant, R.J. Barrett), but there are always gems hidden in the pool. Jarrett Culver, De’Andre Hunter, Darius Garland, and Coby White are popular selections across multiple mock drafts after the first three picks, and the Pelicans would benefit from adding any one of those talents alongside Williamson for the long haul.
But what are Griffin’s options if he’s not in love with any of those players? He has options, and they’re fun:
- The Pelicans could trade down. It took pick No. 5 and a future first-round pick for Dallas to move up two spots and select Luka Doncic in last year’s draft. What’s the price to move up to No. 4? The consensus has been this year’s class isn’t as loaded as last year’s. Are Nos. 8 and 10 from Atlanta enough to move into the top five? New Orleans could use those picks to select Cam Reddish and Kevin Porter. That’s scary. Other trade partners could be the Celtics, armed with three first-round picks (Nos. 14, 20 and 22), and the Hornets, who sit at pick No. 12 but will have a very attractive unprotected first-rounder in 2020 should Kemba Walker leave Charlotte this summer.
- They could also trade the pick for current talent. This makes sense if Griffin and Pelicans brass decide to become competitive immediately. Ingram and pick No. 4 could be the starting framework for a deal with Washington for Bradley Beal. Did Gordon Hayward show enough to take a flyer the remaining two years, $67 million left on his deal? Could the Timberwolves interest the Pelicans in Andrew Wiggins and other pieces? What about someone like Olando’s Aaron Gordon, as The Bird Writes suggested.
- Or, of course, the Pelicans can keep the pick. They’d have their choice of Culver, Hunter, Garland, White or any other prospect available on the board. History has shown if you can’t assemble a super team in free agency, the best way to build a contender is through the draft. New Orleans has two of the first four picks in a top-heavy class that is expected to have sleepers scattered throughout. Keeping the pick wouldn’t be a mistake if a knock-your-socks-off trade isn’t on the table.
3. What kind of free agents will New Orleans pursue, and when?
Williamson may have shown he’s not afraid to shoot the three in one season at Duke, but he didn’t exactly inspire confidence he’ll ever become a knock-down shooter, either. That means every other player on the floor needs to be a threat from distance, and that’s before New Orleans decides whether its plan is to win now or wait until the future, when all those Lakers draft picks come into play.
With players like Williamson and Lonzo Ball, it only makes sense that the Pelicans be a fun-loving, running-and-gunning, high-flying team. With two dynamic play-makers in the open-court, New Orleans, not Los Angeles, could be the next Showtime team. How does Brandon Ingram fit into the picture once he returns from his Deep Vein Thrombosis? That’s on Griffin and Alvin Gentry to figure out.
The Pelicans currently project to have $22.5 million in cap space to sign free agents this summer, plus their $4.5 million room mid-level exception. Their roster as currently constructed includes Holiday, Ball, Ingram, Josh Hart, Solomon Hill, and E’Twaun Moore.
Building around Williamson’s strengths — playmaking and finishing in transition, bullying defenders with brute force, and elite athleticism for a player his size — will be Griffin’s most important task. He can’t go wrong with adding shooters, especially ones who serve multiple purposes, like Brook Lopez and Terrence Ross.
There are alternate realities that show different renditions of a New Orleans team built around Zion Williamson. One reality is a playoff-ready team, anchored by veterans giving Williamson the space to grow into a contender. The other is a young team, learning on the fly and having fun every step of the way.
And then there’s the most likely path: somewhere in-between playoff contention and player development. That’s the luxury the Pelicans have due to the future Lakers picks coming their way. They can try to accelerate Williamson’s timetable in the short term and re-tool with a lot of future draft picks in the long-term.
Griffin’s Pelicans will be scrutinized every step of the way. Williamson is a player unlike the league has ever seen before. It’s Griffin’s job to build a winner around him.