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Should the New Orleans Pelicans already have NBA championship aspirations?

A deep dive into how close Zion Williamson and company are to contending for a title

NBA: New Orleans Pelicans at Minnesota Timberwolves
Zion is running, presumably quite fast
Jeffrey Becker-USA TODAY Sports

As NBA and WNBA players continue to work tirelessly to both resume their seasons and continue acting alongside #BlackLivesMatter against systemic racism and police brutality, writing about basketball seems like an increasingly trivial activity.

To help these players make the most of their efforts to utilize their platforms to fight against racial and social injustice, I will be donating $10 dollars to an organization or fund with similar ambitions every time I post for The Bird Writes through the end of the season. Today, I will be donating to the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund, which works to achieve racial justice through public education, litigation and advocacy (you can find my donation receipt here). I’m not asking you to match my donation if you read this post, but to give what you can, when you can, to maximize the impact. If you do donate, feel free to tag your receipt in reply to my own with #TheBirdGives.

Go Pels!

As a high schooler, Zion Williamson looked unstoppable. Before and throughout his lone year at Duke University, the trend continued. Not even the NBA’s Summer League or preseason could slow down the 19-year-old phenom.

NBA fans aren’t strangers to such origin stories; every year, we spend considerable time convincing ourselves that so and so is going to translate their amateur success onto the professional stage. More often than not, players fail to recapture the glory they had while growing up. Sometimes, they carve out a foothold and stick around for a while, and a select few even manage to rise to superstar status. The best players in the league often need a bit of time to establish their identity as such.

Apparently, lacking precedent is as porous an obstacle as the rest.

The night Zion first saw regular season action was the start of a 19-game stretch that not only officially established his presence in the NBA canon, but launched him all the way up to one of the top talent tiers the league can boast. Nineteen games is undeniably a tragically tiny sample size, but it’s far from nothing, especially considering the remarkable combination of efficiency and consistency on display. Zion’s averaging 23.6 points and 6.8 rebounds per game on 58.9 percent shooting, a very basic stat line that exactly zero other current or former players in the league can boast. Drop the field goal percentage down to 50 percent, and he’s joined by some pretty solid company: fellow first-overall picks Anthony Davis and Karl-Anthony Towns, and reigning MVP Giannis Antetokounmpo.

Zion is already great. It’s hard to say precisely how much so given the present dearth of data, but that unknown has gotten me thinking a lot about just how great he already is. The best of the best in the NBA have often proven capable of propelling their team into title contention. Is Zion at the point already where such success isn’t out of the question, even while on his rookie contract? It’s a recklessly optimistic thought exercise but a fun one nevertheless; thus, I will entertain it for the rest of this post.

This undertaking is less about Zion individually than it is the Pelicans as a whole, so I will be comparing the entirety of the New Orleans roster to that of every team that has made the Finals in the 21st century, dating back to the Los Angeles Lakers and Philadelphia 76ers from 2000-01. I acknowledge that the following activity would ideally feature all teams from the past twenty years, but looking at the best-of-the-best is still, at the very least, a worthwhile endeavor.

What I’m concerning myself with most is roster construction. What are the baselines for how much money Finals teams have spent and how efficient that spending was? Therefore, I’ve created a miniature database that houses the contract and cap data from each player from the sample in question. For uniformity’s sake, all of the dollar figures have been adjusted for inflation to what their value would be today.

In order to cohesively scale and assess team success across such a long period, FiveThirtyEight’s RAPTOR Wins Above Replacement (WAR) for regular-season performance will serve as the primary measurement. The exact resume of replacement-level players has evolved throughout the last two decades (according to FiveThirtyEight, the average production from players on two-way contracts is the current standard), but this measurement of performance relative to that reference point makes it an ideal tool.

Because of how much the salary cap has grown (in 2000-01, it was $51,423,665 in adjusted dollars, compared to the staggering-by-comparison $109,140,000 of 2019-20), I also utilized a WAR/Cap% calculation to demonstrate how many wins a player was worth per one percent of their hit against the league cap. This helps illustrate which players contributed the most (or least) value, rather than just their raw in-game production. Here is an example:

WAR + Cap% Example

Player Team Contract League Cap% WAR WAR/Cap%
Player Team Contract League Cap% WAR WAR/Cap%
Allen Iverson 2001 Sixers $15,050,629 29.27% 10.73 0.37
Dikembe Mutumbo 2001 Sixers $21,394,774 41.60% 5.13 0.12
Eric Snow 2001 Sixers $5,021,829 9.77% 4.07 0.42
*Contract + League Cap values adjusted for inflation

Allen Iverson accumulated more WAR (10.73) than Dikembe Mutumbo (5.13) and Eric Snow (4.07) combined, which is quite good given that both of those individual totals are solid on their own. With WAR/Cap%, it becomes clear that Snow’s output relative to his cap hit (.42) was much more efficient than Mutumbo’s (.12). However, a higher rating in that metric is not indicative of a better player: it is merely recognizing value. Snow even manages to best Iverson (.37), but because Iverson stayed so close despite demanding almost triple the salary, he is unquestionably the most valuable player of this trio. As for Mutumbo, it is not as if he wasn’t worth having. A crucial part of the picture to consider is the total amount of money available to spend. Even though his WAR/Cap% is low, the Sixers’ WAR total still increased as a result of his being on the team (for the example’s sake, we’ll assume Mutumbo was on the Sixers for the entirety of this season.)

The last thing I will say about the data that I’ve chosen to use is that playing time is not factored in. WAR is a result stat, not a rate stat, so if a player missed a lot of time, they’re WAR total, positive or negative will pale (or shine) in comparison to that of a player of identical skill and more playing time (players accumulating the most negative WAR are not often the worst players in the league, because those who are truly the worst do not get that same amount of playing time). I figured for the sake of this exercise, looking at the performance relative to the cap would be more than enough.

With all of that said, here’s what the numbers said.

The average Finals team utilized 132% of the league salary cap (possible thanks to the various exceptions available to teams) and accumulated 43.06 WAR at a .33 WAR/Cap% rate. If your curiosity is piqued about how particular teams stack up, here is a table of data from each Finals team since the turn of the century:

Finals Team Data

Team Adj. Cap Total % Cap Used League Cap Adj. Cap Total WAR WAR/1%Cap
Team Adj. Cap Total % Cap Used League Cap Adj. Cap Total WAR WAR/1%Cap
2001 Lakers 82,812,947 161 35,500,000 51,423,655 42.51 0.26
2001 Sixers 76,750,792 149 35,500,000 51,423,655 31.77 0.21
2002 Lakers 77,972,378 129 42,500,000 60,571,122 46.85 0.36
2002 Nets 63,805,206 105 42,500,000 60,571,122 37.52 0.36
2003 Spurs 75,472,746 134 40,271,000 56,115,449 42.91 0.32
2003 Nets 73,558,053 131 40,271,000 56,115,449 39.93 0.30
2004 Lakers 88,624,364 149 43,840,000 59,504,038 39.61 0.27
2004 Pistons 70,775,495 119 43,840,000 59,504,038 46.65 0.39
2005 Spurs 79,634,669 138 43,870,000 57,593,470 47.70 0.35
2005 Pistons 58,303,500 101 43,870,000 57,593,470 28.82 0.29
2006 Mavericks 90,966,552 144 49,500,000 62,953,883 44.15 0.31
2006 Heat 90,466,462 144 49,500,000 62,953,883 37.90 0.26
2007 Spurs 82,882,668 126 53,135,000 65,705,429 49.38 0.39
2007 Cavs 79,522,647 121 53,135,000 65,705,429 37.21 0.31
2008 Lakers 92,983,380 140 55,630,000 66,247,094 47.22 0.34
2008 Celtics 98,999,984 149 55,630,000 66,247,094 54.59 0.37
2009 Lakers 86,297,064 123 58,680,000 70,128,695 42.12 0.34
2009 Magic 81,558,597 116 58,680,000 70,128,695 46.55 0.40
2010 Lakers 108,451,988 160 57,700,000 67,844,653 37.48 0.23
2010 Celtics 101,646,566 150 57,700,000 67,844,653 36.37 0.24
2011 Mavericks 104,111,499 157 58,044,000 66,160,751 40.08 0.26
2011 Heat 81,529,459 123 58,044,000 66,160,751 47.92 0.39
2012 Thunder 66,272,614 102 58,044,000 64,819,347 37.18 0.36
2012 Heat 89,054,011 137 58,044,000 64,819,347 34.53 0.25
2013 Spurs 66,545,262 104 58,044,000 63,883,606 44.60 0.43
2013 Heat 89,032,870 139 58,044,000 63,883,606 47.20 0.34
2014 Spurs 69,025,029 109 58,679,000 63,551,565 48.72 0.45
2014 Heat 88,582,474 139 58,679,000 63,551,565 48.72 0.35
2015 Warriors 77,921,901 114 63,065,000 68,220,792 53.71 0.47
2015 Cavs 88,342,096 129 63,065,000 68,220,792 40.87 0.32
2016 Warriors 93,637,571 125 70,000,000 74,779,402 56.49 0.45
2016 Cavs 116,244,698 155 70,000,000 74,779,402 43.95 0.28
2017 Warriors 104,884,211 107 94,143,000 98,472,994 57.65 0.54
2017 Cavs 133,976,140 136 94,143,000 98,472,994 35.14 0.26
2018 Warriors 140,677,697 139 99,093,000 101,179,380 41.27 0.30
2018 Cavs 143,803,494 142 99,093,000 101,179,380 33.84 0.24
2019 Warriors 147,637,753 145 101,869,000 102,162,664 43.67 0.30
2019 Raptors 138,157,136 135 101,869,000 102,162,664 43.67 0.32

Let’s take a closer look at a team that just about matches the averages from above, like the 2015 Cleveland Cavaliers.

That Cavs team, the first that featured LeBron James since 2010, used 129 percent of the cap, with each of those percentage points contributing .32 WAR for a total of 40.87 WAR. The most prolific contributor was not James (10.09 WAR), but Kyrie Irving (10.36). Now, 10 WAR from a single player isn’t as rare in the NBA as it is in the MLB, but it is still indicative of superstar-caliber production. FiveThirtyEight’s database dates back to 1977 (note: modern tracking data that factors into all WAR calculations since 2014), containing 17,484 single-season WAR totals for individual players. Just 500 of them, about 2.8 percent, were greater than or equal to 10.

Among Finals participants, that percentage climbs to 8.4 percent, and just five teams (the 2012 Thunder, 2013 Spurs, 2014 Spurs, 2018 Warriors and 2019 Warriors) of the 38 included did not have one player in double-digit WAR (which, as stated earlier, can be attributed in part to playing time, which in the case of the Warriors was affected negatively by scattered injuries to top players.)

Irving’s value during that season is even more evident when his contract is taken into consideration. He made a hair over $8 million and represented just 11.75% of the league cap, leaving his WAR/Cap% at .88, the 10th-best for a player with double-digit WAR.

Rounding out the top producers from that roster are Kevin Love (7.76), Timofey Mozgov (4.34 (!)), J.R. Smith (4.08) and Iman Shumpert (3.64).

Analyzing each of these teams would be fun, but would take an eternity. If you want to see tidbits that I had to cut from the final draft of this post, I’ll be sharing a few on Twitter in the coming days.

Now that we have (and hopefully understand!) all of these numbers, where do the 2019-20 Pelicans stack up?

The anti-climactic answer is that, despite all of the data available, it’s hard to say for sure! Most of the data available on the Pelicans from this season comes from a period that included an assortment of injuries, most notably to Zion himself. Plus, the season didn’t finish, and the final 17 games’ worth of data would presumably look a lot better than the disastrous first 17 the Pelicans had. With that said, turbulence throughout the season is something every team experiences, so what we have is still worth using.

Through 65 games, the Pelicans accumulated a total of 22.5 WAR, which had them on pace for 27.45 at season’s end. Jrue Holiday was the lead producer by a longshot, totaling 7.38 WAR. Brandon Ingram’s 3.8 WAR barely beat Derrick Favor’s 3.42, despite the latter playing nearly 900 fewer minutes. Lonzo Ball and Josh Hart round out the top five at 2.49 WAR and 2.48 respectively. Zion played only 565 minutes, but his 1.51 WAR was still good for seventh-best on the team, with JJ Redick’s 1.57 outpacing him by a hair.

Hart proved to be the biggest bargain. His $1.9 million salary is the third-lowest on the team, so his 1.4 WAR/Cap% is stellar. Kenrich Williams comes closest to that mark with a .91 of his own, but most of his WAR came in the first few weeks of the season, and both the quantity and quality of his production tailed off heavily in the months that followed. Otherwise, the relative value the Pelicans were getting from their core players was fine.

Holiday had the biggest cap figure, marking nearly 23.94 percent of the league cap, and still managed to keep his WAR/Cap% at .31, the same mark as Ball’s and, for reference’s sake, the same as LeBron’s during the 2015 Cavs season. The closer a contract gets to a max deal, the harder it becomes for an elevated WAR/Cap% total, since a max contract that was worth, say, 30% of the league salary cap would need a corresponding 30 WAR to have a WAR/Cap% of 1.00 (the record for single-season WAR belongs to, shockingly, Michael Jordan, who racked up 24.36 in 1988.)

Here is a full list of the Pelicans figures (sorted alphabetically):

2019-20 Pelicans WAR Data

Player Team Contract League Cap% WAR WAR/CAP%
Player Team Contract League Cap% WAR WAR/CAP%
Nickeil Alexander-Walker 2020 Pelicans 2,964,840 0.03 -0.41 -0.15
Lonzo Ball 2020 Pelicans 8,719,320 0.08 2.49 0.31
Derrick Favors 2020 Pelicans 17,650,000 0.16 3.42 0.21
Josh Hart 2020 Pelicans 1,934,160 0.02 2.48 1.40
Jaxson Hayes 2020 Pelicans 4,862,040 0.00 -0.17 -0.04
Jrue Holiday 2020 Pelicans 26,131,111 0.24 7.38 0.31
Brandon Ingram 2020 Pelicans 7,265,485 0.07 3.80 0.57
Frank Jackson 2020 Pelicans 1,618,520 0.01 -1.34 -0.91
Nicolo Melli 2020 Pelicans 4,102,564 0.04 0.12 0.03
Darius Miller 2020 Pelicans 7,250,000 0.07 -
E'Twaun Moore 2020 Pelicans 8,664,928 0.08 0.68 0.09
Jahlil Okafor 2020 Pelicans 1,702,486 0.02 -0.20 -0.13
JJ Redick 2020 Pelicans 13,486,300 0.12 1.57 0.13
Sindarius Thornwell 2020 Pelicans 183,115 0.00 -
Kenrich Williams 2020 Pelicans 1,416,852 0.01 1.18 0.91
Zion Williamson 2020 Pelicans 9,757,440 0.09 1.51 0.17

The belief that the Pelicans run deep with competent players would surely welcome the support of these numbers. Each of the top six minute-getters through 65 games similarly find themselves in the top six WAR rankings for the roster, with guys like Kenrich Williams (1.2), E’Twaun Moore (0.7) and Nicolo Melli (0.1) not on pace to break into that group even with more minutes (a sign of solid minutes distribution), but still in positive territory.

Young players and recent draft picks, especially high ones, are more likely to receive more opportunity to find their footing early on in their career, which definitely has some long-term benefits. One short-term drawback is that a player who is failing to produce effectively could beginning driving his WAR total down into the negatives, which has played out for Jaxson Hayes (-0.2), Nickeil Alexander-Walker (-0.4) and Frank Jackson (-1.3).

A negative WAR in one season does not relegate a player to a mediocre career. For example, the Raptors took a flier on a forward from Cameroon before the 2016-17 season who would rack up -0.4 WAR of his own as a rookie. Pascal Siakam has, in the complete years since, elevated that to 2.6 and then 7.2 before racking up 3.9 in the pre-stoppage 2019-20 season.

However, it certainly doesn’t hurt when a rookie takes their playing time and is immediately a positive force. Enter Zion.

FiveThirtyEight tabbed 3.5 WAR the 50th-percentile projection for Zion’s rookie season, which means that figure is about the midpoint between the probable best-case and worst-case scenarios for the year. In 565 minutes, he managed 1.5 WAR, a per-minute pace that would equate to roughly 6.4 WAR if he had played an (admittedly unlikely no matter how this season played out) 75 games at 32 minutes per. The exact “Confidence Interval” of a 6.4 WAR season isn’t available, but the eye test seems to place it somewhere between the 70th and 80th percentile. In other words, he performed slightly better than expected right off the bat, which certainly aligns with his staggering basic box score stats.

Alas, that’s not what’s actually happened this year. The 27.45 WAR the team was on pace to reach in an 82-game season does not eclipse even the lowest total from our Finals teams (the bottom three from that group of 38 includes the ‘18 Cavs (33.84), the ‘01 Sixers (31.77) and the ‘05 Pistons (28.82.)) In this regard, the 2019-20 Pelicans do not appear to be a Finals-caliber team.

Now, 2,000 words deep, that probably seems like a pretty obvious conclusion. Their play with Zion in the lineup this year may be a good deal better than that raw total indicates, but again, regular season struggles also plagued many of these Finals teams in some form. This season, a title seems unlikely (but we can still hope!), not that that was an expected outcome by any means. When a team wins the draft lottery, selects three players in the top 17 of that draft, and trades a franchise cornerstone for three players under 25 years of age, the natural expectation is that they are building towards contention in a few years.

But might the Pelicans’ window be opening sooner than expected?

As currently constructed, this roster churned out .25 WAR/Cap%, which would rank in the 13th percentile of these current Finals teams (where this ranks among all rosters since the turn of the century would be more insightful and reliable, but what is here is true all the same). That seems like a pretty great start, considering the youth of this team is expected to improve in the immediate future. None of that youth would be more crucial to this leap than Zion.

How Zion performs upon his eventual return to the Orlando bubble will help project next year with even more confidence. There stands to be plenty of improvement simply from his ability to stay on the floor more often, but his actual skill level would hopefully evolve as well. Before this season began, a 10-WAR season in his sophomore season ranked in the 90th percentile of possibilities (again, quite far from the more-likely 50th percentile). Wherever he lands, it will presumably be a major value relative to his contract. The rookie deal for a first-overall pick is nothing to scoff at: both $9,757,440 in year one and $10,245,480 in year two equate to roughly nine percent of the league cap (expected to be $115,000,000 next season), a minuscule price to pay for production already sitting somewhere between above-average and elite.

The expectations for Lonzo Ball are lower, but he is in a very similar boat, mathematically speaking. With his $11,003,782 salary due for next year (10 percent of the league cap), a breakout that builds on the positives of this current season could pay massive dividends in the win column. A horrid pre-Zion portion of the season put Ball off pace of FiveThirtyEight’s 50th-percentile projection for him (5.2 WAR), but they leave a ton of variability on the table for the years to come. For the 2020-21 season, the difference between the 90th percentile projection (about 12 WAR) and the 10th percentile (about 2 WAR) is basically an entire prime Holiday season. So we’ll see!

Speaking of Holiday, he was on pace to hit 10.1 WAR by season’s end, which would have been his third-straight campaign finishing in double digits (10.9 after 2017-18, 10.3 after 2018-19). That year-over-year decline is very slight, but it is still a decline. Given what Holiday has been able to do as a consistent force on both sides of the ball in recent seasons, a major decline for the freshly-anointed 30-year-old seems unlikely. As the team’s highest-paid player (23.94 percent of the league cap this season), keeping the bar somewhere around or just below 10 WAR is a solid step in the right direction.

If the cap rises next season to the estimated $115,000,000, Holiday’s cap percentage will wind up closer to 23 percent than 24 percent, but he will also be in line to become the second-biggest earner on the team once Ingram locks in a max contract. This contract is right alongside the progressions of Zion and Ball as the keys for theoretical title contention as early as next season, but it may ultimately prove to be the most important of them all.

Ingram’s 2019-20 WAR total stands at 3.8, which ranks 65th among all players. The nearly 5-WAR pace he was on was at about the 90th percentile of FiveThirtyEight’s projection this season, which he was able to reach in large part because of increased shooting proficiency and three-point frequency that are by all means sustainable moving forward. However, the trick is that even in a world where he bumps up his production to 6.5 WAR next season, a 30 percent increase of his current pace, that equates to a .26 WAR/Cap%, which is fine, but a few precious ticks behind the more digestible output from Holiday. Because New Orleans has had such trouble attracting free agents, signing a soon-to-be 23-year-old Ingram long-term is likely the right move, but they will need fortune to look their way to ensure he maintains an upward trajectory to make that cap hit worth it.

There are some question marks that remain about the 2020-21 season. Who will be drafted and who will be traded? What will happen to free agent-to-be Derrick Favors? How else will the Pelicans fill in the roster with the possible departures of E’Twaun Moore, Jahlil Okafor, Kenrich Williams and Frank Jackson? It cannot be overstated, however, what a unique position the Pelicans are in with their combination of rookie contract players on the verge of above-average-to-elite production (Zion, Ball) and max players with a lot left in the tank (Holiday, Ingram). With supporting pieces like Josh Hart and Redick chugging already in place, there may not need to be any sacrifices made to the future to start pursuing serious contention right away.

Zion’s been ready to dance since day one, and the instinct for observers was to think that he’d immediately bring highlights aplenty, with wins a bit further in the distance. However, the NBA’s biggest stage may be best suited to prepare for a Pelicans performance sooner rather than later.

For more Pelicans talk, subscribe to The Bird Calls podcast feed on iTunes, Spotify, Stitcher or Google Podcasts. You can follow this author on Twitter at @NolaYanks2740.