It’s only natural that the last thoughts of the 2019-20 season center around frustration.
The New Orleans Pelicans, considered one of the favorites to grab the 8th seed, posted a dismal 2-6 performance against a weak slate of opponents inside the Orlando bubble.
Over the last 36 games heading into the COVID-19 stoppage of play, the Pelicans sizzled against a tougher schedule, winning 22 of 36 games with the league’s eighth-best defense and tenth-best offense.
Fans had every reason for optimism. The restart schedule reflected the regular season wrap-up. New Orleans was flying high and the whole team flew to Orlando together and healthy outside of Darius Miller.
What happened next is anyone’s guess. The Pelicans -3.9 net rating in the bubble was 19th over the last eight games — in stark contrast to the +3.8 in the prior 36 games leading into it.
Any number of factors can be used to explain the disappointment. Defensive guru Jeff Bzedelik didn’t make the trip to Florida. Neither did Jamelle McMillan. Per result, the Pelicans defensive net rating fell from 109.4 to 113.9.
The team afforded arguably far too much playing time to youngsters Nickeil Alexander-Walker and Jaxson Hayes instead of veterans like E’Twaun Moore, Nicolo Melli (nine seasons, Euroleague) or Jahlil Okafor. Hayes and NAW combined to play 219 minutes while Moore and Melli united for 215. Okafor didn’t make an appearance until New Orleans was eliminated from the race in the final two games.
Zion’s minutes were a source of much discussion. Griffin reiterated two games into the restart that the Pelicans goal wasn’t to make the playoffs. Rather, they were pleased to play in ‘meaningful games’ and were targeting long-term ‘sustainable success.’
Those comments as well as Zion’s ‘short-minute bursts’ had to be met with disapproval within the locker room as many of the players must have been under the impression that they had traveled to the bubble prioritizing wins not reps.
Holiday was quoted as saying he thought the Pelicans had the eight seed wrapped up. On Justin Holiday’s YouTube channel, he expressed his disappointment by saying they “sucked.” The despondency is obvious, but hearing it from the team’s normally quiet leader should strike a chord in the front office.
However, perhaps the most frustrating part with the play in Orlando was Lonzo Ball.
Lonzo Ball is 12 of 47 (25.5 percent) in the bubble including 2/9 from three (22.2 percent).— Preston Ellis (@PrestonEllis) August 9, 2020
Lonzo, Zion two-man net-rating before March 11:— Preston Ellis (@PrestonEllis) August 11, 2020
+15.1 (10th in the NBA)
Lonzo, Zion in the bubble: -19.6 pic.twitter.com/SKY3CHzUia
Did Lonzo check out?
The Athletic’s David Aldridge reported that Lonzo wasn’t thrilled about being in Orlando.
“People down in Orlando tell me Lonzo Ball looked like he’d checked out the whole time the Pels were there, and that they expect some significant roster adjustments in New Orleans before next season.”
For the sake of argument, let’s say Lonzo did ‘check out.’ Can you truly blame him for not being committed 110%? These are unprecedented times. He, as well as others, were forced to spend weeks secluded in a theme park hotel room, away from all friends and family during a pandemic tearing apart the world. How can one not be conflicted by a number of raw emotions, including the idea of using vital resources every day to play a game while the rest of the population has to wait days on end for a test result, wade into the chaos of 2020 to provide for their families and shoulder racial justice issues?
To add to the malaise for players, protests have continued outside of the bubble and there’s a real question as to how much their Orlando platform has furthered Black Lives Matter. Lonzo Ball participated with his brothers previously in a May protest and he was selected to be one of the leaders for the Pelicans/Saints’ Social Justice Leadership Coalition. While the tragedy that took place in Kenosha, Wisconsin, with the shooting of Jacob Blake occurred after the Pelicans had left the bubble, these type of heavy instances have been happening left and right and must have weighed heavily on the 22-year-old.
NBA superstar Paul George recently explained his own shortcomings on the floor thanks to the world around him exacerbating feelings of anxiety and depression.
“It was just a little bit of everything. I underestimated mental health, honestly. I had anxiety. A little bit of depression. Just being locked in here. I just wasn’t there. I checked out.
“Games 2, 3, 4, I wasn’t there. I felt like I wasn’t there.”
While we’ll likely never know what afflicted him, we can surmise Lonzo Ball entered the bubble with the best of intentions. Otherwise, what would be the point of his 16-point, four-three, four-assist, three-rebound performance in his final game? You know, where he came out like gangbusters against the Kings in scoring a quick eight points and finishing the first quarter perfect from the field.
Showing up in Orlando served Ball absolutely no benefit if he wasn’t all in. As you may know, he is extension eligible this summer. By balling out, he might have given the Pelicans enough impetus to extend him a favorable deal, shoring up his long-term future in New Orleans now.
Heading into the bubble, if Griffin had indicated Ball had no long term future with the Pelicans, why would Ball suit up in Orlando at all? After all, he was playing like a fringe All-Star over the second half of the season.
From Christmas to March 11th, Lonzo Ball was ninth in assists and one of just four players in the NBA to tally 14.0 points, 7.0 rebounds and 7.0 assists or better (LeBron James, Luka Doncic, Ben Simmons). More impressively, he was the only player of the group to shoot over 40 percent from three and one of two to do so while collecting 1.5 steals per game (Simmons).
In his last five games before the season suspension, Lonzo was simply playing the best basketball of his career, averaging 20.8 points, 7.9 assists, 7.9 rebounds and 2.1 steals while shooting 52.4 percent from three on 8.4 attempts per game.
It’s not like his numbers only reflect individual performance. The Pelicans starting five with Zion was first in the NBA (26.3 net-rating) among teams playing 180 minutes or more before the season ended in March.
Lonzo and Zion are a gift. pic.twitter.com/rllS5PZpBC— Preston Ellis (@PrestonEllis) February 7, 2020
Not only that, Lonzo’s individual numbers don’t reflect just how good Lonzo was when paired with the Pelicans brightest stars. With Jrue, Zion and Ingram, Lonzo’s foursome posted a +14.9 per 100 possessions. In three-man lineups split between those three, his trios posted +10.5 or better.
Lonzo works with the Pelicans best players and if you notice a pattern it may be this: Lonzo struggles when his defense struggles. When the defense gets stops as it did those 38 games, Lonzo plays like a top-10 point guard.
By contrast, over the first 28 games when the Pelicans were 28th in defensive rating, Lonzo’s numbers were just 10.1 points, 5.5 assists, 4.6 rebounds while shooting 37 percent from the field and 33.3 percent from three and was eventually benched in favor of inserting Kenrich Williams at small forward.
Speaking of defense, Lonzo’s individual defense in 2019-20 with the Pelicans isn’t indicative of his talent level on that end. While still finishing 15th in deflections per game, Lonzo’s perimeter defense dropped from the 90.1 percentile in 2018-19 to 65.3 in 2019-20 according to BBall Index.
Are the Pelicans interested in trading him?
Jay Williams of ESPN recently said that the Pelicans could be seeking to move on from Lonzo Ball. Ross of Legion Hoops is advertising a league source informed him New York is interested in building around Lonzo.
First of all, I’m sure the Knicks would be willing to entertain a pick swap from 8 to 13 for Lonzo. LaVar Ball could be spreading the rumor for all that we know. The draft is said to be weak and both Jonathan Wasserman of Bleacher Report and Kevin O’Connor have both referenced that the middle of the first round as the sweet spot. It is entirely conceivable many teams such as the Golden State Warriors and Minnesota Timberwolves will be interested in trading down, among others.
But why would the Pelicans be interested in moving Ball? To move up a few spots in a weak draft?! There are no definitive All-Star prospects, much less a sure thing where the Knicks are currently set to be selecting from.
The Pelicans would benefit very little from moving Ball in that scenario unless they’re extremely high on potential replacements such as Killian Hayes or Tyrese Haliburton.
Even should the Pelicans dismiss Lonzo’s sensational numbers from December to March, even if Griffin had been adamant there’s no way the Pelicans would ever even entertain paying Ball what he thinks he is worth, there is still the ‘family’ culture Griffin’s touted that must be respected.
For one, Lonzo has clicked with both cornerstones in Brandon Ingram and Zion Williamson both on and off the court.
“Lonzo went through a similar situation so he knows what I am going through right now and he is giving great advice on how to handle it,” Zion said on ESPN+ “The Rooks” in February.
“Zion can come to me for anything,” said Ball on the episode. “It doesn’t have to be basketball related. I am always here for him and obviously you know his play on the court is amazing.”
Griffin is in the process of changing head coaches. Moving on from Zion’s best source of easy buckets and a friend at this point too just doesn’t make any sense. The Pelicans have Lonzo at a palatable $11 million in 2020-21, then have his restricted rights in the 2021 free agency period, meaning they can match anything he signs.
Is there really a team out there willing to fork over $180 million dollars? Even if you think the answer is yes, the Pelicans still hold all the cards.
Due to the likely depleted salary cap in 2020-21, many free agents such as DeMar DeRozan, Mike Conley, Gordon Hayward, Evan Fournier, Andre Drummond and others may pick up player options and enter what will be a LOADED 2021 class (hello, Giannis!). That means even fewer dollars for everyone to spend on Ball when he’ll become available, and so without cap space, a team would be forced to compensate the Pelicans via a sign-and-trade.
Again, the Pelicans can move Lonzo before the next trade deadline or enter free agency with the ability to match any offer another team makes to Ball. The absolute worse scenario would be Lonzo signing his qualifying offer which would still give the Pelicans two years of Ball on a cost-controlled contract and plenty of time to either deal him or forge a plan B.
In summary, the Pelicans have all the leverage and no reason to make a move this offseason. Lonzo’s ceiling fills the exact void the Pelicans desperately need around Ingram and Zion, a playmaking point guard who’s primary role is to facilitate, defend, rebound and push the pace.
The Pelicans priority shouldn’t be worrying about a Lonzo Ball replacement but developing his skill set ,and most importantly, establishing consistency. A new coach such as Sam Cassell, Mike D’Antoni or Kenny Atkinson should be able to help in that area.
So, instead of pressing the panic button to move potentially from Aaron Nesmith to Tyrese Haliburton (while losing a starter), why not provide the next head coach a young but growing and formidable-at-times group of Pelicans? If the organization’s desire is sustainable success, let’s not give up on the best under-25 trio so quickly.