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New Orleans Pelicans no longer have difficult choice regarding Lonzo Ball’s future — he’s a keeper

Put your swords away Zo haters and stans. You’re both safe here.

NBA: Utah Jazz at New Orleans Pelicans Stephen Lew-USA TODAY Sports

There’s no topic more divisive within the depths of New Orleans Pelicans Twitter than Lonzo Ball. It doesn’t matter what the details are because there’s often no middle ground. You must pick a side in his case.

So it’s only right that as a new contract for Ball looms in the air, and is discussed almost every day, the Pelicans will soon have to choose a side. Each point of view, however, has layers to it.

Some feel the Pelicans must set a price point and not cross that line. Others believe New Orleans should look to trade the former number two overall draft pick and sell high as Ball is playing the best basketball of his career to date.

As for the other side of the spectrum, there are those who feel Lonzo has put in enough work and showed the necessary improvement to be worthy of a new contract with the Pelicans — despite knowing more dry spells probably lie ahead.

The second layer of that perspective lends to certain individuals looking beyond the floor production and towards the connection Lonzo has established with teammates, particularly the franchise pillars. If Zion Williamson and Brandon Ingram believe in their point guard, and have consistently come out publicly to support his future in New Orleans, are we in the right to furiously question it?

Sure we are.

In business, player connections are a scary line to straddle when you’re aiming towards team success. But the chemistry involved must always be considered. It’s one thing that several Pelicans players have gone out of their way to support Ball verbally and through social media posts, it’s another that his play is living up to those praises. We must also considered the sources.

Ball has returned those praises as he mentioned in a early March win versus the Utah Jazz: “I love playing with those guys and I’m also really cool with them off the floor as well. We’re all young. I think we can do some big things, especially in the future coming up.”

Make no mistake, the Pelicans don’t have the easiest decision. Ball is expected to have suitors willing to pay him big money, especially if he continues playing at his current level. Guards with his size, work ethic, temperament and tools don’t grow on trees. And dating back to his final year as a Los Angeles Laker prior to injury, Ball has gotten better in several important areas.

NBA: Utah Jazz at New Orleans Pelicans Stephen Lew-USA TODAY Sports

The question is, how much should New Orleans realistically invest in a player with noted highs and lows as a performer and a career-best 63 games played in a single season? Can they trust Ball will hold up physically and mentally to pay him a salary that could not only limit the Pelicans future cap flexibility but make him the scapegoat if things fail?

It’s a valid question considering the limited opportunities small market franchises have to get things “right” with superstars in this era. And when you’re the New Orleans Pelicans, the stench of previous stars leaving consecutively means that ominous rain cloud always sits in the rear view mirror. Thus, the question of production/role versus worth/salary in Ball’s case should be heavily dissected, but remember that all analysis must also include potential replacements and be in light of decisions already made.

Can you explain not retaining or trading Lonzo for financial reasons while questions swirl around Steven Adams’ contract extension? The idea that guaranteeing the starting center more years without a test run was premature and possibly an error. What about the Eric Bledsoe dilemma where he has failed to live up to promise, which may not be resolved before March 25th’s trading deadline?

Imagine you’re a core part of this locker room. What would your feelings be towards management and about your own future in New Orleans if someone your age and who you feel is an essential piece moving forward is dealt? Or simply be allowed to get plucked away elsewhere after posting a career season? And for the franchise to choose this route when questionable fits on the roster remain in place? There’s a business and a part of the game angle, but something tells me you’d naturally be upset.

Those optics could lead down a dangerous road for the Pelicans. So many teams in history were never the same or had to repeat steps as a franchise when letting players of Ball’s caliber walk or be traded too early. Even if comparative players were not in Lonzo’s financial or talent lane, they played his part in being a beloved locker room member, with room to grow.

NBA: Memphis Grizzlies at New Orleans Pelicans Chuck Cook-USA TODAY Sports

While an unfinished player who could stand to improve on several fronts — from lateral adjustments, in-air balance when attacking the basket, organizing the offense in clutch minutes, and a few other sections not mentioned, Lonzo’s importance just isn’t wrapped up in his teammate’s feelings. The statistics are vouching for him as well.

Pricey long-term investments are never easy decisions and guarantees do not exist. We all would prefer a “good deal” or a “steal” to match or exceed the return. And the process is made more complicated when present and past elements collide.

Past success can turn into a Janet Jackson song, “What have you done for me lately?” Present accomplishment can bring fears of long-term consistency in a vacuum. But let’s be honest about these investments — especially in sports.

Players are often not paid what they are presently worth when coming off a rookie deal. Recency bias, market demand and projections also play large roles. However, a proper evaluation must be made; otherwise, franchises could rue the fateful decision for years. Don’t think Sam Presti wishes he had retained James Harden? Or perhaps the Warriors not traded Mitch Richmond to the Kings?

If you’re the New Orleans Pelicans, it’s also important to consider there will not be many other enticing opportunities. No matter the level of talent today, the odds of becoming a free agency hotbed or of other stars happily coming to New Orleans via trade overnight are slim. A small-market team has to become a destination first, say like the Bucks and their success with Giannis Antetokounmpo before having an opportunity to land and likely keep Jrue Holiday.

Any trade made requires the right timing, assets and player to truly be successful, so a gamble exists for teams not ready to compete at the highest level yet of retaining the new additions. There are just as many unknowns to address. And future essential moves will likely have to be made post the Lonzo decision anyway you slice it.

So, why not invest in the player you already have in house who positively impacts winning? One who has shown the commitment which has repeatedly been affirmed and identifiable improvements made? Both of these details happen to be extremely important when making expensive long-term investments. You don’t simply buy the raw numbers; you buy the person who’s producing them. This is somewhat akin to how New Orleans and Brandon Ingram have come together.

There was a time where trading Lonzo Ball made more sense. Being firm on a salary figure was the correct assessment. That time has passed. Ball has proven his worth of a future contract in New Orleans — even if it initially comes in the form of an overpay.

That’s a side that we’ll all have to possibly get behind very soon, I hope.

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 @Impatientbull.