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Predicting Lonzo Ball’s free agency

How high should David Griffin be willing to go in order to bring back the Pelicans starting point guard?

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New Orleans Pelicans v Memphis Grizzlies Photo by Joe Murphy/NBAE via Getty Images

There remains perhaps no more controversial athlete in the entire league than Lonzo Ball.

Aside from being highly touted as the NBA’s second overall selection to the Los Angeles Lakers in 2017, Lonzo has garnered attention as a reality star, rap artist, big brother to Rookie of the Year candidate LaMelo Ball and son to the loquacious LaVar Ball.

And who could forget the week-long news firestorm that followed an otherwise simple conversation between two highly regarded athletes following an ordinary, run-of-the-mill regular season contest?

Lonzo Ball’s name carries the weight of an NBA star in several circles despite lacking a full dose of on-court play. However, don’t let that underscore the fact that Lonzo is a damn fine player, capable of contributing to a contender in any environment.

He is that player right now and has shined in Alvin Gentry’s up-tempo offense as well as Stan Van Gundy’s half-court system.

The Resume

Lonzo quietly enjoyed a career year in 2020-21, scoring 14.6 points with 5.7 assists, 4.8 rebounds, 1.5 steals and 2.5 deflections in just 31.8 minutes per game. Only six players matched or surpassed Lonzo in points, assists and rebounds (Curry, Lowry, Irving, Randle, Jokic, Brogdon) and each exceeded 34 minutes per game.

Round that line up to per-36 data and you’ve got a cool 16.5 points, 6.5 assists, 5.4 rebounds and 1.7 steals, with a career-best effective field goal percentage of 53.7%. His perimeter shooting was also his best to date, as he drained 37.8 percent of his triples on a staggering 8.3 attempts per game.

Only nine players in the NBA took as many triples as Lonzo while posting a higher conversion rate (40-game minimum).

His playmaking has reached new levels as well as Lonzo graded in the 94th percentile in high-value assists per 75 possessions according to BBall-Index.

Make no mistake, Lonzo Ball has entrenched himself as a bonafide three-point threat and seemingly the perfect complement to Pelicans superstar Zion Williamson.

Individual scoring numbers underscore his overall impact on the Pelicans, which was substantial, though his performance may not jump off the screen in the same way that the games of Zion and Brandon Ingram do. However, Ball was nearly as impactful.

Zion graded in the 87th percentile in efficiency differential while BI sat close behind at 83rd. Lonzo graded in the 82nd percentile, good for third on the team, offering solid support to New Orleans two cornerstones. This means the Pelicans were roughly 5.5 points better than their competition per 100 possessions with Lonzo on the floor. The next closest is Steven Adams at 63rd, Hernangomez at 56th, Kira Lewis at 42nd and Josh Hart at 48th.

That’s a steep dropoff between Lonzo and the rest of the supporting cast.

And get this, when playing his natural position of point guard, Lonzo actually graded in the 94th percentile, making the Pelicans an eye-popping 8.8 points better than their opponents per 100 possessions. If Eric Bledsoe's disappointing play alone wasn’t enough to convince the front office to distance themselves from him, having him occupy or share lead duties at the 1 not only limited Lonzo’s effect, it hindered team success as well.

Still, much will be made this offseason of what Lonzo is not.

Ball is not an All-Star. In all probability, he never will be thanks to a league brimming with backcourt talent.

Ball is not a lockdown defender, though he is opportunistic on that end. He will never be the quality of individual defender the Pelicans enjoyed with Jrue Holiday, though he is just as versatile on that end. Lonzo graded in the 99th percentile in matchup difficulty (BBall-Index) this past season, indicating that he drew the most difficult guarding assignments on a night-to-night basis despite being paired with an All-Defensive backcourt mate in Bledsoe.

Simply put, Ball is an above-average perimeter defender, playmaker, and shot-maker who stretches the floor and elevates the play of those around him. However, there can also be no denying that consistency can be an issue.

Former head coach Alvin Gentry benched his young veteran in December of 2019 after a horrid start to his Pelicans tenure. He scored just 10.6 points per game on 38 percent shooting from the floor with a net rating of negative 6.3 over his first 20 games. In 16 games from December 1 to February 1, Lonzo could only muster 39 percent shooting from the field, 32 percent from three

Another concern is Ball’s availability. Lonzo has missed no fewer than 17 games in each of his four seasons missing 101 of 328 possible games (31 percent).

This list of positives and concerns is befitting that of a high-end role player. So, how much is that player worth? That’s the critical question facing the Pelicans this offseason.

How does executive vice president David Griffin differentiate between ‘Lonzo The Brand’ and ‘Lonzo The Player’ when opening owner and billionaire Gayle Benson’s pocket book this summer? How should the front office appropriately reward Lonzo knowing that doing so would likely tie up the Pelicans books without having seen a proven winner on the court first?

Calling the potential re-signing of Lonzo Ball a tenure-defining decision isn’t underselling just how crucial this choice is and will become going forward.

Cost of Keeping Ball

The closest comparison I can make for a player in their 20s who isn’t on a rookie contract is Malcolm Brogdon.

  • Malcolm Brogdon (per-36): 22.1 points, 6.1 assists, 5.5 rebounds, 0.9 steals on 45.3/38.8/86.4 splits
  • Lonzo Ball (per-36): 16.5 points, 6.5 assists, 5.4 rebounds, 1.7 steals on 41.4/37.8/78.1 splits

Brogdon is the more advanced scoring threat on every level though it’s conceivable that Lonzo is not done growing. After all, Brogdon has five years on him.

Brogdon’s current deal: Four years, $85 million

Other comparables: Fred VanVleet (Four, $85 million) and Dejounte Murray (Four, $63.8 million).

While readers may look at Murray’s deal and yearn for a lower cap number, Ball’s value to New Orleans is higher. Lonzo is a legitimate deep threat — Murray shot just 31.7 percent from three.

Will other teams be willing to meet this price tag for Lonzo? Who could come calling?

The Suitors

Despite the Pelicans failure to contend in both 2019-20 and 2020-21, Lonzo received no shortage of interest at the last trade deadline.

“The Bulls, there is a lot of interest there,” Woj said on a recent Zach Lowe Podcast. “That deal could have happened at the trade deadline. I think Lauri Markkanen if Chicago is willing to maybe do more with [the] draft, throwing a pick in the deal might have happened then, but they did the deal with Orlando. They had sent picks off in that, and they knew they had cap space, and they knew they had the summer. But there will be teams. Let’s see, we got Chicago and we got New York, and we got restricted free agents in Lonzo Ball and we got an unrestricted free agent in Dennis Schroder potentially with the Lakers. And Spencer Dinwiddie … But I think Ball in Chicago will be an interesting one to watch.

Chicago is all in after sending a substantial haul to Orlando in Wendell Carter Jr. and a top-10 pick in this year’s draft for Nikola Vucevic. But in addition to future capital shipped off, they should have just enough to throw Lonzo’s way. To do so, however, the Bulls would have to let several critical players go, namely Thaddeus Young and likely Lauri Markkanen.

This is why a deal that includes both Lonzo Ball and Eric Bledsoe could make some sense for the Pelicans as they should be desperate to rid themselves of Bledsoe’s cap number and substandard play. Young is a difference-maker and Markkanen could bolster New Orleans’ depth — though they’d immediately have to pay him as he shares the same restricted status as Ball.

In my opinion, this hypothetical move wouldn’t make the Pelicans better. While moving Bledsoe solves a problem, it would simply create another.

There also could be no major obstacles for the Pelicans to just match a potential offer sheet from the Bulls if a favorable deal can’t be worked out.

The next candidate is arguably Lonzo’s strongest option and could emerge as the greatest threat to whisk him out of New Orleans: the New York Knicks.

Ball’s agent is Rich Paul. The founder of Klutch Sports Group has to be salivating over the idea of bringing Lonzo to the Big Apple where he can once again pair with Julius Randle and continue New York’s rise to relevance. The Knicks have plenty of room to work with under the cap and there is motivation to spend without compromising all future flexibility.

While the Knicks do have their own share of decisions to make before they can carelessly throw max-level money to the wind, they have just $50 million on the books. There should be space to sign many from among Derrick Rose, who was so critical in the second half of their season, Taj Gibson, Reggie Bullock, Alec Burks and Nerlens Noel.

Of course, New York could prefer the route of chasing proven winners. The Knicks are oft considered a good landing spot for disgruntled stars or players in need of rehabbing their image. Don’t be surprised to see rumors start swirling again involving Leon Rose chasing his former client Chris Paul.

Even should Paul re-sign in Phoenix, if the Knicks are willing to spend, does Lonzo make more sense than Kyle Lowry, Mike Conley Jr., Goran Dragic, Victor Oladipo, DeMar DeRozan, Dennis Schroder or Spencer Dinwiddie? While Lonzo’s best days should still be ahead, the Knicks may seek prime production now. Plus, they can sign these other options without the disadvantage of having to wait three fulls days while New Orleans ruminates over whether or not to match in Ball’s restricted free agency.

Should the Knicks choose to be bold, the Pelicans could string their decision along while the rest of the market dissipates. It’s a great risk for New York to take. Only if New York swings and misses at the first wave should they consider throwing everything at Lonzo, though that has to be considered a possibility.

Wherever Ball signs, at least according to Adrian Wojnarowski, he stands to earn a rich payday.

“I think Lonzo will get a pretty good number, whether it’s Chicago, whether it’s New York, and some other places with a younger point guard that might want to bring in a little more of a veteran.”

Zion’s Feelings

Should the Bulls offer a more intriguing package, say featuring Young, Markkanen and include one of Coby White or Patrick Williams plus a future first for Lonzo and Bledsoe, Griffin may opt to take the win and keep flexibility going forward. However, doing so may alienate the team’s one-of-one superstar who has already expressed disappointment about failing short of the playoffs this season in New Orleans.

“It’d be dope,” Zion said of Lonzo signing an extension to stay in New Orleans according to CBS. “Me, Brandon [Ingram] and Zo, the three of us have a great relationship. I really would want Zo to come back. He knows that.”

“But you know, like I said, the reality of the situation is Zo is a grown man, so he’ll make the decision that’s best for him. The only thing I can say is, I hope he stays.”

That’s smart considering Zion and Ball were 9.2 points better than their opponents per 100 possessions in 2019-20 according to Basketball-Reference. Even as the starting lineup regressed minus Holiday, the duo still outscored their opponents by 3.8 points per 100 possessions in 2020-21. Without Lonzo, Zion’s net rating shrunk to negative 0.7.

“Me and Lonzo, our games complement each other’s so well that there are times me and Lonzo are just playing basketball out there,” Williamson said according to Jacob Rude of Lonzo Wire. “Whether it’s passing and chasing, me setting the screen, him coming to set the screen for me, we complement each other so well then at the same time when we’re out there, we give each other confidence, telling each other to shoot and that we trust each other to make the right decision within the situation. I think we just complement each other well. We give each other confidence.”

The two have become close during Zion’s first two seasons as they share a number of similarities. They were both highly touted players coming out of high school, have huge followings and needed to navigate their brands before even turning 20. Lonzo dealt with the awkwardness of Big Baller Brand being dismantled after Alan Foster allegedly misused $1.5 million of Lonzo’s money. Zion faced a $100 million lawsuit before even finishing his first season in the NBA.

“Zion can come to me for anything,” said Ball on a 2020 episode of The Rooks on ESPN+. “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.”

On an episode of the Old Man and the Three podcast, Zion sounded off on critics of Lonzo.

JJ Redick: “ me, I think he’s better than people realize. And some of that has to do with the hype coming out of college. Obviously, there were probably a few off-court distractions initially, but he’s just figured it out. He’s gotten so much better as a shooter. He’s so disruptive defensively and, to me, he’s sort of the perfect fit for you and BI to play off of.”

Williamson: “I agree with that 100%. The thing with Lonzo, he’s improved on shooting. He’s improved on his defense. He’s improved as being a leader and being more vocal with everybody on the team. But fans only see one side of it. They see the social media side.

“Like Lonzo will go on a spurt where he’ll run off five incredible games of shooting and he’ll have a lot of assists and whatnot. But then he’ll have one game as if nobody can have an off-shooting night. He’ll have one game where he might go 2-for-10 or 2-for-8 and he may not have a high number of assists and (the fans are) like ‘Oh, Lonzo’s not doing this. He’s not being productive.’ And it’s just like where you all not there for previous seven to 10 games? Do those not exist? People just take the one game and run with it.”

The Decision

The Pelicans have two things in their favor: the right to match any offer and Lonzo wants to return. If Griffin does choose to bring Lonzo back, he will have the means to do so and Lonzo should happily report to Pelicans camp if the situation gets handled correctly.

“That’s a conversation between me and my agent moving forward. But obviously, I would love to be back,” Ball told reporters May 17 via ESPN.

As I mentioned last week, this may be a make-or-break season for the New Orleans Pelicans and this decision will likely be the most critical of Griffin’s tenure. The Pelicans simply cannot afford to get this one wrong.

If the Pelicans do move on from Lonzo, it can’t be to save money or for future draft capital. It has to include a player that makes them better right now and will help ensure a spot in the 2021-22 playoffs. After Zion’s several public near pleas for Lonzo’s return, it would be surprising to see him suit up in any other uniform next season otherwise.

It should be mentioned that Lonzo could sign his one-year qualifying offer and play next season on a $14 million expiring deal, but that is unlikely. To my knowledge, no marquee player has ever passed on an extension out of their rookie contract, though Kristaps Porzingis did threaten to with the New York Knicks.

Prediction: Lonzo returns at four years, $85 million

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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 @PrestonEllis.