The season now finished, it's time to talk about the off-season for the New Orleans Pelicans.
We asked our staff for their top priority this summer. Three players were consistently brought up: Zion Williamson, Devonte' Graham, and Jaxson Hayes.
What is the most important thing for the Pelicans to accomplish this off-season?
They must continue to fix old mistakes to really build upon what this season has established. This includes repairing the relationship with Zion. It appears things are heading in the right direction there as Zion said he couldn’t sign an extension fast enough during his exit interview.
My buddy Ben used to work at the original Raising Cane’s — back when there was only one location in the entire world — and back then they used to write down your order, clip it to a heavy metal clip and sling it back to the kitchen on a wire. They had to stop this because Ben was always stoned at work and standing under the wire. The clip hit him in the head at least once per shift, which sometimes led to bleeding. Anyway, if I were the front office I would have instantly slung that extension on a wire towards Zion as those words left his mouth no matter how many heads — stoned or sober — were in the way.
This is a long way of saying the Zion riddle needs to be solved early in the off-season. This team has built up too much camaraderie, good will and chemistry to have that distraction hanging over them at the start of next season. The Zion mistake was more of a clash of personalities than anything else. I definitely understand not liking David Griffin. I too find him unlikeable. However, I will give him credit for seemingly realizing that and stepping away some from the spotlight.
Despite nailing the rookie class, there are still some roster issues that need to be fixed. Devonte' Graham and Garrett Temple have been catastrophes. I fear that they will want to see what Graham looks like with Zion back in the fold, but think that is a fool’s errand. Thinking that getting him more open shots will fix what ails him is ignoring what we’ve seen on tape. He only makes impossible shots. The open ones are bricks. He is a liability on defense and isn’t that complimentary playmaker I had hoped he would be.
I don’t think I even need to elaborate on the Temple situation. This team definitely needs another reliable guard — and not necessarily a shooter. We need a real point guard that can run an offense and defend the point of attack. If Trajan and Griffin can turn Temple, Graham and some other asset into another playable rotation guard that will solve a whole lot of problems.
That asset can be a pick or it can be Jaxson Hayes. I’ve always been a Hayes doubter, but I will admit he has become a better offensive player than I had expected him to be. However, I still consider him a mistake. He does not box out, rebound or protect the rim. He has shown that he cannot play the 5, which is very detrimental to his getting minutes with Zion back in the mix.
With Zion, Trey Murphy, Larry Nance, Brandon Ingram, Naji Marshall and Herb Jones all able to give the Pelicans more impactful minutes at the 4, it’ll be hard to find minutes for Jaxson in the rotation. If he defended and rebounded, it would solve a lot of problems. If he played more like Brandon Clarke — making winning plays instead of highlight plays — he could play alongside Zion or Jonas.
Zion’s return kind of puts the nail in Jaxson’s coffin. Zion and JV are not plus defenders so you need to stagger them as much as possible or perhaps even move Jonas to get some true rim protection. Jonas was very useful this season giving the offense a boost while also owning the glass. However, you really can’t have 4 below average to average at best defenders in your starting lineup. Since Jaxson or Jonas cannot give you rim protection one or both have to be moved to offset the hit to the team defense that adding Zion to the lineup creates.
I wouldn’t categorize Jonas as a mistake, but taking the ball out of his hands by having better and higher usage offensive players like BI, CJ and now Zion makes him more expendable — especially since he isn’t a rim protector. Replacing him and/or Jaxson with a low-usage glass eating defender allows you to play your three stars while not sacrificing the defensive identity that made this team special this season.
Mentality: it’s completely different to be the hunter than the hunted. And winning just 30-plus games, even with postseason happiness, isn't enough to convince most of future success. Note the Suns recent history: Phoenix went 8-0 in the famed Disney Bubble season before skyrocketing to success after one final key addition: Chris Paul. Could Z be our ticket to 50 wins next year and 60 the year after? Sure feels like it.
The single most important thing for the Pelicans to accomplish this off-season is to acquire full buy in and get Zion into the peak conditioning we’ve yet to see in the NBA. Nothing else comes close.
The team as constituted is really good, possibly a top 6 seed if they began the season as the finished it. Ingram is a bonafide star, McCollum is a fantastic complimentary veteran, Valanciunas is a top tier role player who controls the glass and the young players are tough, defensive minded and compete at high levels. But the Pelicans still lack a top tier 1A superstar talent. The kind that dominates for years and has constant trips to the conference finals. Right now that field is shrinking due to age out of stars. LeBron missed the playoffs, Durant was out in a first-round sweep, Chris Paul and Curry are still alive but facing off against the next wave of Luka Doncic and Ja Morant. Zion Williamson can and should be that guy for New Orleans.
This isn’t to disparage Brandon Ingram who has earned all Pels fans adoration, quite the opposite. It’s noting that BI can’t do everything by himself. McCollum has been incredible and is the ideal ambassador for the franchise, but he struggled mightily against Mikal Bridges and Phoenix. He’s not getting younger, and it’s easy to see other matchups where CJ might have similar challenges and force Ingram to do the bulk of offensive creation. Adding the earth shattering talent and uniqueness of Zion to this gives BI soooo much more room to work with and a freedom he would undoubtedly take advantage of. It will take time for Zion to get to the mental level needed to be a 1A star if he makes it there. But BI is a perfect star to help get him there by providing shot making, creativity and showcasing the work ethic required to stay at the top.
The most recent highlights of Zion from pregame workouts were quite literally the best dunks and athleticism we’ve yet seen in his Pelicans career. I do give him leeway in that he’s gone through a lot of challenges since being drafted and under the scrutiny of a $100 Jordan Brand deal to boot. Now, it’s time to leave all the excuses behind and commit to physically becoming the apex athlete he’s capable of being. Listening to the training staff, hiring a dietician and nutritionist and working with his teammates in the off-season to establish as much chemistry and connective energy that he missed out on last year will all be huge.
This team still needs Zion if it has championship aspirations, and I think more than ever Zion needs this team to reach his own personal goals as well.
There will likely be mention of a lot of trades or potential signings the Pels can make this off-season; however, the most important thing they can accomplish is fielding a healthy and in-shape Zion Williamson.
No other player they can acquire will make as big an impact as the 2019 first overall pick. If Williamson can return to the form, the Pelicans could be a top 4 team in the West — a legit contender for a deep playoff run.
Zion gives the Pelicans three elite scorers, all with the ability to break down the defense and create for teammates. Williamson’s return also unlocks several intriguing lineups featuring the teams diverse plethora of wing talent.
The Pelicans walk into next season with a real 8-man playoff rotation already under contract.
Starters should already be locked in: CJ McCollum, Herb Jones, Brandon Ingram, Zion Williamson, Jonas Valanciunas
Second Line: José Alvarado, Trey Murphy III, Larry Nance Jr.
You've got two guards (McCollum and Alvarado), three wings (Ingram, Jones, Murphy), and three bigs (Williamson, Valanciunas, Nance) that give Willie Green plenty of flexibility.
Kira Lewis Jr., Naji Marshall, and Willy Hernangomez fill out the remainder of the rotation and I haven't even mentioned the incoming Lakers first round pick from June’s draft yet. Garrett Temple remains as a locker room guy and assistant coach in waiting once he retires.
That's 13 guys and I haven't mentioned Jaxson Hayes and Devonte' Graham yet. You can see where I'm going with this, right?
Trading away Devonte' Graham is about opening runway for José Alvarado to get the minutes he has earned with his play.
Trading Jaxson Hayes is learning from the past (see hanging onto Lonzo Ball too long and getting nothing of real value in a sign and trade) with previous pending restricted free agents.
Trading BOTH is about long term financial implications AND giving sufficient space for the young guys on this roster to continue to develop. Even if nothing is received in return but future assets and/or room under the luxury tax.
We don’t need to stress much about the Pelicans this offseason because all the major puzzle pieces were found over the past 12 months.
- Willie Green was a home run of a head coaching hire.
- Brandon Ingram proved himself to be that guy: a team leader and able to carry a good offense in key minutes.
- CJ McCollum finally plugged the hole at lead guard which was created when Jrue Holiday was traded to the Bucks.
- A defensive identity was born in great part due to New Orleans’ 2021 NBA Draft class.
- Jonas Valanciunas and Larry Nance Jr. brought stability to the front court.
- The culture had significant roots planted and have already started to bloom flowers.
The combination of these factors paved the way for a successful season and it may have incidentally also solved the biggest riddle: Zion Williamson.
There can no longer be complaints about the lack of a winning environment. Williamson didn’t play a single minute yet the Pelicans finished the 2021-22 campaign on a 33-30 run, won both Play-In contests and pushed the Suns to six games in the playoffs.
Moreover, Williamson’s exuberance was readily observed on the bench. He cheered the highlights, celebrated the victories, and in between, bonded with teammates. With Zion flatly stating during exit interviews that he’d sign an extension now if he could, there’s absolutely nothing to see here — ignore anyone who says something to the contrary.
All of the ingredients for the Pelicans to get off a good start next season are present. They just have to enter training camp fully healthy in several months time.
Don’t overthink it, availability is hands down the most important box remaining to be checked.