The Three Biggest Questions The Pelicans Face This Season

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Published: December 23, 2020

We made it. The Pelicans open their season tonight against the Tampa Bay Raptors and it’s hard to believe we are finally here. After a complete overhaul during the off-season which left Zion Williamson as the longest tenured Pelicans player, the team has ushered in a new era which revolves around Zion and Brandon Ingram as franchise cornerstones. However, such a large transition brings about a bevy of questions regarding the future outlook of the team. I’ve decided to focus on what I think are the three biggest ones the team faces for this season.

Question 1: Can Zion and the Pelicans stay healthy?

This question is by far the toughest to answer because of the many external factors that play into it, but it’s going to be by far the biggest question that dictates the Pelicans’s season and long term future. The Pelicans have not been a historically healthy team and last season was no exception. Zion only notched 24 games in the past season after missing significant time due to a meniscus injury, Derrick Favors was in and out of the lineup while being limited at practice, and a number of Pelicans suffered a litany of injuries throughout the season.

What’s more is that the training and performance staff under Aaron Nelson was extremely cautious in their return to play protocols. This was apparent in the pre-bubble season where the Pelicans starters were forced to “ramp up”, only playing 15 minutes or so in their first few exhibition games. Zion missed the entire pre-bubble portion, returned remarkably out of shape, and was limited to “burst play” – much to the ire of virtually everyone involved in the situation. Alvin Gentry wanted his best player available and playing real minutes. Zion wanted to be on the court as much as possible and grew frustrated with the red-tape surrounding his return. Most of all the fans, who the NBA desperately tried to cater to with an enormous amount of national television games, were pissed. There seemed to be no clarity around how the minute restrictions were decided, how they were allotted, and what the hell happened to Zion in the first place. The confusion wasn’t limited to just Zion though. Let’s just say there was a disconnect between coaching, players, and management – one that left people externally wondering if this cost Alvin Gentry his job.

While Alvin’s fate was decided long before the bubble, Pelicans management needed to find someone who would do a better job of bridging the gap between the players and the training staff which was really just management by proxy. They needed someone to be the asshole so they wouldn’t have to be. Enter Stan Van Gundy.

The jury is still out on how this season will play out with Stan, but two pre-season games in we have already seen one major change – starters playing heavy minutes during exhibition games. Van Gundy has mentioned he will keep the rotation to eight or nine deep as the season starts for real. This is a stark difference from the 12 players Alvin Gentry played to open the season against the Raptors last year. What happened to ramping up? One could argue there is even more reason to take a cautious approach during the shortened offseason. But Van Gundy maintains that the only way to get into game shape is to play game minutes. Consequently, Zion has averaged over 33 minutes per game in each of his two pre-season games.

Needless to say, a Zion Williamson who can play starter level minutes for the duration of the season drastically changes the trajectory of the team. Whether this is Van Gundy putting his stamp on the team or a calculated good cop, bad cop play by Van Gundy and David Griffin, there has been a dramatic move away from how the team operated last season. Ultimately it’s not important who is responsible for the change, but what is important is players believing Stan has power and is in their corner. It’s crucial for the players to believe in a legitimate separation of powers between coaching and management and that belief did not exist last season. It’s unclear if there have been additional changes on the operations of the training staff and thus health remains the biggest question surrounding the Pelicans for the 2021 season.

Question 2: Can Stan Van Gundy revamp the Pelicans’s defense?

Defense Defense Defense. Virtually every media session with the coach or the players has harped on defense. If there is one thing that keeps me up at night regarding the Pelicans, it’s the anxiety of building a contender level defense with Zion Williamson and Brandon Ingram. Zion is merely 20 years old with only 24 games under his belt – between his youth and health issues, it’s a little understandable he isn’t up to speed on NBA defense. What IS concerning, however, is the effort he’s displayed. Zion used to be a menace at generating defensive events such as blocks and steals in college and that Zion has yet to make an appearance in the NBA. Through five games in the bubble, Zion failed to register a single steal or block. It’s unclear whether this is a product of health, conditioning, or entirely something else. It does, however, raise questions as to when we will see Duke Zion return, if we ever will.

Likewise, the other cornerstone player, Brandon Ingram, has thus far left a lot to be desired on defense. Despite Ingram’s formidable length and physical tools, he has yet to put together a satisfying season on the defensive end. Last year Ingram was neither useful at the point of attack, nor was he of any help when it came to making the right rotations. Now Ingram is acutely aware of his deficiencies and the messaging thus far has been all about setting the tone defensively. There is also hope that a more structured and detailed Van Gundy system will allow Ingram to make strides he could not under Alvin Gentry and Luke Walton.

The Pelicans may have made all the right moves in bringing in Van Gundy in addition to savvy vets in Steven Adams and Eric Bledsoe, but the defensive commitment has to start from their star players. If Williamson and Ingram are unable to make meaningful improvement on the defensive end, it will be entirely fair to question the duo’s long term partnership and how best to optimize roster construction. For now the Pelicans have punted on optimizing the starting lineup offensively, opting to go with sub-par shooters who are good defenders rather than the reverse. This year will reveal a lot about how best to build around Zion (and hopefully Ingram) based on the improvements they make.

Question 3: What is the future with Lonzo Ball?

The deadline for rookie extensions has come and went without Lonzo and the Pelicans agreeing to an extension. While this approach isn’t new to the Pelicans who took the same route with Brandon Ingram, the situation is different enough in a few key areas to leave you questioning what the long term game with Ball is. Firstly, Ingram was coming fresh off surgery related to a clotting issue and it was unclear how he would bounce back. There has already been a season’s worth of work for Lonzo, in which he has demonstrated highs, lows, and some in between. There is a clearer picture on what Lonzo can become working with Zion and the Pelicans and so it would not have been unreasonable for two sides to come to an agreement. So why didn’t they?

Over the past seven months, Lonzo flipped through three agencies and ultimately settled with Rich Paul and Klutch Sports. If there is one thing Klutch is known for, it’s extracting the absolute most for their clients. Rich Paul is very good at his job. There is enough intel out there that Lonzo and his representation are focused on securing the largest payday, and they do not care which team they receive it from. With a full year left before Lonzo hits free agency, the Pelicans have no obligation to comply with that request. At this stage in the game, players entering their 4th year have little leverage on contract negotiations (outside of clear max players). With the Pelicans deciding not to meet Lonzo’s demands, there is not much Lonzo or Klutch can do at this juncture. However, if I am Klutch, I am very pleased with how the extensions played out for other players in this class.

Markelle Fultz and Derrick White both received extensions that might make the Pelicans sweat if Lonzo is indeed a part of their long term plans. Though I would not have been surprised if Lonzo’s side would find a similar deal appealing, they now have two solid comparisons going into restricted free agency to use as leverage if Lonzo has a productive year. It shouldn’t be surprising if Klutch utilizes the market rate for point guards and Lonzo’s draft pedigree to ask for a deal that exceeds $20 million in annual value. After all, his qualifying offer itself is $14.3 million – why should he accept an amount lower or close to it?

The Pelicans now face a situation where a suddenly poor free agency class and multiple teams flush with money can drive up the price for Lonzo. The optimal resolution for this situation is Lonzo plays at an all-star level for the entire season and locks himself into a near-max or max deal. Paying the max is not something I’m scared of if a player has outright earned it. But is that level of play likely? Or will it be a situation where Lonzo’s season is scattered with inconsistent play and the Pelicans end up in a place where they either let him walk for nothing or are forced to overpay?

Clearly the Pelicans have decided this is a predicament they are okay with. If Lonzo walks, the Pelicans have some form of insurance with Nickeil Alexander-Walker and Kira Lewis. While neither has demonstrated they are ready to break into Van Gundy’s tight rotation yet, league sources maintain the Pelicans remain high on the prospects of both players. The Pelicans are also allowing themselves time to generate more data regarding Lonzo’s fit with two stars on the team as well as allowing Lonzo to rehab value that tanked during the bubble. If the Pelicans had extended Lonzo, any potential trade this season becomes difficult due to the poison pill provision and so they have added another layer of flexibility. Optionality has trumped any future cost concern here and thus the Pelicans enter yet another information gathering season on Ball. What they find may shape the direction of the franchise for the next three to four years.

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