Pelicans enhance long-term outlook with Zion Williamson, shakier on present with him

Pelicans big Zion Williamson
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NBC Sports’ Dan Feldman is grading every team’s offseason based on where the team stands now relative to its position entering the offseason. A ‘C’ means a team is in similar standing, with notches up or down from there.

No more pretending the Pelicans aren’t Zion Williamson‘s team.

Williamson – a 20-year-old who has played 24 career games – is New Orleans’ longest-tenured player.

That’ll make him the youngest longest-tenured player to open a season in NBA history. The previous record-holder: Brandon Ingram (21 years old) with the 2018-19 Lakers.

What does building around Williamson mean? That’s more complicated. The Pelicans both traded a very good player (Jrue Holiday) primarily for draft picks and hired a coach (Stan Van Gundy) who prioritizes the present.

Reading between the lines: New Orleans is calling on Williamson and its other young players to grow up quickly.

Brandon Ingram did that last year. Sent to the Pelicans in the Anthony Davis trade, Ingram was denied his desired max-contract extension. He then became an All-Star, won Most Improved Player and got his max deal from New Orleans in restricted free agency.

Williamson and Ingram form a heck of a one-two punch to build around. They offer a long runway.

Which is why the Pelicans could jump on a great (desperate?) offer from the Bucks for Holiday. New Orleans got three first-round picks and two pick swaps. If Giannis Antetokounmpo leaves Milwaukee, those unprotected 2025 and 2027 picks and 2024 and 2026 swaps could be extremely valuable. Antetokounmpo could easily stay and help the Bucks send a couple picks in the late 20s. But the upside is tantalizing.

The Pelicans’ path to a super team: Williamson and Ingram continuing to grow and those Bucks picks turning into another star either by landing high in the right lottery or via trade.

But New Orleans isn’t just waiting for a distantly bright future. Van Gundy will demand more defensive accountability (and maybe even better conditioning). He’s a win-now coach who won’t let Williamson slide in all the ways the talented big did last year.

Not that the Pelicans are just demanding Williamson and their other young players to sink or swim under Van Gundy.

New Orleans flipped a first-round pick, two second-round picks, George Hill (a good, though older, player) and other filler to the Thunder for Steven Adams. Adams replaces Derrick Favors (who left for the Jazz) as the crutch center next to Williamson. Though Williamson works best offensively when surrounded by floor spacers, he just can’t hold up defensively yet at center. Adams will do the dirty work in the meantime.

Not only was the cost of trading for Adams high, the Pelicans also gave the 27-year-old a two-year, $35 million extension. That’s not great value for someone whose fit is a necessary evil at best.

The Holiday trade also brought Eric Bledsoe to New Orleans. The Bucks needed to upgrade to Holiday for the playoffs. But for a team just trying to reach the postseason, the Pelicans don’t face an extreme drop to Bledsoe. He’s a good regular-season player thanks to his defense and driving.

Still, the Pelicans’ total could be less than the sum of their parts. An expected Lonzo Ball-Eric Bledsoe-Brandon Ingram-Zion Williamson-Steven Adams starting lineup is extremely lacking in outside shooting/spacing. Maybe J.J. Redick (a Van Gundy favorite from their time with the Magic) or Josh Hart will start.

New Orleans has plenty of depth, including No. 13 pick Kira Lewis (a fine selection) and newly signed cheap big-man specialists Wenyan Gabriel (defensive) and Willy Hernangomez (offensive). That could be important in a compressed season amid the coronavirus pandemic.

The Pelicans are trying to establish a culture, which can best be done through winning. They have a chance.

I’m even more impressed with how they strengthened their long-term asset base.

Offseason grade: B

Lonzo Ball says ‘I can’t run’ or jump; Bulls’ Donovan has to plan for extended absence

Milwaukee Bucks v Chicago Bulls
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Officially, Lonzo Ball will be out 4-6 weeks after getting his knee scoped this week.

However, this is his second surgery on his left knee this year — he had meniscus surgery in January, after which he was never able to return to the court — and there are concerns Ball could miss significant time again. And coach Billy Donovan has no choice but to plan for an extended absence.

Ball did a Zoom call with reporters on Tuesday and it’s hard to come away from what he said overly optimistic. Rob Schaefer reported on the call for NBC Sports Chicago:

“Literally, I really can’t run. I can’t run or jump. There’s a range from, like, 30 to 60 degrees when my knee is bent that I have, like, no force and I can’t, like, catch myself. Until I can do those things I can’t play,” Ball said. “I did rehab, it was getting better, but it was not to a point where I could get out there and run full speed or jump. So surgery is the next step.”

The symptoms are something Ball said he has never dealt with and have left doctors, in his words, “a little surprised.”

It’s never good when doctors are surprised. Ball said the doctors don’t see anything on the MRI, but there is clearly something wrong, so they are going in and looking to find the issue and fix it.

Ball has been diligent in his recovery work from the start, the problem was pain in his knee. Something was still not right after the first surgery. Whatever it is.

The 4-6 week timeline would have Ball back in early November, but you know they will be overly cautious with him after the past year. Coach Billy Donovan was honest — he has to plan for a season without Ball.

The Bulls need Ball in a deep and challenging East. He brings defense, pushes the pace in transition, and takes care of the rock. Chicago has other players who can do those things individually — Alex Caruso can defend, Coby White pushes in transition, Goran Dragic takes care of the ball — but the Bulls lack one player who can do all those things. At least they lack one until Ball returns.

Whenever that may be.

Deandre Ayton says he hasn’t spoken to coach Williams since Game 7

Phoenix Suns v New Orleans Pelicans - Game Four
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In a Game 7 against the Mavericks last May, Suns coach Monty Williams benched center Deandre Ayton, who ended up playing just 17 minutes in an ugly, blowout loss for Phoenix. When asked about it after the game Williams said, “It’s internal.”

Ayton and Williams have not spoken since then, according to Ayton.

Yikes. Remember that includes a summer where the Suns would not offer Ayton a max contract extension so he went out and got one from the Pacers, then the Suns instantly matched it. Ayton did not sound thrilled to be back in Phoenix on Media Day, and he was rather matter-of-fact about dealing with his coach.

It’s what every fan wants to hear — “this is just my job.”

Reporters asked Williams about this and he played it off, saying he hasn’t spoken with a lot of players yet.

It’s just day one of training camp, but there are a lot of red flags around the Suns: owner Robert Sarver being suspended and selling the team, Jae Crowder not in camp waiting to be traded, and now not a lot of communication between the team’s star center and its coach.

Maybe it all amounts to nothing. Maybe the Suns get on the court, Chris Paul looks rejuvenated, Devin Booker looks like Devin Booker, and none of this matters. But what had looked like a stable situation not that long ago now has a lot of red flags flying heading into the season, and that has to concern Suns fans.

 

Report: Lakers would have traded both first-round picks for Irving, Mitchell

Utah Jazz v Brooklyn Nets
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“If you make that trade, it has to be the right one, you have one shot to do it,” Lakers GM Rob Pelinka said at media day, pulling back the curtain a little on his thinking of trading two first-round picks. “So we’re being very thoughtful around the decisions on when and how to use draft capital in a way that will improve our roster.”

That tracks with the consistent messaging out of Los Angeles all summer: The Lakers would only trade the only two first-round picks they fully control for the rest of this decade (2027 and 2029) for a deal that made them a contender.

That meant landing Kyrie Irving or Donovan Mitchell, ESPN’s Dave McMenamin said on The Hoop Collective Podcast.

“I’ve been told that had the Lakers been able to acquire, Kyrie Irving, or the Lakers been able to acquire Donovan Mitchell, either of those players, the Lakers were willing and able to move both those [first-round] picks to do it.”

The problem for the Lakers is the market price for elite talent has moved beyond two first-round picks. The Jazz got three unprotected first-round picks (2025, 2027 and 2029) plus the rights to two pick swaps (2026 and 2028) in the Mitchell trade, not to mention three players: Lauri Markkanen (who they will try to trade for another pick), Collin Sexton, and Ochair Agbaji. The price for Kyrie Irving would have been at least as high, if the Nets really wanted to trade him.

The Lakers traded all of their young players and most of their picks to land Anthony Davis and Russell Westbrook, except for the ones they let walk away (Alex Caruso). Before he was judicious in making trades like he was this offseason, Pelinka made deals that backed him into this corner.

The Lakers likely could use both picks to acquire Buddy Hield and Myles Turner out of Indiana (sending Westbrook back), but that doesn’t make Los Angeles a contender (a playoff team, but not a title threat) and it messes with the plan to have around $30 million in cap space next summer to chase a big name.

The Lakers you see in training camp are the Lakers you get. At least for now.

New coach, new attitude, but will that fix Lakers defense, Westbrook fit?

Los Angeles Lakers Media Day 2022
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EL SEGUNDO, Calif. — Darvin Ham was the new face at the front of the room, and since the day he walked in the door he has been about looking forward and a clean slate. The Lakers own tabula rasa.

“This year, we’ve turned the page, you know, we’re looking out the windshield, not so much through the rearview mirror,” coach Ham said.

However, at Lakers’ media day everyone kept looking backward — to the team’s poor defense and questionable fit of Russell Westbrook last season.

Can a new face at the front of the room, a new focus, and some better luck with injuries wipe away that past and make the Lakers a threat in the West again?

“I think everyone here has a chip [on their shoulder], and in every right, obviously, [after last] season, last year,” another newcomer, Patrick Beverley, said. “Everyone wants a little bit of oomph, a little bit of you know, more of whatever it is.”

For Ham, “whatever it is” means defense. On Monday, Ham was preaching defense again. Like he has incessantly since the day the Lakers hired him — he is hanging his hat, his rotations, and the Lakers’ chances on an intense defense.

Of course, Frank Vogel preached defense, too. He is a defensive coach. When the Lakers won the title in 2020 they had the third-best defense in the NBA, the following season it was the best defense in the league. Vogel’s message and the team’s focus on that end got lost last season for various reasons. The Lakers fell to the bottom 10 in the league on that end of the floor. It cost Vogel his job.

Ham tied last season’s defensive concerns and Westbrook’s fit in the rotation together — if you don’t defend, you don’t play. That includes the $47 million former MVP guard.

“We got to have a defensive mindset,” Ham said. “Those are the guys that’s going to get the minutes, guys going out there to get stops. And… [Westbrook has] told me personally, he’s going to commit to that side of the ball.

“And that’s what camp is for. We’ll see.”

Ham would not commit to Westbrook as a starter. That comes after the Lakers spent the summer trying to find a trade for Westbrook, to move on from last season’s frustrations, but any deal had to bring value back to the Lakers. That really never came close to happening (there wasn’t a great market for Westbrook’s services at his current price tag). So Westbrook is back.

“Whether they want me here or not doesn’t really matter,” Westbrook said. “Honestly, my job is to be professional, show up to work like I’ve always done thus far, do my job the best way I know how to, and that’s it. We’ve all had jobs that sometimes people at our jobs don’t like us or don’t want us there, as you guys can probably attest to, and any other job across the world. As a professional and as a working man I have to do my job and do it the best way I know how to be able to support and take of my family, and that’s what I’ll do.”

The awkwardness of Westbrook’s fit was a structural one — he has been a ball-dominant scorer his entire NBA career, and the Lakers are asking him to play a role now. He’s not their best shot creator, he will be standing in the corners at times. That’s not in the nature of the aggressive, confident Westbrook, and Vogel could never strike a balance.

“We’re telling Russ be yourself like we need you to be yourself. I tell him that before every game, like be yourself,” Anthony Davis said. “Because I didn’t want him thinking too much like, ‘Oh, I gotta get the ball LeBron or AD’ and now he’s being passive and not being aggressive, which is who he has been in his league to be Russell Westbrook. And I think the more he does that, we can adjust.”

Ham, however, has talked about running the offense more through Davis — this is a critical year in his time with the Lakers — and, of course, nobody is taking the ball out of LeBron’s hands.

“My thing is offensively, we want to play fast, want to be physical and play free. And fast meaning our running habits, getting AD on that left block, getting Bron around the elbow area,” Ham said. “There’s a variety of sets that we have planned to install that’s going to highlight their strengths, get Russ in post more.”

Westbrook said all the right things about fitting in. Again.

“I’ll continue doing what’s best for the team doing whatever that is asked of me,” Westbrook said. “I’ll continue doing that. And in those parameters I’ll be the best person I could possibly be.”

Westbrook said all the right things a year ago to LeBron and Davis, then his fit with the Lakers was never smooth last season. Will it really change this season? To quote Ham, “we’ll see.”

Each of the Lakers big three talked about just needing more time together healthy (for the record, the Lakers had a -3 net rating last season when all three shared the court). They jumpstarted the process this summer with conversations, but they all said it was just a matter of time.

“With all of us you know our time on the floor together was very limited because of injuries for myself and Bron but I think that was that was really it,” Davis said. “We just didn’t have enough reps.”

Injuries have been an issue. Davis spent the summer getting healthy and stronger, trying to be on the court more and carry a larger load. LeBron echoed that idea.

“The focus of my game is being available…” LeBron said. “Availability is the most important thing in his league and to be able to be available on the floor.”

Ham’s media day message was not a new one, it’s what he’s been saying — defense, accountability, a team mindset. The question, looking back to last season, is fit. Ham has talked to Westbrook about those things and has been the guard’s most vocal supporter. Russ is going to get his chance.

“Everything has been about you know, being selfless, being team-oriented, having a defensive mindset and holding [Westbrook] to that — words that came out of his own mouth,” Ham said.

Roster changes could come in Los Angeles. They didn’t this summer — at least with the core players — because GM Rob Pelinka would not send out both picks the Lakers can trade (2027 and 2029) for any deal that didn’t make Los Angeles a contender. Asked bout that, Pelinka noted he gets one swing at this and it has to be a home run.

“If you make that trade, it has to be the right one, you have one shot to do it,” Pelinka said. “So we’re being very thoughtful around the decisions on when and how to use draft capital in a way that will improve our roster.”

In the short term, that improvement falls to Ham and the Lakers roster. They are saying all the right things about looking forward.

But will the ghosts of seasons past haunt them again? We’ll see.