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

Pelicans big Zion Williamson
Bill Baptist/NBAE via Getty Images

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

Joel Embiid scores 46 but 76ers still fall short against Poole, Warriors


SAN FRANCISCO (AP) — Jordan Poole emerged as one of Golden State’s most dependable performers during the championship run last season.

He resembled that go-to guy once again Friday night when the Warriors needed everything he had, with the ever-reliable Draymond Green doing his thing, too.

“Opportunity,” Poole said of his stellar fourth quarter playing all 12 minutes.

Poole scored 33 points and swished a key 3-pointer with 1:18 to play off a pretty pass by Green, Stephen Curry added 29 points and eight rebounds, and the Golden State Warriors rallied past Joel Embiid and the Philadelphia 76ers 120-112 on Friday night.

“Tonight something about it felt like last year in that playoff run when Jordan was just attacking and knocking down shots but also getting to the line just giving us an entirely different dimension offensively,” coach Steve Kerr said. “That’s when he’s at his best. I thought he really competed down the stretch defensively as well. He was magnificent tonight.”

Embiid checked back into the game with 8:26 left and scored 13 straight on the way to 46 points.

But the Warriors came back from 11 down for their ninth straight home win — and one of the most important yet as they fight for playoff positioning.

Green noted: “Nobody wants to be in that play-in, the play-in is dangerous.”

Curry dribbled the baseline and around Embiid for a go-ahead jumper with 2:20 to play. Klay Thompson tied it at 104 with 5:05 left, only for Embiid to drive straight down the key for a dunk. He did miss consecutive shots in crunch time, too.

Poole’s driving dunk with 8:27 left got Golden State back to 93-91 then Kevon Looney’s putback after Embiid blocked a layup try by Poole cut it to 102-101.

Embiid shot 13 for 23, made 19 of 22 free throws and had nine rebounds, eight assists and two steals. He helped Philadelphia take an 88-79 lead going into the fourth. He had his streak of scoring 30 or more points in a franchise-record 10 straight games snapped in Wednesday’s 116-91 win at Chicago but made up for it.

Golden State nemesis James Harden sat out with left Achilles soreness for the Sixers, who had won nine of 10 and 10 of 12.

Thompson added 21 points and six rebounds and Looney contributed six points, 10 rebounds and seven assists as the Warriors reached 30 home wins for the sixth time since 2014-15 and second in a row.

“You want to take care of home court as best as you can,” Poole said.

Green had 10 points, 10 assists and seven rebounds for Golden State, which had some momentum from two straight wins on the road following an 11-game skid away from Chase Center.

“I feel good. It’s that time of year you’ve got to turn everything up a notch,” Green said. “I love this time of year.”

Philadelphia, which had won the last two matchups, made 10 of 17 shots to start the game but missed its first eight 3-point tries before Georges Niang connected at the 8:06 mark of the second quarter.

Luka Dončić fined for money gesture toward referee after loss


The Mavericks were livid about the officiating in their loss to the Warriors, particularly the miscommunication about a third-quarter out-of-bounds play that gave Golden State an uncontested bucket in what ended up being a two-point game.

Frustrated or not, everyone knew Luka Dončić crossed a line and would get fined when he made a gesture suggesting the referees were paid off.

Friday the NBA came down with a $35,000 fine for Dončić “for directing an inappropriate and unprofessional gesture toward a game official.” While that’s a steep price it could have been much worse — the referee did not give Dončić a technical foul at the time, which would have been his 16th and triggered a one-game suspension without pay.

Dončić wasn’t the only person fined by the league for snapping at the officials, Suns coach Monty Williams was fined $20,000 on Friday “for public criticism of the officiating.” Williams was frustrated after losing to the Lakers on a night where Los Angeles got to the line 46 times to Phoenix’s 20.

“Where do you see a game with 46 free throws for one team?” Williams said after the game. “That’s just not right. I don’t care how you slice it. It is happening to us too much. Other teams are reaching, other teams are hitting, and we’re not getting the same call, and I’m tired of it. It’s old… I’m over it. Been talking about the same thing for a while. Doesn’t matter what team it is.”

It doesn’t matter what team it is for a reason. First, the Suns do not draw a lot of fouls because they are not a team that puts a lot of pressure on the rim (especially without Kevin Durant), they settle for jump shots. Second, they have the highest foul rate in the league — they foul a lot. Those two things will lead to a free throw disparity nightly (they had players who could draw fouls, Mikal Bridges is doing it now in Brooklyn, but the Suns didn’t put the ball in his and ask him to attack as the Nets have, Phoenix used him as a shooter and cutter off the ball more often).

The tensions between players and referees feel ratcheted up this season, and these are just the latest examples.

Report: Kevin Durant targeting March 29 return vs. Timberwolves


When Kevin Durant sprained his ankle during warmups, the Suns said he would be re-evaluated in three weeks. It turns out it may be more than a re-evaluation.

Durant is targeting a return almost three weeks to the day from when he injured himself, reports Shams Charania of The Athletic.

There has been no official update from the Suns, but Durant’s camp has always been optimistic about a return.

The Suns have gone 2-5 without Durant and slid into a virtual tie with the Clippers for the No. 4 seed in the West. If Durant returns Wednesday, Phoenix would have seven games left to hold off Los Angeles and retain home court in the first round of the playoffs. More importantly, they could generate some chemistry before the postseason begins.

Durant averaged 26.7 points and 7.3 assists a game with a ridiculous 80.8 true shooting percentage in his three games with the Suns, and the team won all three games. The fit seemed almost seamless and if the Suns can get back to that they are a threat to win the wide-open West.

It’s going to be a wild final couple of weeks in the West.

Where’s the beef? Anthony Davis says ‘Me and Bron have one of the best relationships’ in NBA


Whispers and reports of a split in the Lakers’ locker room and a beef between Anthony Davis and LeBron James gained momentum after Davis’ reaction to LeBron James breaking the all-time scoring record went viral. Talking Lakers drama is always an excellent way to get clicks/eyeballs/listeners and so once a rumor like a beef between the team’s two biggest stars begins rolling down the hill it does not stop.

Even if Davis says there is nothing to it, everything is good between him and LeBron. Here’s the quote he gave to Dave McMenamin of ESPN.

“Me and Bron have one of the best relationships I think in the NBA as far as duos or teammates, regardless,” Davis said. “But they don’t see that. They don’t see the stuff we do off the court and time we hang out with each other. They see on-court stuff.”

The reality is it doesn’t matter if LeBron and Davis are buddies, hanging out together drinking a lovely Pinot Noir and laughing behind Frank Vogel’s back. What matters is whether they can get along and thrive on the court. There’s a banner hanging in Arena that says they can if they stay healthy and management puts the right kinds of role players around them.

The healthy part is in the way right now, with LeBron out for at least a couple more weeks with a tendon foot injury (whether he returns before the season ends is up in the air). The Lakers are 7-5 in the dozen games he has missed with this injury thanks to a defense — anchored by Davis — that is third-best in the NBA over that stretch. That has kept their head above water, but the Lakers are in a tight race where six teams — from the 7-12 seeds, making up all the play-in teams and a couple that will miss out — are tied in the loss column at 37. The Lakers need more wins, including Friday night in a critical game against the Thunder.

The Lakers will need LeBron back — and LeBron and Davis to rekindle their on-court chemistry — if they are going to make any kind of a playoff run. First they just have to get to the postseason, which will fall more on Davis. Of late, he has looked up to the task.