It’s been a rough week for Pelicans fans. Stan Van Gundy is out as coach in New Orleans, at least partly because he didn’t connect with young star Zion Williamson, who appears not to be happy with the organization.
However, all of that pales compared to the note former Grizzlies front office member John Hollinger posted at The Athletic: If one franchise is going to pack up and move in the coming years, it will be New Orleans.
With the team only committed to its lease in The Big Easy through 2024, sources consistently mention New Orleans as the most likely team to seek relocation in the coming decade. To be clear, [owner Gayle] Benson is deeply connected to New Orleans and not currently seeking to sell, but losing money while finishing in the lottery has not been an enjoyable side venture to the main business of running the Saints.
A lot of Pelicans fans were up in arms on Twitter after this report, but I will back up what Hollinger is saying: casual conversations with sources over the past couple of years about expansion/franchise movement often came around to the speculation that Gayle Benson would sell the Pelicans — but never the NFL’s Saints — and that might put them on the move. New Orleans and Memphis are the smallest markets that currently have NBA teams.
As Hollinger notes, the NBA’s expansion plan changes that dynamic, somewhat. The league is going to protect those massive expansion fees that will be coming in and would not let the Pelicans move to Seattle or potentially Las Vegas (Seattle is a lock for a new team when the vote comes up in 2022, Vegas appears to be the current frontrunner for the other one). However, the markets that miss out on expansion — potentially Louisville, Kansas City, or other markets with a billionaire looking to bring a team to town — could still target the Pelicans when they miss out.
All of that assumes Gayle Benson sells the team, which as of now is not on the table. It’s pure speculation. Her late husband, Tom Benson, stepped up and bought the team to keep it in New Orleans and saw that as being a civic duty as much as a financial investment. Some around the league have doubted Gayle Benson has that same commitment to the NBA franchise, but she has never said or done anything that would suggest she is ready to sell the team.
That doesn’t stop the rumor mill around the NBA. Right now, the Pelicans are in the middle of it.