David Griffin is back.
Will Zion Williamson follow?
Griffin, who helped build the Cavaliers’ 2016 championship team as Cleveland’s lead executive then secured a haul from the Lakers for Anthony Davis early in his Pelicans tenure, had been in a rut. The walls appeared to be closing in on Griffin in New Orleans. He looked desperate to save his job.
But an inspiring trade with the Trail Blazers that returns C.J. McCollum and Larry Nance Jr. for a fairly low cost brings hope. Not only that Williamson will return from his foot injury this season (the timeline Griffin gave the second time), but that Williamson will stay long-term.
Adrian Wojnarowski of ESPN:
Full trade, per sources:
Blazers: Josh Hart, Tomas Satoransky, Nickeil Walker-Alexander, Didi Louzada, 2022 protected first-round pick, two second-round picks.
Pelicans: CJ McCollum, Larry Nance, Tony Snell.
— Adrian Wojnarowski (@wojespn) February 8, 2022
Andrew Lopez of ESPN:
New Orleans' 2022 first-round pick:
1-4: Goes to the Pelicans
5-14: Goes to the Blazers
15-30: Goes to the Hornets
– Blazers get a future first-round pick if it doesn't convey
– Hornets get future second-round picks if it doesn't convey
— Andrew Lopez (@_Andrew_Lopez) February 8, 2022
But he’s on the wrong side of 30 and due $69,135,802 the next two seasons. Nance (29) isn’t much younger, though he’s significantly cheaper ($9,672,727 next season).
They don’t neatly match the timeline of Williamson, 21.
The fear: The Pelicans are making the same mistakes with Williamson they made with Davis – spending significant capital to add veterans early, not winning enough at that stage then being less-equipped to win around him once he enters his prime.
But the cost of adding McCollum and Nance was so low, New Orleans is justified making this win-now trade.
McCollum brings much-needed shot creation from the perimeter. Nickeil Alexander-Walker was way overburdened in that role. Brandon Ingram can use the relief. A versatile defensive forward, Nance adds another helpful element.
Even if it takes until next season (hopefully not), the Pelicans have meaningfully upgraded their supporting cast around Williamson.
New Orleans isn’t just waiting for Williamson to return, though. After a rough start, the Pelicans (21-32) are 10th in the Western Conference – already on track to make the play-in tournament and now looking even stronger. This trade weakens their next-closest competition, Portland (21-33), and should help them hold off the Spurs (20-34) and Kings (20-35).
There is limited short-term upside. New Orleans is 4.5 game back of the ninth-place Lakers. If they remain 10th, the Pelicans would have to go 2-0 in road games in the play-in tournament to advance to the playoffs. Highly unlikely.
But merely making the play-in tournament isn’t nothing. Those games are high-stakes and competitive. A winning (or even less-losing) environment could help improve Williamson’s habits. New Orleans has made the postseason just twice in the previous decade. Another meaningful game would be enjoyable.
The Trail Blazers, on the other hand, have had enough early-postseason losses for the time being after years of competing with Damian Lillard.
Portland already traded Norman Powell and Robert Covington to the Clippers. This deal supplements the Trail Blazers’ pivot into new direction. With Lillard injured and now looking increasingly likely to miss the rest of the season, Portland is accepting a lost year.
The Trail Blazers are now armed with the potential of a projected $30 million in cap space and two lottery picks – useful tools for building back up around Lillard.
Portland’s own lottery pick should land even higher after unloading so many productive players (tanking). New Orleans’ pick appears likely to convey this year in that 5-14 range. The Pelicans did well to top-four protect the pick (that was already sent to the Hornets in the Devonte' Graham sign-and-trade if it landed outside the lottery). That really limits the downside for New Orleans. However, the future protections if the pick doesn’t convey this year are unclear. Though unlikely to matter, those details could significantly swing the trade.
The Trail Blazers’ cap-space projection includes a cap hold for Anfernee Simons, whom they almost certainly want to keep in restricted free agency. The projection also includes waiving and stretching Eric Bledsoe (who has just a $3.9 million guarantee) and waiving Josh Hart (whose $12.96 million salary is unguaranteed). However, if nobody worth that much cap space is available, Portland could keep Hart, a gritty defensive wing and sometimes-capable 3-point shooter.
*A $60 million projection – which has been floated elsewhere – is unrealistic.
Portland also has Alexander-Walker, Justise Winslow, Didi Louzada and Greg Brown with guaranteed salaries for next season and that partial guarantee for Bledsoe. Keeping Simons would further eat into the cap. Portland’s first-round picks count against the cap, too.
Of course, for that cap space to lead to winning, the Trail Blazers must use it. There have been rumors about Jody Allen selling the team ever since she took control. A teardown could be a prelude to a sale, offering a new owner a chance to start with a clean state. Whether Lillard gets an extension this summer could signal the franchise’s direction.
The No. 17 pick in the 2019 draft, Alexander-Walker has shown promise. But the guard has really struggled this season. It’s unclear how much the Trail Blazers value him as a prospect. He might have just been matching salary.
Didi Louzada is less likely to help Portland. He has shown little since getting drafted No. 35 in 2019, got suspended 25 games for steroids then recently underwent surgery for a torn meniscus. Tomas Satoransky was almost certainly included just for his matching salary on an expiring contract.