In one offseason, David Griffin drafted Zion Williamson and surrounded him with the talent to succeed. Where will the Pelicans go from here?
It’s a testament to David Griffin’s work in the last four months that the Pelicans’ whirlwind of a summer almost renders the team’s acquisition of Zion Williamson – an unprecedented athletic marvel and possibly generational basketball prospect – an afterthought. Williamson, of course, is no afterthought and suddenly, neither are the Pelicans.
In one offseason, Griffin and the Pelicans not only drafted a franchise cornerstone but surrounded him with the appropriate complementary talent to support Williamson from the first time he steps on an NBA court. Griffin’s first task as general manager was resolving the tension between the franchise and Anthony Davis, which he did by wresting Brandon Ingram, Lonzo Ball, Josh Hart — arguably the Lakers’ three most promising young players — and three first-round picks from a team that would seemingly pay any price for Davis’ services. Griffin then flipped one of those picks for two more 2019 first-rounders from Atlanta, giving Williamson two peers with whom to enter the NBA, then shrewdly allocated their free-agency resources to Derrick Favors, J.J. Redick and Nicolò Melli – all of whom figure to serve specific and vital purposes for a team with playoff aspirations.
The beauty of the Pelicans’ pivot is the pressure it relieves from Williamson and the flexibility it affords Alvin Gentry. This is – by Griffin’s own admission – Jrue Holiday’s team, which fosters a symbiosis conducive to success in both the short and long term. Unlike most top picks, Williamson joins a team with playoff infrastructure already in place and won’t be asked to shoulder a star’s burden as a rookie.
Gentry, meanwhile, is under no obligation to entrust command of the team to a rookie, which allows him to utilize Williamson in calculated, specialized capacities that will expand the bounds of his game without straining them. By not being the primary option, Williamson will always be a viable one. With capable weapons around him, he won’t have to create his own offense or face heightened defensive pressure nearly to the degree others in his rookie class will. Rather than pounding the ball for its own sake or repeatedly barreling into defenses he doesn’t yet know how to attack, he’ll be free to roam as a cutter or roll man as others set the table.
The defensive learning curve should soften playing alongside an ace rim protector like Favors, and one can’t help but wonder what Redick’s offensive gravity could do for someone with Williamson’s finishing prowess. Gentry would be wise to deploy the pair in pin-down and handoff actions similar to the ones Redick once ran with Joel Embiid:
Redick’s movement and marksmanship will be crucial for a team that, despite a deep rotation flush with athleticism, skill or both, runs thin on shooting. For all his two-way brilliance, Holiday has converted less than 34 percent of his 3-point attempts over the last four years, while Ingram’s value as a shooter remains largely theoretical. Most of New Orleans’ frontcourt players offer little in the way of floor spacing. Melli could emerge as a fixture in the rotation simply for his shooting ability and as a means of unleashing Williamson at center. Still, most rookies lack the wherewithal to anchor NBA defenses, even for short stretches, and most of the Pelicans’ rotation is yet unproven.
How those pieces fit together and how Gentry apportions playing time remains to be seen, but the lack of definitive answers is part of the point. With a deep and pliable roster at his disposal, Gentry can experiment with different styles and combinations, yet still maintain trust in all five players on the court during a given stretch. Holiday is as steady a point guard as the NBA has this side of Steph Curry and Damian Lillard, while Favors has become one of the league’s best (and least glamorous) defensive centers. New Orleans would be hard-pressed to find two better bookends for its defense.
Redick may well start over Ball for offensive purposes, but there are still enough minutes for Ball and Holiday to spend terrorizing opposing backcourts together; the trio’s skills may even mesh together well enough for all three to play together. Ingram has the makings of a versatile defender and capable secondary offensive engine while Hart’s brand of shooting and perimeter defense fits seamlessly in almost any lineup configuration. E’Twaun Moore, long miscast as a starter in prior iterations of the team, can scale into a smaller role while previously shaky minutes on the wing are parceled out to more stable options.
The Pelicans placed the weight of a franchise on Davis’ shoulders when he entered the league, looking solely to him for salvation. Seven years later, after two winning seasons and scant postseason success, he demanded a trade. New Orleans has done all it can to lighten that weight on Williamson and position itself to maximize the forthcoming era. In today’s NBA, the clock on star talent begins ticking on draft night, and landing a player of Williamson’s standing demands that a team do all it can to set itself up for sustained success. The Pelicans are still deciding exactly what kind of team to build around their young star, but in just four months have positioned themselves to pursue any available option.