- After drafting Zion Williamson, receiving a bounty in return for Anthony Davis, then signing veterans in free agency, the New Orleans Pelicans were a feel-good story and potential playoff team this season.
- Instead, Williamson got injured and hasn’t played, and the team has lost 13 straight and sits at 6-22 on the season.
- The Pelicans are getting trade calls on their veteran players and must decide whether to keep the team together or break it up.
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The New Orleans Pelicans were the feel-good story of the NBA offseason.
They landed the No. 1 pick in a surprise lottery jump, drafted Zion Williamson, traded Anthony Davis to the Los Angeles Lakers for a bounty of intriguing young players and draft picks, then signed two solid veterans in J.J. Redick and Derrick Favors in free agency to support their youth movement.
Combined with star guard Jrue Holiday, suddenly, a franchise that looked wayward three months earlier had a future centerpiece in Williamson, an interesting youth movement, and useful veterans to help them win games. Some thought the Pelicans could challenge for a playoff spot, while others thought they would at least be a tough out in the deep Western Conference.
Fast forward to mid-December, and the Pelicans season has not gone according to plan. Following a 101-108 overtime loss to the Brooklyn Nets on Tuesday, the Pelicans are 6-22, losers of 13 straight.
The injured star rookie
Of course, some of their struggles have been due to poor fortune. Williamson had to undergo surgery on a torn meniscus in late October, just before the start of the season. The centerpiece of their team, who looked promising in the preseason, was suddenly out for the first 6-8 weeks of the season.
The return hasn’t exactly gone to plan, either. Williamson has now passed the eight-week projection and doesn’t appear close to returning. The New York Times’ Marc Stein reported in early December that the Pelicans won’t rush Williamson back and that his return may have to wait until 2020.
Williamson was seen on the Pelicans practice court on Tuesday, working with a coach on shooting. However, Pelicans president of basketball operations David Griffin tempered expectations, telling reporters that Williamson is “a ways away.”
“I know we’ve reached the eight-week point, and everyone is ready to see him,” Griffin said. “I think we’re a little ways away yet, but today was a really big first step.”
The rest of the roster simply hasn’t worked
Williamson, of course, was going to be the centerpiece of the Pelicans, at least on offense. The Pelicans showed in the preseason that they already had nifty play designs to get Williamson going to the rim and how he could create something out of nothing with the ball in his hands.
Williamson, however, cannot be relied upon solely to right the ship for a team that is 16 games below .500.
While a few players have had solid individual seasons, it hasn’t resulted in team success. The Pelicans rank 19th in offensive efficiency and 28th in defensive efficiency.
One area working against them is a disproportionate record in “clutch” situations (defined as the last five minutes of a game where the score is within five points). The Pelicans have played 65 such minutes, sixth-most in the league, according to Second Spectrum, and have been outscored by 63 points in those minutes. Only the Golden State Warriors have a worse win percentage in clutch situations.
Ten of the Pelicans’ losses have come by seven points or less this season. If half of those had gone the other way, the Pelicans could be 11-17, out of the playoff race, but not a disaster.
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The Pelicans might have reason to believe they can turn things around, especially once they are healthy.
Will the Pelicans make a big trade?
It’s unclear if the Pelicans will play the process out.
According to league sources, there is trade interest in Holiday and Redick.
Stein reported on Tuesday that while the Pelicans are hesitant to move Redick, Holiday is available.
How to move forward presents a conundrum for the Pelicans. The team was excited about their roster entering the season, and they haven’t gotten a chance to see how everyone can play together. No, Williamson can’t single-handedly transform them into a playoff team. Still, if he returns healthy and plays well, perhaps the Pelicans will see enough signs of a winning team to keep everyone together.
The opposite may be true, also. Given how the rest of the roster hasn’t lived up to expectations, perhaps the Pelicans will decide the pieces simply weren’t right, with or without Williamson.
Holidays and Redick aren’t on the same timelines as the rest of the Pelicans. Holiday is 29 and hasn’t experienced major playoff success. Redick is 35 and has made the playoffs each year of his career, something he spoke about at the beginning of the season.
Holiday would be a major trade piece who could take another team to the next level and net the Pelicans significant assets in return. Redick could potentially land the Pelicans an asset or useful player from a contending team in need of shooting closer to the deadline.
The Pelicans have some tough questions to answer as the calendar flips to January, and the trade deadline approaches. How they handle the rest of this season could decide how the Zion era will begin with a total rebuild or not.