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Veteran Pelicans centre Jonas Valanciunas after draining a shot. (Photo: Adam Pantozzi/NBAE 2021)

NBA 2022 Offseason Guide: New Orleans Pelicans

Veteran Pelicans centre Jonas Valanciunas after draining a shot. (Photo: Adam Pantozzi/NBAE 2021)

NBA 2022 Offseason Guide: New Orleans Pelicans

Everything in New Orleans revolves around Zion Williamson. Or does it?

If this past season has proven anything, it’s that the Pelicans will be a beast of a team with a fit, healthy (yes, there is a difference) and motivated Zion on the floor. Without him? They’re still pretty good.

Sure, the team under .500 and lost in the first round of the playoffs, but considering where they were at the beginning of the season (they sat at 3-16 in late November), that’s a legitimate accomplishment. Next season, even without Zion, they’ll have a full year with CJ McCollum, who was superb after coming over from Portland at the trade deadline, as well as another year of experience into their raft of talented youngsters.

If Williamson wants to – or is indeed capable – of coming along for the ride, then great. Either way, the Pellies will be OK.

Let’s take a look at how they can continue their upward trajectory this offseason.

The Roster

Let’s address the elephant – or at least the flying rhino – in the room: Zion.

If healthy (the biggest, boldest if) Williamson is a devastating offensive player, simply too fast for bigger players, too powerful for speedy defenders. His unusual build (6’6”, 284lbs) makes him a unique match up before you even take into account his other worldly athleticism. He of course didn’t suit up this last season, but the season prior he averaged an even 27 points per game in just his 2nd campaign. The best interior scorer the NBA has seen since turn of the century Shaquille O’Neal, Zion is a force of nature.

There are persistent rumours of Williamson’s dissatisfaction with life in Louisiana, though the man himself came out and dispelled most of those stories a little over a month ago….for whatever that’s worth.

Even if Zion does turn down whatever extension is put under his nose and eventually leaves town, the Pelicans are still in possession of an intriguing roster.

McCollum was fantastic in his limited run as a Pelican. A primary option for the first time in his NBA life, the 30 year old thrived, giving New Orleans 24.3 points (on 49% shooting, 39% from three) with 5.8 assists and 1.3 steals. He provided a dose of veteran leadership that coalesced the team as they made their late playoff push.

The other tent pole star for New Orleans is Brandon Ingram. The jewel in their Anthony Davis haul, Ingram is perhaps best cast as a second banana, but as the Robin to someone else’s Batman, he’s elite. His three point shooting dropped away last season, though picked up considerably once McCollum was on board, creating lanes for Ingram to unfurl his excellent, herky-jerky one-on-one stylings.

Jonas Valanciunas continues to stuff fools into the basket, whilst moonlighting as a Bond villain in the offseason. Willy Hernangomez had a bounce back season as Valanciunas’ reserve.

Of their rookie triumvirate, Trey Murphy showed flashes as a rangy forward and Jose Alvarado became a #NBATwitter phenomenon. But the standout was clearly Herbert Jones, who was perhaps unlucky to miss out on becoming the first rookie to make the NBA’s All Defense teams since Tim Duncan in 1998.

Jones’s ability to nullify just about any player (bar a dreadnought centre) unlocked all sorts of offensive flexibility for rookie coach Willie Green. That does lead this writer to ask the question: does Jones’ defense allow the Pelicans to unleash Point Zion?

Team Needs

Perhaps the most pressing need for the Pelicans roster isn’t who they can look to bring in, but who they can retain.

Everybody of consequence is under contract, but Williamson and draft mate Jaxson Hayes both remain unsigned beyond next season. Hayes is still full of potential and might have a future with the team, though his importance obviously pales in comparison to that of Zion.

Lose him and the team can build with it’s plethora of draft picks in a more conventional manner. Sign him to an extension and the remit becomes easier in a talent sense, though infinitely tougher in finding the right players to fit around a type of player that the league hasn’t seen since a young Charles Barkley. It almost goes without saying that NBA basketball is almost a different sport in the mid 80’s as to what it is now.

Looking up and down the roster, there is an almost ideal mix of youth and veteran; bigs, wings and smalls; role players and leading lights. Whilst they need Zion’s return as a genuine talisman to take the next step in their progression, general manager David Griffin has done a marvellous job in turning his Anthony Davis/Jrue Holiday centric roster into this.

The Cap Sheet

As mentioned elsewhere, the Pelicans have 14 players inked to deals next season, costing a grand total of $141 million. Most of those are secured beyond the 2023 campaign, too. Only the rookie contracted Williamson and Hayes, as well as important veteran Larry Nance Jr are free agents after the season.

Hayes should have a home in New Orleans, though his cap number is a crapshoot. He probably shouldn’t be paid anything beyond backup big man numbers, tough he might see himself as a potential starter in the long run and chase the money, either in New Orleans or elsewhere.

Re-signing Nance is a must. The versatile forward unlocks a myriad of line-up and role alignments for Green. At age 29 he might be looking for more than the $10 million per season that his current deal pays him. The Pellies shouldn’t be afraid to pony up for a player that sets a tone both on and off the court.

The key though, remains Williamson. Just on potential alone he’ll surely be offered the max of $181 million over five years. It won’t come without a laundry list of conditions, though. Expect to see games played (both total and per season) thresholds, perhaps minutes targets and some performance-based measures, as well. There may be some non-guaranteed money towards the back end of the deal and perhaps early termination clauses in there somewhere, as well.

The end result is a team that is over the cap yet has its core pieces in place on medium to long term deals as well as a bevy of draft capital to build with (isn’t that a nice segway!)

The Draft

New Orleans 1st rounder sits with the Charlotte Hornets after their panicked trade for Devonte’ Graham. They do, however, hold the Lakers selection meaning they’ll pick 8th. The team also holds a pair of late 2nd rounders.

With a team that has talent up and down the positional spectrum, what direction the Pelicans will choose is a mystery.

Do they decide that Hayes isn’t worth keeping around and take Jalen Duren as a long term successor to Valanciunas? Is a high-end complimentary wing like the sharp shooting AJ Griffin the way to go? Do they try to fill a need in the backcourt with Shaeden Sharpe, Dyson Daniels or Johnny Davis?

An interesting scenario presents itself if Keegan Murray drops to them at pick eight. An older rookie, he’s ready to play right now and projects as a very good scorer at the pro level. If the team does select the Iowa product, does that mean they think Zion’s health is just too much of a risk to rely on?

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