The New Orleans Pelicans were busy this offseason. Steven Adams arrived in a trade, and signed an extension, following the blockbuster Jrue Holiday trade which netted a haul of picks to accompany those acquired when they dealt Anthony Davis to the Lakers.
Brandon Ingram got his extension. Stan Van Gundy replaced Alvin Gentry.
All of this is important, of course, but it’s peripheral. The fate of the Pelicans, in the short, medium and long-term, is about Zion Williamson. His health, his defensive development, his shot, the fit around him. It’s all Zion.
Several of the moves this offseason aren’t obvious fits with the 2019 first overall pick. Van Gundy, although a highly regarded coach, has historically had teams who play at a slow pace. Williamson is at his best in transition, as is Lonzo Ball. Adams provides no spacing whatsoever. While he can protect Zion from a lot of the dirty work, it’s going to be a clumsy fit in the frontcourt.
The assumed starting five is Williamson, Adams, Ingram, Ball and Eric Bledsoe. Ball has improved as a catch-and-shoot guy, but Ingram is the only plus shooter in that line-up, and even he had his troubles from deep before last season. It’s a ferociously athletic group, but it’s very light on shooting.
Pace is going to be so important. The Pels need to force turnovers (Zion, Bledsoe and Ball are all very capable of doing so) and run. Run at every opportunity. Run off inbounds passes. The Ball and Williamson transition chemistry was apparent in Zion’s taster of NBA action. That has to become a staple of the offence, and they need to batter opponents on the glass – Zion and Adams should be the best offensive rebounding duo in the league.
Extra possessions will be vital. The halfcourt offence could get ugly. It wouldn’t be a surprise to see that starting line-up tweaked before long (or maybe Bledsoe traded) to bring in JJ Redick’s shooting.
New Orleans was also bad defensively for the first half of last season. Ball and Bledsoe have the potential to be special on that end – Bledsoe is barely a downgrade. Ingram’s effort is inconsistent, though, and Zion has been a liability. Adams is unplayable in certain matchups.
Van Gundy faces a challenge to make this group of players into a cohesive team. The range on what they could be is enormous.
Could they be a top six seed? Yeah, sure. Could they fall deep into the lottery? Easy to imagine, particularly if Zion plays less than 50 games.
They couldn’t turn down the picks they received for Holiday. Getting a centre to do the physical stuff next to Zion makes sense to a degree. David Griffin clearly prioritised the future this offseason, but at the expense of their 2021 team. The Pels are asking a lot of Van Gundy to take this roster to the playoffs.