This came in via The Athletic:
This isn’t really a surprise. At least it didn’t come as a surprise to me.
Is it really so hard to believe that Zion isn’t thrilled to be playing for probably the worst franchise in the NBA?
The Pelicans are never on national TV. New Orleans is a football town through-and-through. They have good young talent–Zion, Brandon Ingram, Lonzo–yet they missed the playoffs, even in a year with a play-in tournament where 10 of the 15 teams in each conference have a shot at making it.
It’s a dead-end down there in New Orleans. Zion had stratospheric levels of hype leading up to the 2019 draft, we all got excited for his NBA debut, and then, once Covid hit and the season shut down, Zion basically disappeared off the national radar.
He had an incredible sophomore season. This dude averaged 27ppg and 7rpg on 61% shooting. He’s already a top 15-ish level player in this league, but he’s completely irrelevant to the country at large. He was 8th in the league in scoring average this past year.
This kid should be one of the biggest names in the league, yet he never gets talked about alongside guys like Luka, Trae, Tatum, Donovan, Ja and the other young stars that represent the future of the NBA.
What’s the difference? All those other guys are in the playoffs. They play on good teams with competent front offices. They have good coaches. They have quality teammates.
Zion is about to be on his third coach in three years.
The Pelicans just fired Zion’s coach after only one year. And apparently he lost trust in the Pelicans front office when they traded JJ Redick, who was one of Zion’s closest friends and veteran mentors on the team. JJ Redick is a fellow Duke guy. And apparently JJ himself was unhappy about the way the Pelicans’ front office handled his trade: they promised him they’d send him to the east coast, but instead sent him to Dallas.
Look, when I hear that Zion’s family wants him out of New Orleans, to me that’s code for “Zion wants out of New Orleans.” That much should be pretty obvious. I’m sure they’re all on the same page. But Zion’s camp probably didn’t want to rock the boat too much by blatantly coming out and saying, “Yeah, Zion’s unhappy here.” So they cushioned the blow somewhat by framing it as “Zion’s FAMILY wants him out of there.”
Because then Zion has the plausible deniability.
Zion’s gonna bolt for the Knicks as soon he can. That’s what I think. Look at this:
New Orleans can’t get any big-time free agents. They have to build through the draft. That’s the reality for them as a franchise.
Do you really think they’re going to be able to put the pieces around him to turn that team into a contender? They couldn’t do it for Chris Paul. They couldn’t do it for Anthony Davis.
The odds are, they won’t be able to do it for Zion, either.
I don’t think Zion has the Giannis/Dame mentality where he’s going to stick with the small-market franchise that drafted him. I think Zion has his eyes elsewhere.
He knows what happened with Chris Paul and AD in New Orleans. He knows LeBron had to leave Cleveland in order to win a ring. Same with KD and OKC.
He can see the writing on the wall already: he’s not winning anything in New Orleans. So he knows he’s gotta get out of there ASAP.
I have no idea how that would work. We’ve never really seen a big-time star player leave after his rookie deal expires. Normally these guys sign the second contract with the team that drafted them because the team that drafted you can pay you the most money. That’s how the NBA operates; they don’t want players bolting for greener pastures and forming super teams, so they give players a financial incentive to stay put.
Zion’s deal with New Orleans expires after the 2023 season, so he’ll be there for at least 2 more seasons. At that point, he’ll be a restricted free agent, meaning if he signs a deal with another team, the Pelicans can match the deal and keep him, and he has to stay in New Orleans.
According to USA Today, this is how Zion could become an unrestricted free agent in 2024:
Williamson’s deal with the Pelicans expires after the 2022-23 season. He’ll be a restricted free agent then if he doesn’t sign an extension next season.
That means the Pelicans would have the right to match any contract he signs with another team and retain him. But there’s a way he could become an unrestricted free agent and sign wherever he wants to as soon as 2024.
He could pass on a long-term extension with the Pelicans and sign a qualifying offer with the team. It’s risky. It’s just a one-year deal and he’d make far less than he would if he signed a full extension. But he’d be able to move wherever he wants in a year.
I bet this is what Zion will do. In terms of money, sure he’s passing on a lot if he prioritizes getting out of New Orleans ASAP. But most young players aren’t in Zion’s position: he’s got a $75 million deal with Jordan Brand which he inked in 2019. Zion can make tons of money in endorsements to make up the lost contract money he’d be leaving on the table.
But I think the main thing here is that Zion does not want to waste any time with his career. He doesn’t want to wait 7 years before he can realistically compete for a championship–and he has every right to feel that way.
I think we could see Zion begin a trend where young stars opt not to sign the big contract with the shitty team that drafted them in favor of hitting free agency as soon as possible and going to a good team.
At that point, the NBA will have a real problem on its hands: if young superstars will forgo millions of dollars from the team that drafted them in order to leave for greener pastures at the first chance, then what real hope do these perceived “bad” or “small-market” franchises actually have?
I really don’t know the answer. But I can’t see Zion staying in New Orleans any longer than his contract says he has to.