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The Pelicans’ Master Plan for the Zion Era May Take Longer Than Expected

After its bubble dreams burst, New Orleans ditched pace and space for a defensive overhaul. It hasn’t helped much this season, but there’s still hope it’ll pay off in the long run.

Getty Images/Ringer illustration

It’s late Saturday night and Stan Van Gundy is in a bad mood. A black face mask is hiding his mouth and his bushy gray mustache, but you can still see his disgust in the tired look in his eyes and hear it in the harsh tone of his voice. Just moments before the coach signed into a Zoom call with local reporters, the New Orleans Pelicans fell to 5-10, the fourth-worst record in the NBA, by losing to the Minnesota Timberwolves, who have the West’s worst record and were missing their two best players. After an encouraging start to the season, the Pelicans’ defense has fallen apart, leading Van Gundy to rip his team’s effort for weeks. On Saturday, without naming names, he called out his best players, Zion Williamson and Brandon Ingram.

“Some guys have to start taking individual responsibility here to come out and play hard. You can’t have the guy you’re playing against be playing harder than you on a consistent basis,” Van Gundy said. “Your best players have to take responsibility to defend, play harder, and take care of the ball. I think these guys will turn it around. I have confidence in them. But I would say it’s more that I have faith in them because faith is a belief in things unseen.”

The Pelicans entered the season with playoff expectations. After their dreams of a postseason run in the bubble burst, New Orleans fired head coach Alvin Gentry and reshuffled the roster around its young cornerstones. With a full season of Zion, and with Ingram coming into his own after winning Most Improved Player and signing a max contract, the Pelicans looked like they could finally make good on the hype that’s been building since they lucked into the no. 1 pick in 2019.

But the sad truth is that this team might not be any good yet. Williamson and Ingram need to be better defensively, but it would be foolish to put all the blame on them: The Pelicans as a whole rank a paltry 24th in the NBA on defense, with virtually the same defensive rating as last season. The roster around their young duo also requires significant changes. Perhaps too much might have been expected of a team that made its offseason decisions with an eye toward the future.

“We were very intentional this offseason. If you judge our offseason by our ability to win the championship this year, we failed,” Pelicans executive vice president of basketball operations David Griffin told me over the phone in December. “But if you judge our offseason over the long haul with our ability to shape the team and change the mix, we’ve got a baseline that we feel really comfortable about.”

Selling hope is easy. The Pelicans are sitting on a mountain of future first-round picks—11 of them in the next seven drafts, to be exact—thanks to the massive returns for Anthony Davis and Jrue Holiday. There’s no guarantee those picks turn into the kind of on-court talent that leads to wins. But they sure will have a lot of swings to find the right role players to fit around Zion, Ingram, and possibly another superstar.

In the same trade that sent out Holiday, Griffin went in the other direction, acquiring veterans Steven Adams and Eric Bledsoe. They also hired Van Gundy, a veteran who’s run three other teams. In theory, the moves could’ve helped the Pelicans win now, but they also aid in the long run by instilling a defensive identity.

Griffin lauded Toronto and Los Angeles for surrounding their lengthy, hard-nosed superstars with lengthy, hard-nosed role players. The Raptors won it all because of Kawhi Leonard, but they also had Pascal Siakam, Serge Ibaka, and Marc Gasol. LeBron James and Anthony Davis lead the Lakers, but role players like Kentavious Caldwell-Pope, Alex Caruso, and Dwight Howard helped them win a title.

The Pelicans hope to build a team in that mold. They want Ingram, who weighs only 190 pounds, to guard leaner wings and not strong forwards. They don’t want Zion, who’s only 6-foot-7, to get buried by opposing centers. Zion isn’t yet equipped with a computer brain like Draymond Green to anchor a defense as a small-ball 5, though those lineups do have value in shorter bursts since it gets him into space on offense. The Pelicans need to build a team that can sometimes play small and fast to give Williamson and Ingram space to expose defenses, but they also need to be able to go big and long. The through line between the most recent champions is adaptability.

“In Orlando, Stan played a team that really found the future of the game before everybody else. They may not have known it, but they did,” Griffin said, referring to Van Gundy’s Magic teams that put four shooters around Dwight Howard. “They played really big. They played big, skilled basketball. They weren’t like blitzkrieg fast, but they were super skilled and very big.”

Griffin could eventually turn back to his Cleveland blueprint by finding a floor-spacing big in the mold of Kevin Love to replace Adams. He could also follow Milwaukee’s example of building with Giannis by finding a big man who can anchor the paint and shoot 3s like Brook Lopez. Such a big would give Zion space to explore more of his perimeter gifts by attacking off the dribble, and running more pick-and-rolls as a ball handler.

“Zion is so physically overwhelming in the paint that people just think he’s a freak of nature power forward, and that’s all he is,” Griffin said. “But he played point guard basically his entire life before he got to Duke. His stepfather raised him with the ball in his hand to make decisions like a point guard. He measures himself by his ability to make people better. This isn’t a kid who grew up putting himself on the post, trying to learn the Dream Shake. This was the guy who wanted to be a facilitating playmaker with the ball in his hands facing the basket.”

The Pelicans aren’t there yet, though. Griffin admitted they lack the shooting they’ll need in the future. “That’s the piece that I think takes the longest to really hone in on,” he said. For now, the surrounding pieces are there to set an example. “You don’t understand the value of real professionalism until it’s around,” Griffin said. “And then young players can buy into it and go, ‘Wow, I don’t know how I functioned before this was here.’ Steven and Bledsoe are cut from the same cloth that way.”

Adams and Bledsoe might serve as examples for the young guys, but they could also be the pieces that land a big fish. When Adams was acquired this offseason from Oklahoma City, he was given a two-year, $35 million extension. It was a shocker considering his struggles last season. But through the 2022-23 season, Adams and Bledsoe will combine to make $35 million annually, which happens to be the perfect amount to match a max contract player. Bledsoe’s contract is also guaranteed for only $3.9 million in 2022-23, a bonus for any receiving team. If a star like Bradley Beal becomes available, the Pelicans have the assets to make a winning bid.

Right now, however, the Pelicans don’t look quite like a team that’s one piece away. They’re a roster reshuffle, some years of growth, and another go-to option away. The biggest area of concern is one New Orleans identified in the offseason: defense. As the season was ramping up, Williamson and Ingram preached about taking on a greater leadership role by setting a strong defensive tone. But their effort has declined to levels comparable to last season, when they were two of the league’s least impactful defenders. They aren’t the only ones to blame, but as the team’s two stars, it comes with the territory.

“I talked to them today and I said, ‘Let’s look at some of the great duos in this league: LeBron James and Anthony Davis, Paul George and Kawhi Leonard, and Giannis Antetokounmpo and Khris Middleton. What do they all have in common?’” Van Gundy recalled earlier this month after a practice. “My point was they’re all guys that play both ends of the floor. They’re two-way guys. My challenge is to create a better offensive framework and spacing for those two guys. Their challenge is to take the responsibility defensively, step forward, and become better defenders.”

Ingram has been more active as a weak-side help defender compared to last season, but he still doesn’t make a significant impact as a playmaker in the passing lanes, play hard-nosed man-to-man defense, or make many hustle plays. Ingram was a better defender during his final two seasons with the Lakers. For the Pelicans to reach their potential this season and beyond, he’ll need to at least match his prior defensive level.

Williamson has good moments as a man-to-man defender. He has the quickness to contain guards, like when he bottled up De’Aaron Fox on a switch earlier this season. But he’s far too inconsistent. Too often it seems like his internet connection is lagging, especially when he’s off the ball. Opponents are happy to involve him in an action to exploit his lack of focus and technique.

In the first clip above, Williamson helps on the Rudy Gobert roll, but he’s far too slow to shade back over to Georges Niang, who’s hit 39.6 percent of his 3s since 2018-19. Niang splashes it. Next play up the court, Pelicans broadcaster Antonio Daniels narrated the action as it happened: “You can’t afford to overhelp and leave someone open for 3. See? That’s twice in a row that Zion is so far behind.” And then Niang blew past Williamson for an easy dunk. Daniels’s voice got cut off by the rattle of the rim and a loud bench celebration.

Williamson doesn’t need to be targeted to be exploited, either. Keep your eyes on him for this entire possession:

Royce O’Neale is Williamson’s assignment, but he loses track of him by ball-watching. O’Neale, a career 38.5 percent 3-point shooter, can’t be given so much space, especially with only four seconds left on the clock.

Truly elite players can lock in defensively whenever they choose to. Ingram, 23, and Williamson, 20, just aren’t there yet on defense. Van Gundy knows his players need to learn and hasn’t hidden his frustration. This level of accountability could be by design. People around the league say players didn’t like to be coached by Van Gundy in Detroit because of his persistent (and sometimes annoying) approach. Ingram said recently that “we’re trusting in Coach,” and a coach who stays on them and demands they play this way could help them develop winning habits. He certainly doesn’t stop talking about it as the losses pile up.

“We need to get a defensive disposition back, where we play harder, where we’re into people more, putting pressure on people, where we’re closing out harder, where everything is done at a higher level,” Van Gundy said. “We need to go to work to build better habits. But you don’t build a habit in one game or one practice or overnight. It’s day after day after day after day.”

It may take time for Van Gundy’s mentality to be reflected on the court. But he does have a track record of success when players do buy into his approach—which is what made the Pelicans attracted to him when they went looking to fill their coaching void.

“Stan is a guy who’s been an elite educator of players. He’s been highly successful as a coach, particularly on the defensive side. He understands what it takes to win and he’s willing to hold people accountable to that goal,” Griffin said. “Since he was with Orlando, Stan hasn’t had the kind of elite talent that you could say should have won. What’s exciting is we’ve got that sort of elite talent. With a coach like Stan who is about accountability and attention to detail we feel like we’re going to get everything this team has in it, out of it.”

Van Gundy’s results have been mixed so far, but he also hasn’t been dealt the best hand for immediate success. In addition to not providing much help defensively, the supporting cast hasn’t given Ingram and Williamson much space to score. The Pelicans rank 20th in offensive rating, worse than last season, and they’re in the bottom four in both 3-point percentage and attempts. Steady veterans like JJ Redick and Josh Hart are unusually cold shooting the ball. Second-year guard Nickeil Alexander-Walker has provided an encouraging spark off the bench, but he’s inconsistent. Bledsoe doesn’t threaten the defense from behind the arc, and Ball can’t find the net. This season, Ball has made only 29.1 percent of his 3s. His strength as an open-court playmaker also has been neutered in Van Gundy’s slower-paced offense.

Playing Adams and second-year lottery pick Jaxson Hayes at center also has clogged the paint, forcing Ingram away from the rim more often than at any other point of his career. The Pelicans could pull Adams or Hayes and play Zion more often at center, but that would also mean more non-playmaking, subpar shooting wings and guards will be on the floor. Bledsoe can’t run the offense via the pick-and-roll, nor can Adams from the high post. Rookie point guard Kira Lewis Jr. is still just 19 years old and isn’t ready to carry the burden.

Even with a lack of spacing, Williamson remains a force with all-time scoring efficiency near the rim. He’s only in his second season, and he’s averaging 22.8 points on a 61.4 true shooting percentage through 38 games of his career. “My comfort level is still growing,” Williamson said. “I’m only like 30 games in. There’s so much for me to learn.”

The Pelicans hope Williamson will learn from Adams, who does so many of the little things, like setting bone-crushing screens, boxing out, and playing hard on defense. But after a strong start on defense, Adams’s play has declined this past week or so, just like it did midway through last season with Oklahoma City. On Saturday he got shredded by Naz Reid, an undrafted second-year big man:

New Orleans won’t be as productive as it can be this season unless Adams is able to get back on track physically, which has become increasingly difficult for him in recent years. But an underwhelming season may not be so bad if it means receiving high lottery odds.

The draft is headlined by two jumbo-sized talents in USC center Evan Mobley, a skilled two-way big man who’d be the perfect complement next to Williamson, and Oklahoma State point guard Cade Cunningham, who’d provide the Pelicans with the exact type of shot creator they need. Beyond them, this draft is ripe with talent throughout the lottery that could complement and enhance the emerging stardom of Williamson and Ingram.

I asked Griffin how he knows when it’ll be the right moment to cash in his draft picks. He contrasted the unknowns in New Orleans to his experiences in Cleveland, where he oversaw the transition from an up-and-comer to a title team after signing LeBron. “I’ve never really been able to say unequivocally ‘go flip the switch.’ LeBron is the only player in the NBA whose presence alone makes you a Finals contender. So when LeBron came back to Cleveland, it was time to rock and roll,” Griffin said. “I don’t know if I do know when to flip the switch. But I know when not to. I hope that this group grows and develops in the way we anticipate and that it will become fairly obvious when we should cash in some of those chips. In the presence of a sound process, decisions often make themselves. I hope we’re able to bring that to fruition.”

It’s disappointing that the Pelicans haven’t been able to live up to expectations, but maybe such high expectations are the problem. Beyond the veteran trio of Adams, Bledsoe, and Redick, every rotation player is 25 or younger. As dynamic as Ingram and Willamson are, there’s still work to be done so they can carry the team on both sides of the ball. Losing can build bad habits, but it can also serve as a wake-up call.

“We’re not at a point where we have to cater to anyone. We’re growing and learning how to win together,” Griffin said. “We feel like we’re just starting to scratch the surface.”