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Zion’s Injury Setback Has Ripple Effects on the Trade Deadline and Beyond

Despite the former no. 1 draft pick having no return in sight for the foreseeable future, the Pelicans could improbably be buyers come February 10

AP Images/Ringer illustration

There’s no replacing the Sun. Without its light, plant life wouldn’t grow, and we wouldn’t have oxygen to breathe or crops to eat. Without its heat, the oceans and land masses would freeze, reducing Earth to “a lifeless ball of ice-coated rock,” just like all the others. Without its gravitational pull to hold the planets in orbit, we’d hurtle without connection or purpose through the incalculable, implacable expanse of space. (Well, more than we already do, anyway.) Nothing can make up for the loss of the spark of radiance that’s supposed to be at the center of it all.

Zion Williamson is the Sun of the New Orleans Pelicans. All of the team’s hopes and dreams started from the premise that he would continue his ascent following a sophomore season in which he finished eighth in the NBA in scoring and field goal percentage, posting the second-highest player efficiency rating and eighth-best value over replacement player ever in an age-20 season. More reps together would help Williamson and Brandon Ingram grow into one of the league’s premier young one-two punches. Offseason deals for Jonas Valanciunas and Devonte’ Graham would provide Zion with more space to create as the league’s burliest point guard. His continued development as an inside-out playmaking fulcrum would allow New Orleans’s many recent draftees to fill smaller roles and smooth out the bumps that always come in young players’ developmental curves.

Whether or not you bought all of that—and, in fairness, the Pelicans’ offseason moves (including the decision to let Lonzo Ball walk to Chicago rather than match the Bulls’ offer sheet in restricted free agency) arched plenty of eyebrows in real time—that was the plan, and it was the only plan. There was no contingency accounting for the Sun breaking the fifth metatarsal in his right foot, and leaving all in his orbit without the heat and warmth of hyperefficient offense on monster usage; this is why New Orleans started out 1-12, and why it looked like its season was effectively over before it ever really began.

You still have to play 82 of these games, though, so the Pelicans’ remnants broke out the SAD lamps and space heaters in search of the next best thing, and with it, a measure of hope. A shuffled-up starting lineup featuring versatile swingman Josh Hart and ace rookie defender Herbert Jones alongside Ingram, Valanciunas, and Graham has kept the Pelicans afloat; in fact, despite still having a bottom-10 point differential in the past 16 games, the Pels have actually rolled up a positive net rating with Ingram on the court. New Orleans is 7-9 over the past month—and it might’ve been 8-8 if not for a raft of sloppy second-half turnovers against the Nuggets last week that left the door open for Nikola Jokic to snatch victory from the jaws of defeat.

Watching Ingram, Valanciunas, and Co. work to lift New Orleans out of its early-season crater preserved the possibility that a fully operational version of this roster might at least bid for respectability. Maybe even more than that if Zion can help diversify the Pelicans’ attack, especially late in games; they’re a league-worst 1-9 in games where the score was within five points in the final five minutes, with top crunch-time options Ingram and Graham shooting a combined 4-for-27 in the clutch.

“We haven’t had Z this season. [We’re] really waiting for him. We need him,” Valanciunas recently told reporters. “He’s gonna be the big piece for us offensively, defensively. The game is gonna change in a good way, big time.”

The change, though, won’t come as soon as Valanciunas, his teammates, and Pelicans fans had hoped. One week after the Pelicans cleared Williamson for full participation in team activities, they announced that persistent soreness in his right foot would keep him from returning to practice. One week after that, they said that he’d suffered a “regression” in healing, which would further reduce the “volume and intensity” of his workouts, and further delay the former no. 1 pick’s return to the court.

Just how long a delay we’re talking about remains unclear. ESPN Pelicans beat writer Andrew Lopez said on The Lowe Post podcast on Monday that the Pelicans “still believe that Zion will have a chance to play this season,” that Williamson had trimmed down his weight and ramped up his conditioning prior to the latest setback, and that he wants to play as soon as he’s physically able. But being slimmer and being game-ready are two different things: Christian Clark of The Times-Picayune | New Orleans Advocate reported over the weekend that Zion had “never progressed past playing three-on-three and four-on-four games in his recovery from the offseason surgery,” and now “won’t be able to do any on-court work involving jumps or cuts for the foreseeable future.” That doesn’t inspire a ton of hope for a speedy turnaround.

After seeing a return that Zion expected to come by opening night pushed back time and time again, we’re now left to wonder how that might inform the Pelicans’ decision-making in the run-up to the February 10 trade deadline and beyond. If everything’s built around Plan A, and Plan A has been available a little less than 50 percent of the time over the past three years, then maybe it’s time to start developing Plan B.

On the one hand, the idea of an 8-21 last-place team approaching the deadline with an intent to buy seems silly. Given New Orleans’s position at the bottom of the Western standings, it’s tempting to suggest Pelicans personnel chief David Griffin shoot for the time-honored “blow it up” stratagem so beloved by the Basketball Internet. Accept the likelihood that the team he’s built will once again fall short of even play-in tournament contention; throw up a “FOR SALE” sign and begin gauging the market to see what the players he’s imported might be able to fetch in trade; and start planning for 2022-23, with hopes that a healthy Zion and another top lottery pick might be able to steer the Pelicans back toward the postseason.

It’s worth wondering how feasible or attractive that proposition is, though, for many or any of New Orleans’s stakeholders. Griffin’s rocky-at-best run over the past couple of years could make his perch atop the Pelicans’ basketball operations hierarchy pretty precarious. Head coach Willie Green, in his first year after taking over for the ousted Stan Van Gundy, would likely not appreciate having his already ramshackled roster further strip-mined, and his first chance at a top job further imperiled. A franchise that’s reportedly not going anywhere would like to, at some point, you’d imagine, present to fans a legitimately competitive product. Ingram and Valanciunas are proud, talented, and high-priced veterans stoically going about the Sisyphean task of trying to push the Pelicans up the mountain in Williamson’s absence. And Zion, already three years into his career and soon eligible for an extension of his rookie contract, would presumably like to see the organization build a present-tense winner rather than pushing the competitive horizon even further away.

If it makes sense that all parties involved would prefer to build rather than tear down—especially with a roster that already has several core pieces under contract through 2023-24, and is already heavily tilted toward under-24 talent that may or may not wind up being part of the long-term plan—then maybe it makes sense that those parties would choose to pursue win-now moves. To buy the dip, so to speak, in search of additional help in the backcourt that could reduce the shot-creation burden on Ingram, reduce the team’s reliance on Graham (shooting just 37 percent from the floor and somewhat overtaxed as a top playmaking option), and better balance the roster, both in Zion’s absence and for whenever he returns.

It’s not too surprising, then, that Bleacher Report’s Jake Fischer reported Tuesday that the Pelicans “are still expected to be buyers ahead of the trade deadline, with an eye toward competing for the play-in tournament.” New Orleans has a handy chip to play in the market, too: a trade exception worth just under $17.1 million, created in the summertime swap that imported Valanciunas from Memphis in exchange for Steven Adams, that can be used to acquire a player without sending back the requisite amount of matching salary.

That won’t be enough to add a top-end point guard on the order of Kyle Lowry, whom the Pelicans reportedly coveted in free agency, but it is large enough to fit some potentially useful players should their teams decide to shake things up. (I’m not sure whether mid-priced, starting-level guards like Derrick White and Marcus Smart, or high-end backups like Monte Morris, Tyus Jones, or Dennis Schröder, would be available. I think I’d at least make the ask, though, and see whether taking on some money, offering a youngster like talented but inconsistent big man Jaxson Hayes, and maybe dipping into that war chest of draft picks might be enough to find an upgrade.) If that doesn’t work, it could at least enable Griffin to help get New Orleans involved with other teams that might either want to save some money or need a third party willing to take on some salary to facilitate a broader deal. Maybe that sort of financial assist could net the Pelicans a perimeter player better equipped to provide positive minutes in 2022 than veterans Garrett Temple and Tomas Satoransky or youngsters Nickeil Alexander-Walker and Trey Murphy.

Will Griffin try to keep his powder dry until he knows he’ll have a ready-to-roll Zion, or will he try to swing some moves that could bolster the roster around him whenever he does come back? How might that decision impact the eventual negotiations surrounding Williamson’s extension—a deal that probably would’ve been a no-brainer full-freight max five months ago, but that becomes more and more complicated the longer Zion’s injury history gets, and the larger the disparity between the number of games he’s missed (88) and played (85) in his career grows?

Might New Orleans try to get Williamson to accept a max deal with certain injury protections and/or minutes and games played incentives built in, like the one that Joel Embiid signed coming off of his rookie contract? Or, having watched Michael Porter Jr.—another gifted young offensive force with a dicey medical record—ink a five-year max and then promptly go back under the knife, might the Pelicans hold off on offering the max in favor of letting Zion prove he can stay healthy and once again produce at last year’s All-Star level before ponying up in restricted free agency in 2023? How the hell can anyone involved in this situation feel confident in … well, any move they might make next?

Questions abound in New Orleans; for most of them, we’ll have to wait on the answers. For now, all we know for sure is that the Pelicans will have to continue plugging away without their central star, hoping to stay in the fight long enough for things to finally start to warm up.