Barring any unforeseen circumstances, such as another Zion Williamson injury, in the 2022-23 season expect to see the full New Orleans Pelicans team that basketball fans wish had taken on the Phoenix Suns in the first round of the NBA Playoffs. The Pelicans can offer Williamson a max contract extension, which for him is five-years, and worth as much as $181 million.
The day after the Pelicans Game 6 loss to the Phoenix Suns, Williamson said to the media that he would not hesitate to sign a max extension. Later, while general manager David Griffin was enthusiastically optimistic when talking about the future of his team, he did acknowledge that there would be difficulty this offseason when figuring out Williamson’s contract.
“That conversation is one that is going to be a challenging one,” Griffin said to the media. “When it’s time to have that we’ll have it, and right now what we’re focused on is him being healthy and in kind of elite condition to play basketball.”
Since then Williamson has been fully cleared for basketball activities and has been working out at the team facility. On The Ryen Russillo Podcast, Griffin sounded more firm in his commitment to getting a max contract worked out with the 2019 No. 1 overall pick.
“I think it’s not a big decision,” Griffin said to Russillo. “I think it’s a pretty easy decision. The kid’s historically good when he plays.
“This is a max player. That’s easy. What becomes significant as a team that’s a small market team and a team that can’t make mistakes in terms of injuries over time. You have to indemnify yourself in some way from that and that’s fine, but this decision on whether or not this is a max player is a very easy one.”
Griffin also went on to address what he called “social media” and “alleged noise,” but it was reporting about a disconnect between Williamson and the team. The New Orleans Times-Picayune’s Christian Clark reported before the start of the 2021-22 season that Williamson was frustrated about how difficult it was his rookie season to get the Pelicans to allow him onto the floor. Also, in that story, Clark reported that there was tension with Griffin and front office employees, with some even calling him “Griff” Krause after The Last Dance aired.
Then in February, another report from Clark was published titled, Inside the disconnect between the Pelicans and Zion: Why a lack of trust remains. This came after Williamson went to Portland to rehab at the turn of the year. While Griffin made some roster moves that improved the team environment after a disappointing 2020-21, Williamson got hurt again. Clark reported Williamson, during his rookie season, showed up late to rehab and wasn’t rigorous with his training or maintaining a diet. Also, Williamson’s largest influence professionally is his stepfather, Lee Anderson. Some people inside the NBA were reported to believe he didn’t have Williamson’s best interests at heart, and people at Duke said Anderson didn’t want him to return to the court after the shoe explosion injury (if that was Anderson’s viewpoint I absolutely agree with him.) Anderson said publicly in April that he wanted Williamson to return to the court at the end of the season and for the playoffs.
On Saturday, Williamson spoke to reporters at a community anti-violence event at a New Orleans YMCA and said, “I do want to be here. That’s no secret. I feel like I’ve stood on that when I spoke.” This is true. Even if he had googly eyes once after playing in Madison Square Garden, he always says publicly he wants to be in New Orleans. Also at that event, while speaking to the audience about the violence Anderson said, “why am I going to say our city? Because we live here now. We all live here. Noah [Williamson’s younger step brother] has to grow up in New Orleans now. We’re counting on New Orleans to be that place that will accept Noah. Put their arms around Noah as South Carolina put their arms around Zion.”
The conclusion to draw from all of this is both sides don’t have an option besides each other. As great as Williamson was in 2020-21, he’s missed nearly two full seasons and can’t turn down a nine-figure salary at this point. The Pelicans have assembled their best roster since Baron Davis and Jamal Mashburn played for the New Orleans Hornets. They have a real chance to win big, and can’t mess around with a potential generational talent. They’re just going to have to put some injury provisions in the contract like the Philadelphia 76ers did with Joel Embiid and hope for the best.
The Pelicans, if healthy, will be a fun team to watch next season in what will likely be a healthier, and stronger Western Conference. Enthusiasm was high on all sides, as Williamson was as involved as he could be cheering his teammates along in street clothes during the Suns series, and as of now everyone appears to be on the same page. But that was reporting on the tension with the Pelicans, not speculation. If the next two seasons don’t play out optimally, don’t be surprised if some of the same internal problems rear their ugly head, next time accompanied by anonymous trade destination talk.