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Pelicans will struggle drafting Zion and trading Davis | The Triangle
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Pelicans will struggle drafting Zion and trading Davis

Pelicans
The 2018-2019 NBA season saw the New Orleans Pelicans disappoint those projecting them to finish atop their divisional standings. Fans are looking ahead to the summer, during which the Pelicans will seek to make good on their draft rights to the young phenom Zion Williamson.(Photograph courtesy of Ashley Landis/The Dallas Morning News/TNS)

Going into the offseason, fans are often optomistic about the upcoming season. Every team has a chance to win it all before the games start. In that spirit, this series analyzes each team’s best case scenario in the offseason. Using salary cap gymnastics that would make Daryl Morey proud, we’re going to look at what is the best vaguely plausible assembly of talent a team can put together this offseason.

Plausibility will be looked at in the forms of trades and team decision making. Whether a particular player will want to go to a destination will largely be ignored as that is not something a team has much control over and is often borderline impossible to predict. With all of that being said, this week’s team is the New Orleans Pelicans.

To say this season was a disappointment would be an understatement. Going into the season many thought this team could win 50 games and be a real threat in the West. Instead, after starting 22-28, their best player, Anthony Davis requested a trade. They were not able to find a deal for him before the trade deadline and finished the season thirteenth in the west with a 33-49 record. Fate smiled upon them on draft lottery night however, and they ended up with No. 1 overall pick — the right to draft Zion Williamson, despite only having a 6 percent chance of receiving it. This changes everything for them. In one night, they went from a team with little hope to one of the most interesting stories of the NBA offseason. So let’s explore their options.

The first order of business for the New Orleans Pelicans this offseason will be to decide what to do with Anthony Davis. He was clear about wanting to get out of New Orleans, but when he made that request it was a different team. In the past year the team has gotten a new owner, Gayle Benson, who took over for her late husband. She has proven herself more willing to make the changes the team needs to compete. This includes bringing in an experienced general manager, David Griffin, who helped assemble the Cleveland Cavalier team that won the 2016 NBA championship.

Benson has also given Griffin the freedom to make the changes needed in the organization such as hiring Aaron Nelson, former Phoenix Suns trainer who won NBA Athletic Trainer of the year in 2009. Unfortunately for the Pelicans, I do not think this will be enough to convince Davis to stay. There’s a real chance Griffin drags this out into the season, but at the end of the season I think Davis will be on another team.

If Davis is truly going to be traded, the next logical question is where. In February, it was reported by Marc Stein that Davis’ preferred destinations were the New York Knicks, Los Angeles Lakers, Los Angeles Clippers or the Milwaukee Bucks. The Bucks can be eliminated due to lack of assets. Every team in the NBA will likely call David Griffin, but the ones with the assets to get a trade done include the Philadelphia 76ers, Brooklyn Nets and Denver Nuggets. I’m going to assume the Nets and Nuggets do not go all in, the 76ers do not offer Ben Simmons, though there’s a sizable portion of the fan base that would like them to, and the Celtics do not offer Jayson Tatum.

Given that, the three best offers in my mind come from the Lakers, Knicks and Clippers. The Knicks’ offer would likely consist of Frank Ntilikina, Kevin Knox, Dennis Smith Jr., Mitchell Robinson, Allonzo Trier, the third overall pick, and the two Dallas picks obtained in the Kristaps Porzingis trade (a 2021 and 2023 first round picks). The Lakers’ offer has been wildly reported and will likely include Lonzo Ball, Brandon Ingram, Kyle Kuzma, Josh Hart, and the fourth overall pick. The Clippers’ offer is less talked about because of the uncertainty of who they will include, but I expect it to include Shai Gilgeous-Alexander, Landry Shamet, Danilo Gallinari and the Miami Heat 2021 first round pick (acquired in the Tobias Harris trade).

Which offer Griffin chooses will depend on what timeline he wants to operate on. Zion Williamson is special in a lot of ways, but one of the most striking is how NBA ready he is at just 18 years old. If Griffin decides to take the longer rebuild, picks and players on their rookie contracts look more valuable. This makes the Knicks offer more attractive. If he wants young guys that have shown a little more, but still have a lot of upside, the Lakers offer is ideal.

Playing in New Orleans, the smallest market in the NBA, I expect Griffin to try to compete now while building the asset base for the future, and therefore I think they’ll go with the Clippers offer. From the Clippers point of view, they get a superstar, without sacrificing any of their cap space, and can use him to recruit other free agents. From the Pelicans’ perspective you’re getting three starters from a team that went to the playoffs and beat the Warriors twice (the Rockets are the only other team to have done that since the Warriors signed Kevin Durant.) Add Zion and Jrue Holiday to that and you have a team that can compete for the playoffs now.

They can compete without sacrificing the future either. Gilgeous-Alexander and Shamet are coming off their rookie year and the 2021 Miami Heat pick gives the team another chance to add a game changer in the future. In addition, they would likely have room to add a max level free agent next offseason even if they keep Gallinari. If things don’t go so well, they can also trade Holiday who just turned 28 and is on a reasonable contract through the 2021-22 NBA season.

This outcome would certainly change the fortunes of a team that has had a rough year. They could be competitive now and have flexibility for the future. This is the best of all case scenarios. Will this happen? No one knows for sure, but it is possible, and that possibility by itself should excite fans.