The recent tidal wave of trade rumors involving Zion Williamson and the Pelicans is a good example of how sometimes nothing can depict everything going on with an organization.
The rumors started flying a week ago when Athletics Shams Charania reported the Pelicans’ interest in moving up in this year’s draft to acquire G League Ignite prospect Scoot Henderson. With the Pelicans owning the 14th pick, a move up to the top-3 would almost certainly require New Orleans to include one of its two young stars — Williamson or Brandon Ingram — to get a deal done.
From there, speculation about Williamson’s future with the Pelicans ran rampant. There have been new reports from various sources daily about the likelihood that Zion is on the way and the degree of interest New Orleans would have in making such a deal.
In the end, it is quite unlikely that Zion will be traded before Thursday’s draft, several league sources say Athletics. Each was granted anonymity because they were not authorized to discuss potential deals.
The Pelicans have been in love with Henderson for quite some time. They were able to see plenty of him while reviewing the tape of his former G League Ignite teammate Dyson Daniels, who New Orleans took with the No. 8 pick in last year’s draft. But so far, the Pelicans have not yet included Williamson in any formal offers to the teams that have top-3 picks, league sources say. Athletics. There have been varying reports on how much interest Charlotte or Portland would even have in sending from the No. 2 or No. 3 pick in a potential Williamson trade.
Ingram being included in any trades before Thursday’s draft seems even less likely, given the disastrous effect it would have on a dressing room full of young players who have praised his leadership in recent years. Head coach Willie Green has been even more effusive in his praise of Ingram over the past two seasons.
“Every night he puts us on his shoulders,” Green said of Ingram in April. “I firmly believe, and the rest of us believe, that BI is one of the best players in the NBA.”
Tellingly, Ingram attended Game 5 of the NBA Finals last week in Denver with Green and Pelicans wing Herb Jones. Considering Game 5 was the same day as Charania’s initial Pelicans/Scoot Henderson report, it was a clear indication of how much the team still invests in Ingram. Williamson’s absence made it much easier to envision him as the more likely trade candidate in any attempt to move up in this year’s draft.
Still, even if Williamson isn’t moved until Thursday night, it’s far from the end of this story. That’s just the beginning, as behind-the-scenes tensions between Williamson and the Pelicans have intensified over the past few months.
The biggest question surrounding all this hysteria shouldn’t be how likely the Pelicans are to trade Zion. That should be why the discussion has been allowed to linger as long as it has.
It’s almost unbelievable to think that a 22-year-old with Zion’s talent, who is in the first year of a maximum five-year contract extension, could possibly have his name thrown around in trade discussions. The last time we saw Williamson on the court, he was playing the best basketball of his career as the Pelicans rose to the top of the Western Conference in December. During that month, he played in 12 games and averaged 29.8 points, 7.5 rebounds and 5.1 assists while shooting 61.3 percent. They are beyond video game numbers. He made the Pelicans look like true contenders in the West, despite Ingram’s absence throughout those games.
Still, talk of Willamson potentially being moved this offseason has persisted for weeks.
By comparison, fellow 2019 class member Ja Morant has turned into something of a toxic figure in NBA circles due to his off-court transgressions over the past six months, which have earned him multiple suspensions. But if his name started being thrown around in trade rumors, the Grizzlies would quickly squash the idea before it gained any momentum. Despite his many transgressions, there’s no doubting how much respect and fierce loyalty Morant has earned from his peers in the Grizzlies organization.
The Pelicans have not been as proactive in their return to these Zion rumors. Does that mean they are ready to get rid of him? Not necessarily. But the difference reveals how Williamson hasn’t reached the same point as Morant with his franchise yet.
Much of the reason for that comes down to how rarely Zion himself is on the field. If Morant, who was drafted just behind Zion in 2019, ends up serving his 25-game suspension to start next season and Williamson makes it through his first 25 games unscathed, Morant will still be ahead of Williamson in the regular season by more than 100 games. Then there’s Morant’s 19 postseason games through his first four seasons compared to Williamson’s zero. While Williamson played at an MVP level as he found his rhythm last season, he missed the final 45 games of the regular season with a nagging hamstring issue. That brought his total to 194 missed games through the first four seasons of his career.
As if having a superstar talent on the sidelines often wasn’t difficult enough, frustrations within the Pelicans’ organization have only increased over time due to the belief that Williamson hasn’t always put himself in the best position to stick in form and/or recover. from damages when they occur. In April, Pelicans EVP of basketball operations David Griffin even said he believes Williamson can do more to avoid some of his injury problems in the future.
“I think there’s a lot he can do better. And he would, I think, tell you. I think we have to do a better job of examining the whole situation from top to bottom a little bit better,” Griffin said when asked about Williamson’s injuries. “I think it’s important to put him in the best position to be successful. And I think his participation is a big part of that.”
Since entering the league, Williamson and the team have been engaged in a near-constant back-and-forth over his playing weight and fitness, especially when he’s out with injury. The disconnect between Williamson and the organization stems from much more than the injuries themselves. There has often been tension over his rehabilitation process and how the team has handled getting him back on the field in a timely manner.
Much of that tension centers around the frayed relationship between Williamson’s camp and Aaron Nelson, who has been in charge of the medical/training staff for Zion’s first four seasons. In a shakeup first reported by NOLA.com, Nelson is no longer expected to lead the Pelicans’ medical/training staff this coming season. While recovering from his hamstring issues last season, Williamson expressed a desire to work with other team medical staff instead of Nelson, league sources said. Athletics. (They were granted anonymity because of the sensitive nature of Williamson’s damages claim.)
It’s a move Griffin seemed reluctant to make at the end of the season, when he said, “What I don’t want is the narrative about our team, ‘Oh my God, they’ve got to fix the medical situation.” No, we have to fix a lot of things. We have to make a whole lot of things better. That’s just part of it.”
But the issues between Williamson and Nelson date back to Williamson’s rookie season when he returned from a torn meniscus that cost him the first three months of the 2019-20 season. When Williamson was finally cleared to play, the team placed him under a strict minutes restriction based on quick “bursts” that limited his ability to play for long stretches. Williamson even publicly admitted how much the minutes restrictions bothered him in August 2020.
“It’s very hard, to be honest,” he said then. “Because as soon as I start sweating, I look over and that horn is for me and I’m going to get out of the game. And when I catch the flow of the game, that horn goes off and that’s for me.”
The friction between Nelson and Williamson’s camp continued since then and has only worsened since. Those close to the Pelicans star forward certainly embraced the news of changes being made within the Pels’ medical/training staff. However, multiple league sources said Athletics that Williamson wasn’t the only Pelicans player to welcome a shakeup in that department, either.
Will Nelson’s shift to a different role solve some of the injury problems that have plagued New Orleans the past few seasons? Most likely not. But it’s an indication that New Orleans is starting to recognize some of the things that have gone wrong behind the scenes.
Other Pelicans personnel shakeups this offseason have also been linked to Williamson’s status. Like Charania first reported last week that the Pelicans parted ways with assistant Teresa Weatherspoon after her three seasons in New Orleans. The news was somewhat shocking given that Weatherspoon was best known as Williamson’s mentor and confidante. She was one of the few people in the organization who was successful in reaching Zion on a deeper level over the years.
“I have someone special in my corner. She really cares about me,” Williamson said of Weatherspoon in October 2022. “The feeling is mutual. She’s my big sister. … We have a special bond.”
While it was expected for the Pelicans to move some things around with the coaching staff after adding former Charlotte Hornets coach James Borrego this offseason, the departure of Weatherspoon caused shock waves inside and outside the building. At the very least, the Pelicans would have to know Williamson, and people close to him would not be thrilled with this kind of move. Knowing how important her mentorship has been to Williamson, they either had to have a plan B in place or they didn’t feel one was necessary. Again, when teams do things like this without a proper explanation, they open the door to speculation and innuendo.
While the relationship between Williamson and the Pelicans has been rocky of late, the Pelicans have made overtures in an attempt to improve it. Williamson and Griffin met last week at team headquarters to discuss the offseason, and Griffin brought Williamson over to meet with Pelicans governor Gayle Benson. The meeting was mostly positive, according to a league source who was not authorized to discuss it publicly. Benson congratulated Williamson on the recent news that he is expecting a baby with his girlfriend in the near future. Benson also offered to have a more direct line of communication with Williamson in the future if he felt it was necessary, according to that source.
Perhaps the Furs need all the help they can get to cool some of the tension that led to this point. Either way, speculation about his future will continue until these issues are resolved. While things seemed to cool down considerably between the two sides when the team won in December, the lack of trust between the two sides only seems to get worse with each new rumor.
Even if Williamson, as expected, remains with the Pelicans beyond this week, there is a lot of work to be done to determine how solid his position – and future – is with the team.
(Top photo: Jasen Vinlove / USA Today)