Pelicans can afford to quietly watch NBA frenzy

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Pelicans and home fans
(Photo: Stephen Lew)

METAIRIE – The NBA is buzzing.

Kyrie Irving and the Nets appear headed to a messy divorce.

Kevin Durant wants out of Brooklyn too.

Former Pelicans star Anthony Davis could be on the move again if the Lakers make a run at Irving or Durant or both.

John Wall is now a Clipper.

NBA teams and free agents were able to start contract talks Thursday and billions of dollars in salary will be dangled to free agents until contracts can officially be signed next Wednesday.

In New Orleans things are different. It’s kind of quiet – and that’s a good thing.

The Pelicans aren’t focused on a shopping spree, but rather continuing to build a rising team that’s coming off an impressive late-season run that culminated in an improbable playoff berth and surprisingly competitive performance in a six-game first-round loss to the Phoenix Suns, the top-seeded team in the Western Conference.

The Pelicans did make headlines Friday by apparently coming to terms with Zion Williamson on a max contract extension. That’s a very significant development and takes care of the organization’s overwhelmingly No. 1 offseason priority in less than 24 hours after the window for the signing opened.

But this was a forgone conclusion.

It was never a realistic possibility that Williamson would turn down the max offer and play out his rookie contract next season, just to become a restricted free agent.

The details of the deal were a bit tricky because the Pelicans understandably wanted to build in safeguards against automatically paying Williamson maximum money if he continues to miss significant time due to injury as he has during his first three seasons.

Williamson understandably wants to make as much money as he can and have as much of the potential $231 million guaranteed as possible.

So there was work to be done, but it was always and clearly in the best interests of both sides to get the deal done.

Shams Charania of The Athletic was the first to report that the deal was on the verge of being completed. According to Charania, Williamson would have to win NBA MVP, Defensive Player of the Year or All-NBA honors next season in order to max out.

If he falls short of those accolades he will earn roughly $40 million less over the course of the deal through the 2027-28 season.

So the Pelicans have Williamson, who missed all of last season because of foot surgery and has played in fewer than half of the games in his young career, under contract for the next six seasons.

The No. 1 overall pick in the 2019 Draft who earned an All-Star berth in 2021 was recently cleared to fully participate in basketball activities. Having a healthy and presumably ascending Williamson for an entire season would be one of the most significant additions to any NBA team for 2022-23 – no matter who signs with whom Wednesday or who gets shipped where.

Meanwhile, as rumors and reports of new contracts being agreed to dominated the headlines Thursday, the Pelicans were introducing their top two draft choices.

No. 1 pick Dyson Daniels, a 19-year-old Australian and G-League “veteran,” was joined by the first of two second-round picks – E.J. Liddell of Ohio State – at an afternoon news conference.

The third pick – European big man Karlo Matkovic – is scheduled to join his classmates Saturday as the Pelicans hold the first of three practices at their training facility before heading to the Las Vegas Summer League next week.

Matkovic will play for the Pelicans in Las Vegas this summer but not in New Orleans for at least a year or two. He’ll use that time to try and develop and become better able to compete for a roster spot on what has suddenly become a very deep young team.

Head coach Willie Green, whose first team finished 36-46 after a 3-16 start, talked about the top two newcomers being additions to a strong foundation.

“They’re a joy to have,” Green said. “They have high basketball IQs. They understand that defense gets them on the floor. They watch games. They know in the playoffs it comes down to defensive stops.”

Liddell, at a strong 6-7, is more of a traditional power forward, who prides himself on his greatly improved ability to “catch and shoot.”

“They fit our mold,” general manager Trajan Langdon said, adding that when the Pelicans consider bringing in any new player – whether by draft, free agency or trade – “the character box is a box that has to be checked.”

Meanwhile, the Pelicans’ depth of young talent and their collection of No. 1 draft choices provide the assets to put together an attractive trade offer for Durant, but it’s difficult to imagine why they would do that.

The four-time scoring champion is undeniably one of the best players in the world. He’s also 33 years old, has endured a ruptured Achilles and logged more than 40,000 minutes in the NBA.

The assets that the Pelicans would have to surrendered in order to acquire him would gut a group that has been assembled to compete in the playoffs perennially and after Durant retires.

As many teams scramble to upgrade their rosters, it’s worth noting that Wednesday is not only the first day that free agents can sign contracts with new teams, it’s also Williamson’s birthday.

He turns 22.

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Les East

CCS/106.1 FM/Daily Iberian

Les East is a nationally renowned freelance journalist. The New Orleans area native’s blog on was named “Best Sports Blog” in 2016 by the Press Club of New Orleans. For 2013 he was named top sports columnist in the United States by the Society of Professional Journalists. He has since become a valued contributor for CCS. The Jesuit High…

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