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Challenges Awaiting the Pelicans: Trading Jrue Holiday, Developing Zion Williamson

Challenges Awaiting the Pelicans: Trading Jrue Holiday, Developing Zion Williamson article feature image

Jonathan Bachman/Getty Images. Pictured: Zion Williamson #1 and Jrue Holiday #11 of the New Orleans Pelicans.

Before the NBA resumed in Orlando, the New Orleans Pelicans were the “it” team. While their schedule before the shutdown was the easiest in the league, their bubble schedule was among the easiest as well. The rest of the contenders for the No. 8 seed were uninspiring.

It turned out that inspiration was the biggest issue facing the Pelicans.

The Pelicans were a mess in the bubble, significantly impacted by Zion Williamson leaving the team for a personal matter and returning late. But from the very beginning, the Pelicans played with a marked lack of chemistry and passion. They were clobbered by the Utah Jazz and Los Angeles Clippers out of the box, and their season was essentially put to bed with a loss to the Sacramento Kings.

New Orleans had a golden opportunity to make the playoffs and prove that their young core could compete with the best. Instead, they were outclassed and, more importantly, outworked. There were clear signs by the end of their bubble run that the team just wasn’t connected.

As the Pelicans look to move forward with the Zion era, there are more questions than answers, and more puzzles to decode than clear mechanisms of an engine to engage. The Pelicans still don’t know who they are, or what they’ll become.

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The Jrue Holiday Question

Last week, Shams Charania of the Athletic reported that the Pelicans are discussing trade options for Jrue Holiday.

The New Orleans Pelicans are openly discussing star Jrue Holiday in trade talks and several contending teams are pursuing, sources tell @TheAthleticNBA @Stadium.

— Shams Charania (@ShamsCharania) November 4, 2020

League sources told The Action Network that this is not a new development, that the Pelicans were at least taking calls, i.e. not outright shutting down Holiday discussions even before the resumption of play in Orlando.

Holiday is an All-Defensive-Team-level defender. He can adeptly run an offense, and makes quick, good reads in pick-and-roll. Holiday’s perimeter shooting has been up and down, but he was 63rd percentile last season and has consistently ranked 50th percentile or better on spot-ups.

He’s the rare guard who can run an offense or operate off-ball. Most guards either need the ball all the time or can only spot up. His versatility is what makes him so valuable.

Notably, the league is not operating under the assumption that Holiday has requested a trade, as first reported by Will Guillory of the Athletic.

Sources tell me the Pelicans are indeed listening to trade offers for Holiday.

However, this is not a result of Holiday asking for a trade. That has not happened yet.

— Will Guillory (@WillGuillory) November 4, 2020

This is optimal for the Pelicans as it maintains their leverage (as opposed to the Anthony Davis situation in which they had none).

The list of teams expected to be interested in Holiday is wide. The Brooklyn Nets, Clippers, Dallas Mavericks, and Nuggets are just the start of the list. Most packages are expected to include some combination of picks and young talent to compliment the rest of the Pelicans’ young core.

Caris LeVert, Jarrett Allen, Delon Wright, Tim Hardaway Jr. (pending player option), Gary Harris, Will Barton, Bol Bol are among the players expected to be involved in calls for Holiday.

This writer has long been an advocate of Holiday being underrated. He’s a magnificent defender, a reliable playmaker, a good finisher, and a quality shooter. He’s low maintenance, high-effort player who’s liked by teammates.

However, there has to be some concern of him becoming overrated in a truncated market. Holiday is a great defender at point guard/combo guard where his impact has been unable to help turn the Pelicans into a top-10 defense. You can build an elite defense around a center, but it’s difficult to do with guards.

He’s a good shooter, not a great shooter. Since 2016, he hasn’t shot better than 35% from 3-point range. He ranked in the 36th percentile scoring out of the pick-and-roll on his own. He’s a great complimentary piece, not a star and this is the last year of his contract.

The Nuggets likely lack the assets to acquire Holiday by the estimation of outside league observers, but a starting lineup of Jamal Murray, Jrue Holiday, Jerami Grant, Michael Porter Jr. and Nikola Jokic moves them closer to the talent level of the LA Lakers. The Nets have an incomplete roster and an innovative coaching structure, but adding Holiday would give them both a third star with Kevin Durant and Kyrie Irving and insurance against another Irving injury.

League sources expressed mixed belief in whether the Milwaukee Bucks would pursue Holiday or if they have enough to get into the mix at a serious level.

However, if Holiday is gone by the time next season starts, the Pelicans likely take a step backward and towards more asset accumulation.

Then, there’s Zion.

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The Incomplete Beast

Williamson’s rookie season gets an incomplete. He suffered an injury in preseason, and didn’t make his first appearance until January, playing just 19 games before the season was suspended four months.

Then he left the bubble before the scrimmages began due to a personal issue, barely getting back before the resumption vs. Utah. He played less than 16 minutes in his first two games as the Pelicans face-planted, ultimately playing just five games total in the restart.

The numbers were absurd. Williamson averaged 29 points and eight rebounds per 36 minutes on 58% shooting, which no rookie to play at least 20 games has done.

The impact was there, as well. The Pelicans outscored opponents by 5.1 points per 100 possessions with Williamson on the floor, the best mark for any Pelicans player.

Some of that was noisy, particularly on the defensive end where the Pelicans were five points better. But the story remains the same: the Pelicans were a force with Williamson on the court before the shutdown.

When play resumed in Orlando, the Pelicans were annihilated with Williamson on the floor, blistered by 24 points per 100 possessions.

Everything fell apart. Williamson was clearly not 100%, but also the Pelicans simply looked disconnected. Defensively is where Williamson often struggled, getting lost in rotations and having poor anticipations.

“I thought he struggled moving laterally,” a scout told The Action Network. “Next year will be interesting what they do with Zion on defense. With the league having bigs either in drop or switch so much , idk where he fits schematically. [New coach Stan Van Gundy] loved ‘Icing’ in [Detroit], which he might be better suited for him with better hand activity and they will have an increased emphasis on defense.”

Oftentimes, Williamson just failed to engage in coverage:


There’s just not a lot of effort or focus here:


But the biggest concern is Williamson’s durability. “It’s hard for me to envision him holding up, physically,” one executive remarked.

The Pelicans have given Williamson leeway and been extra careful in his recovery. But special treatment, as the Clippers have learned, can often times create tension.

The good news is, Brandon Ingram won Most Improved Player last season and there may be no player better suited to play with Zion than Lonzo Ball and vice versa:


But if Holiday is on the way out, the Pelicans will likely be getting younger and more inexperienced. It’ll be up to Williamson to grow into the roll of leader. That can be difficult with so many players used to being the best player on the team, and given Zion’s instability in availability.

Having a phenom like Zion should make growing a team easy, but oftentimes it’s more difficult to develop the team around the talent than to get it.

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