Zion Williamson, Ja Morant and the whims of lottery luck

Each week during the 2021-22 NBA season, we will take a deeper dive into some of the league’s biggest storylines in an attempt to determine whether the trends are based more in fact or fiction moving forward.

[ Last week’s Fact or Fiction: Klay Thompson is the coolest basketball player alive ]

No need to panic about Zion Williamson just yet

The New Orleans Pelicans and Memphis Grizzlies finished the 2018-19 NBA season with identical 33-49 records. Both hit on 12.3% lottery odds of landing a top-two selection in a draft headlined by a pair of no-brainer prospects, but the specific numerical sequence that delivered the No. 1 pick to the Pelicans was determined by a pre-lottery drawing to break a thee-way tie that included the two small-market franchises.

In other words, the circumstances that landed Zion Williamson in New Orleans and Ja Morant in Memphis came down to something of a coin flip. The pressure to take Williamson with the top pick was the same for either team, but a simple twist of fate all but made the decision for the Grizzlies to select Morant second.

Three years later, Morant is a bona fide MVP candidate for the third-place Grizzlies (31-16), and general manager Zach Kleiman is among the leading candidates for the Executive of the Year award as a result. Meanwhile, an injury-plagued Williamson has played only 85 games in his career and none this season for the 13th-place Pelicans (17-29), so head of basketball operations David Griffin is left fighting for his job.  

As fortuitous as the Ping Pong balls were for Memphis in the spring of 2019, the three years since have been disastrous for New Orleans. This is the nightmare scenario for the Pelicans, who at season’s end face the prospect of entering contentious negotiations on a contract extension with their fickle franchise player.

Morant will almost certainly make an All-NBA team this season, and the five-year, $217 million maximum extension that awaits a player of his caliber will be on the table before him at 5 p.m. Central on June 30.

Story continues

Odds are similar Williamson will not play this season, complicating his future with the Pelicans — and their future in New Orleans. Reports have linked the Pelicans and Grizzlies with the possibility of relocation for years, despite the insistence of their owners that neither is prepared to move. While Morant’s emergence has quelled those concerns in Memphis, Williamson’s absence has only fueled speculation in New Orleans.

Imagine a single pre-lottery tiebreaker costs one city its NBA team over another.

Zion Williamson’s New Orleans Pelicans and Ja Morant’s Memphis Grizzlies are headed in different directions. (Sean Gardner/Getty Images)

As scans of the broken fifth metatarsal in Williamson’s right foot have repeatedly shown signs of a slower-than-normal healing progress since his injury in August, projections for his 2021-22 debut have been pushed from the start of the season through Thanksgiving into the new year and are now entirely uncertain. 

Days after he was cleared to fully participate in practice at the end of November, Williamson experienced soreness in his surgically repaired foot and was promptly shut down again. The Pelicans announced weeks later that he received a biologic injection to stimulate healing in the bone. By the start of January, they flew Williamson to Oregon, where he was to continue rehabbing “under the supervision” of their medical staff.

Lost in NBA news this past week was Times-Picayune writer Christian Clark’s report that Williamson has been working more directly with his personal trainer, Jasper Bibbs, who was reportedly fired last year as LSU’s strength coach less than two months after accepting the job and before the football season began.

We can split hairs about whether or not that report conflicts with the team’s statement about who is supervising Williamson’s rehab, but at the very least it is one more example of the two sides failing to get on the same page publicly. Williamson’s camp has anonymously blamed the Pelicans for their handling of his previous recovery from a torn meniscus in his right knee, as well as their recent team-building decisions.

Only, the Pelicans were right to proceed with caution regarding the first serious injury of Williamson’s career, and his unavailability has made evaluating the team around him rather difficult. They could place just as much blame, if not more, on Williamson for his poor conditioning during rehab. Multiple reports indicated the 6-foot-6 forward’s weight to start this season had climbed north of 300 pounds — and closer to 330.

Good luck hashing all of this out at the negotiating table this summer. The Pelicans undoubtedly want to retain Williamson beyond his rookie contract, but at what cost? Michael Porter Jr.’s maximum deal this past summer is the cautionary tale. Despite serious injury concerns, the Denver Nuggets handed Porter a max extension, and it could very well handicap their ability to construct a championship roster for its entirety.

The situation is more dire in New Orleans, where there is no Nikola Jokic to keep the Pelicans relevant in the absence of their rising star. Give Williamson a five-year $181 million max extension this summer and risk writing off the remainder of the decade before the deal even begins, should his injury issues persist.

Offer less than a max salary for a player who, when last healthy, averaged a ridiculously efficient 27-7-4 as a 20-year-old All-Star and risk causing further friction with Williamson. More likely, the two sides will simply agree to reconvene at the end of next season, when they will face any number of options to move forward:

A healthy Williamson reverts to his All-Star form, and the Pelicans sign him to a max extension.

That same Williamson is so confident in his longterm viability that he signs a $17.6 million qualifying offer to play one final season for the Pelicans before entering unrestricted free agency in 2024.

Williamson’s health remains a concern, and he is faced with a less weighty choice between testing restricted free agency without maximum leverage or proving his value on the one-year qualifying offer.

Despite lingering health concerns, Williamson secures a four-year maximum contract elsewhere in restricted free agency, and the Pelicans must choose between matching the contract (possibly against his wishes), facilitating a sign-and-trade deal or letting the erstwhile franchise savior walk for nothing. 

Williamson’s health borders on complete bust status, and he is hardly worth the qualifying offer.

There are plenty of scenarios in between, but the odds of Williamson and the Pelicans navigating his next contract in lockstep are now far worse than a coin flip. Even the best-case scenario of a peak-performing Williamson committing longterm to New Orleans comes with the possibility that he follows Chris Paul and Anthony Davis in requesting a trade before his rookie extension expires, so long as he gets on the court.

Some 400 miles away, Morant told The Athletic of recent trade requests, “I’m not a big fan of the leaving.”

“I feel like this is my home, from the front office down, the fans, the community,” added Morant. “Everybody brought me in and made me feel like family, and me and my family couldn’t ask for anything better.”

Contrast that with reports that Williamson’s family already wants him out of New Orleans, where he has missed more games than he has played and demonstrated suboptimal commitment when he is available.

When your list of options now includes the once unthinkable idea of trading Williamson before his injury history and a reported rift with franchise runs your team out of town, it is beyond time to panic. Little did the Pelicans know when a numerical sequence gifted them the No. 1 pick in the 2019 draft lottery that their franchise’s future was sealed in a Ping Pong mixing chamber at a pre-lottery drawing two months earlier.

Determination: Fiction

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Ben Rohrbach is a staff writer for Yahoo Sports. Have a tip? Email him at [email protected] or follow him on Twitter! Follow @brohrbach


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