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Pelicans have a Catch-22 with Zion Williamson: Will it result in New Orleans’ first NBA title or an ugly breakup?

New Orleans will only go as far as its star, Zion Williamson, who has regressed this season for the Pelicans.

New Orleans Pelicans v Golden State Warriors
Zion Williamson of the New Orleans Pelicans reacts after making a basket and getting fouled by the Golden State Warriors in the second half at Chase Center on January 10, 2024 in San Francisco, California.
Photo by Ezra Shaw/Getty Images

The New Orleans Pelicans became the latest team to add to the Golden State Warriors’ misery, dismantling the 2021-22 champions by 36 points Wednesday evening to win their seventh straight road game. Zion Williamson was relatively quiet in the first half with six points, four assists and three rebounds while the Pelicans got hot from behind the arc, but turned things around in the second half. The power forward finished with 19 points, seven assists and five boards, although he rarely had to display his explosiveness to get to that final stat line.

Wednesday’s contest isn’t the best example of what this New Orleans team can be, although it did help Williamson counter some bad lineup metrics. The Pelicans’ most frequent five-man lineup of Williamson, Jonas Valanciunas, Brandon Ingram, CJ McCollum and Herbert Jones is now just a minus-eight on the season, largely because of a 133-89 loss to the Lakers in the In-Season Tournament. Williamson hasn’t played in a few blowout wins for the Pelicans, including a 133-100 result against the Kings earlier this week.

The Pelicans are 23-15 as of Jan. 11, sitting at the sixth and final automatic playoff spot in the Western Conference. However, they are just 3.5 games out from the top seed. New Orleans is 4-3 without Williamson this season, and have somewhat adapted to playing without him. However, they need him to win a title. And for that to happen, Williamson will have to do something he hasn’t shown he can do yet in his NBA career.

Williamson has yet to play a full season, and the results have been obvious for New Orleans when he is and isn’t on the floor. The Pelicans went 36-46 in the year Williamson missed, luckily finding a way into the postseason through the play-in tournament before being ousted by the top-seeded Phoenix Suns.

The Pelicans were 23-14 before Williamson was shut down a season ago, spending only one day in December outside of the top three seeds in the Western Conference. New Orleans finished 42-40, about nine wins under their expected total, assuming they kept up their pace when Williamson was in the mix. That pace, which would translate to 50 or 51 wins, would’ve given the Pelicans the No. 2 seed in the West. However, the Pelicans were eliminated in the play-in tournament.

Despite the concerns about his injuries, the Pelicans signed him to a maximum rookie extension during the 2022 offseason. The contract reportedly has protections against injuries for the team and also gives Williamson additional incentives if he makes an All-NBA team. That deal runs through the 2027-28 season when Williamson will make $44.8 million.

This contract is basically a Catch-22 for the Pelicans. They know Williamson staying healthy is the key to them winning a title but they’ve committed a huge financial amount to him knowing he has yet to do that. However, a curious thing has happened during the 2023-24 season.

Williamson has been relatively healthy, aside from some quad and hamstring trouble here and there. He’s played in 31 of the team’s 38 games, which would put him on pace to play a career-high 66 or 67 games. Ideally, the Pelicans would like that to be between 70 and 75 games, but Williamson being healthy for the playoffs matters more. Yet, the former No. 1 overall pick hasn’t been himself this season.

Williamson’s scoring is down by nearly five points per game, likely due to his efficiency taking a slight hit. His rebounding numbers are a bit off and New Orleans is managing his minutes more. The lineup data is a bit wonky due to some blowout results, but Williamson is a net negative when it comes to overall rating at the moment.

It’s not just the metrics. Williamson doesn’t demand the ball as much in this offense. He’s less explosive going to the basket, perhaps by design. His unique blend of athleticism and sheer force has to be balanced with the knowledge of the pressure he puts on his legs every time he jumps off the floor. His physique has been called into question many times, and it’s fueling rumors of his commitment to winning and the Pelicans franchise.

This isn’t to say Williamson hasn’t had his moments. He scored 33 points in a big win over the 76ers (who were missing Joel Embiid), 32 in a win over the Clippers, and 26 in a win over the defending champions Nuggets. He tallied 36 and 27 in two wins over the Timberwolves, with the second victory being at Minnesota. The Pelicans are one of just two teams to come away with a win in Minneapolis this season, and Williamson is the reason why.

That puts the Pelicans in a bit of a lurch. On one hand, they have a big financial commitment to Williamson and need him to stay healthy. But does limiting his minutes and telling him to be more contained take away from the very thing they need to be title contenders? It’s something New Orleans has to figure out as the season goes along and luckily, finding that balance is unlikely to come at the expense of wins. Because as good as Ingram and McCollum are, they don’t elevate a team’s ceiling like Williamson does.

New Orleans is +5500 to win the NBA title at DraftKings Sportsbook, surprisingly behind the Thunder, Timberwolves, Warriors, Mavericks, Kings, Lakers and Suns. The Pelicans have a better record than four of those teams and have beaten the Timberwolves twice and the Kings four times. The central question for New Orleans to achieve the ultimate goal is Williamson. He’s the difference between this franchise lifting a title or just becoming a good team for several years before everything falls apart after another failed playoff run.