Few teams made as many offseason moves as the New Orleans Pelicans. After a disappointing performance in the Orlando Bubble, the Pelicans changed coaches, traded Jrue Holiday to the Milwaukee Bucks for veteran guard Eric Bledsoe and some significant draft capital and added Steven Adams in a deal with the Oklahoma City Thunder and quickly signed him to an extension.
Their plan was relatively clear, compete for the postseason now with a veteran roster around their two young stars, Zion Williamson and Brandon Ingram, while simultaneously preparing for the future with the haul they got from the Anthony Davis and Holiday trades.
Unfortunately, the first part of that plan has gotten off to a rough start. The Pelicans started the 2020-21 season 7-12, mostly due to a shaky defense and a lack of three-point shooting. Many pointed to the clunky roster fit as the cause of their poor start, specifically the lack of spacing around the paint-dwelling Willamson.
And, of course, the predictable scapegoat in that regard was Lonzo Ball.
The fourth-year guard had struggled mightily beyond the arc and had yet to show enough ability or confidence to attack the rim. Coupled with the fact that he is set to be a restricted free agent come season’s end, Ball quickly became an obvious trade candidate. Since that sluggish start, however, Ball has caught fire; over his last 10 games, he’s shot nearly 46 percent from three. The team has mirrored his success, as the Pelicans won four-straight to before they dropped the second night of a back-to-back to the Chicago Bulls.
Ball’s hot streak has made his importance to the team evident — New Orleans has outscored opponents by 5.5 points per 100 possessions with Ball on the court and are outscored by 9.9 points per 100 when he sits, per Cleaning the Glass — and, in turn, the rumors have ceased. But the situation is a complicated one for the Pelicans — can Ball maintain this level of play? And, if he can, is he worth a potentially hefty contract?
If they think he can maintain his current level of play, Ball is an easy retain, regardless of what it may cost to do so. But the argument for trading the UCLA product remains valid; if New Orleans doesn’t think he can keep it up or simply doesn’t believe he’s worth a significant commitment, they should look to move him for as much value as possible.
But what could they get for him? The answer varies wildly depending on what version of Ball we see the rest of the season.
While dumbing Ball’s value down to his three-point shooting percentage is a bit reductive, it arguably has the greatest impact on his play and potential trade value. The Pelicans have played him primarily off-ball, as they’ve allowed Williamson and Ingram to control much of the offense. Of course, that role is highly dependent on Ball’s ability to knock down open shots, from three or otherwise — if it’s falling, Ball’s value to the team, both as a rotation piece and trade asset, increases exponentially.
That’s not to say Ball’s value resides solely in his shooting, however. Ball is a significant asset on defense, as the Pelicans have thus far trusted him to guard the opponent’s best. And, when he does have the ball in his hands, Ball’s passing ability can be utilized as a legit weapon in transition; his ability to push off of the defensive rebound can create a huge advantage for the offense.
His inconsistent shot and what would appear to be a reluctance or inability to finish at the rim are areas of major concern, as they limit Ball’s impact as a traditional lead-guard, in the pick-and-roll or otherwise.
But he is improving: last season, the Pelicans scored a putrid 0.58 points per possession when Ball ran the pick-and-roll, per NBA.com. This season, while it is a small sample size, Ball has improved that number significantly. Further, the largest boon to his improvement has come in the turnover department, as Ball has been far more mindful with the ball and what he does with it. His turnover rate out of the pick-and-roll has dropped more than 20 percent from last season to now.
Unfortunately for the Pelicans or would be Ball-buyers, driving to the rim and drawing contact will likely never be a major facet of his game. His foul drawing numbers have remained mostly stagnant this season, while his frequency of shots at the rim has actually decreased slightly.
But, if Ball can improve, at the very least, on attacking a hard closeout should that his three-point efficiency would command, it open up a whole new world on offense. Even if he doesn’t get all the way to the cup, Ball can put pressure on the defense and, with his vision, make the easy pass to the cutter that has seen the seas part before him, as he and Ingram show here.
If he can maintain his hot-shot, Ball is a tremendous three-and-D player with exceptional transition passing and a knack for tracking down loose balls. In other words, he’s a good player that almost no team would have to worry about in crunch time. Should he continue to improve, then not only would Ball be a very tradeable asset, but a piece that could help the Pelicans, or anyone, for that matter, win a championship.
Digging into the Pelicans’ cap sheet, they’ve set themselves up for a solid chunk of cap space in the summer of 2023. Williamson would be due for his max-extension, while Ingram would be entering the fourth year of the max-deal he signed back in November. But, otherwise, the books would be empty. Even if Ball is retained at a significantly high number, New Orleans could have room for another max-deal.
That 2023-24 season is when the window should start to creep open for New Orleans, assuming Williamson can blossom into the superstar many expect him to be. If Ingram can continue to improve his own game in-tandem, then a player like Ball hitting his ceiling could make or break the championship hopes of this team.
Should they trade him, New Orleans is unlikely to get a player of equal potential. But, if they think the extra cap flexibility and an extra draft pick here or there down the line may better serve their championship aspirations, then it might be better to bite the bullet now and flip Ball before it’s time to commit at what may be his peak-value.
But, rather than gamble, it may be wisest for the Pelicans to just roll with Ball, watch him grow and let the chips fall where they may.