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Zion Williamson’s arrival begins a new era for the Pelicans but that is only part of the story in New Orleans

“Sometimes you need to be given permission to dominate people,” David Griffin said. The New Orleans Pelicans VP was on the radio, talking about Jrue Holiday. According to Griffin, he asked the 29-year-old Holiday, a one-time All-Star, if he wants to win MVP. Griffin believes that Holiday is capable of this, as long as he believes it himself. In numerous interviews, he likened Holiday’s situation to that of Steve Nash, who at 30 years old signed with the Phoenix Suns with two All-Star appearances to his name and immediately won back-to-back MVP awards. Griffin was part of the Suns’ front office at the time. 

“The team was built to really maximize all of his gifts,” Griffin told ESPN’s Adrian Wojnarowski. “We put the right pieces around him, systematically the right pieces were around him. We feel like Jrue Holiday can take a jump similar to that if the right pieces are around him. And culturally we’re going to be very reflective of who Jrue is: Jrue is all about winning. He is a two-way player that will sacrifice whatever it takes to be successful. As a human being he is about as good as I’ve ever been with in the league.”

Understanding the Pelicans’ plan does not require you to see Holiday as an MVP candidate. You merely need to see what Griffin is getting at. The Suns jumped from 29 wins to 62 after Nash signed because he was the ideal point guard for coach Mike D’Antoni’s revolutionary system and he elevated everybody around him. The Pelicans want to empower Holiday, but that doesn’t mean he has to control the offense to the degree that Nash did. It means they want him to be at the center of their new identity.

If it sounds like Griffin is trying to take pressure off of Zion Williamson, the No. 1 pick in the draft and arguably the most hyped rookie since LeBron James, well, duh. By talking up Holiday, and by signing veterans JJ Redick and Derrick Favors, Griffin signaled to Williamson that New Orleans is trying to be competitive and that the organization does not expect him to be its savior, even if everyone else sees him that way. From the Anthony Davis trade to draft night and free agency, the Pelicans have walked the line between building for the future and adding win-now talent. Griffin does not seem to think these goals are incompatible — he told Sports Illustrated‘s Jake Fischer that he wants to put a “cocoon” around their young players so they can “grow in an environment where winning matters, with the types of human beings I would want them to model.”

I am almost in awe of how thoroughly New Orleans has redefined itself. The roster is far deeper than it ever was in Davis’ seven seasons. Holiday and Lonzo Ball should be one of the league’s best defensive backcourts, and coach Alvin Gentry will have the luxury of switching liberally with Brandon Ingram and Williamson next to them. Griffin told SI they will “probably play the fastest style of ball that’s been played, maybe ever,” and my biggest concern is that they have too many players who deserve minutes, touches and shots, without a Nash-like presence to tie everything together. 

But hey, maybe Holiday can be that guy. He has certainly been given permission to go for it.  

Glowing quote

“He’s this guy who’s touched by the hand of God to be an ‘Ooh Ahh!’ athlete, and all he wants to do are the things that help teams win. I think he looks at it like, ‘If I’m Draymond Green with rockets in my ass, then OK.’ I don’t think he cares.” – Griffin on Williamson, via SI.

What could have been

Three alternate realities are worth thinking about: 

  • If Davis had been open to staying, the front office could have built around him, Williamson and Holiday, a terrifying trio on defense. Davis could very well accomplish all of his wildest dreams in Los Angeles, but if he doesn’t, I wonder if how he’ll look back at the period of time in between the lottery and the trade. The arrivals of Griffin and Williamson gave him an opportunity to credibly walk back his trade request and say that circumstances had changed. 
  • If Holiday had asked for a trade or Griffin had wanted to take the longest view possible, the front office could have torn everything down, focusing exclusively on youth instead of adding culture-setting veterans. Reasonable people can disagree about the relative merits of this strategy and the one Griffin chose. 
  • Draft night could have played out in a million different ways. After summer league, the Pelicans looked brilliant for coming away with Jaxson Hayes and Nickeil Alexander-Walker (and wing Marcos Louzada Silva, taken No. 35 and stashed in Australia) while shedding Solomon Hill‘s contract. If they had just stuck with the No. 4 pick, though, they could have taken De’Andre Hunter, Darius Garland, Jarrett Culver or Coby White. There was no consensus fourth-best player in the draft, so trading down made sense at the moment, but this could look drastically different a few years from now. 

Taking the temperature

A hypothetical conversation between someone who thinks Griffin should be presented with the Executive of the Year trophy right now and someone who doesn’t

Optimistic fan: Whenever Griffin says he wants the Pelicans to feel like a family, I want him to adopt me. This guy knows exactly what he’s doing, and I’m ecstatic that he is the person responsible for nurturing Zion. It’s not just that Griffin killed it with the AD trade, it’s that he got all this young talent and he got solid dudes to help them grow. He constructed a deep, balanced team but he didn’t overspend or tie up their future cap space. The Pelicans have it all!

Skeptical fan: I’d say they have a lot of guys and a lot of options, but I have questions. What will the rotation look like? What will the offense look like? Everybody knows they want to run like crazy, but, against a set defense in crunch time, who’s getting the ball? Holiday isn’t a typical No. 1 scorer, and Zion isn’t a typical anything. Ingram could become a lead playmaker, but it sounds like Holiday is going to at least start the season with that role. Ingram is actually a microcosm for the whole team, as I generally feel good about his potential but can just as easily envision him having a great year as I can envision him having growing pains. 

Optimistic fan: Nah, the growing pains are over for all the ex-Lakers. Gentry is going to have them playing fast and free. Before free agency, I thought the Pelicans would be the single most fun team to watch, but they needed time — and more shooting — before they’d be a playoff team. Now I think they’re definitely making it, with Redick and Nicolo Melli spacing the floor and Favors protecting the paint. 

Skeptical fan: If they played in the East, I’d agree, but, uh, have you forgotten what the competition looks like? Are you expecting Zion to be an All-Star as a rookie? Are you buying what Griffin is selling about Holiday going for MVP? 

Optimistic fan: The beauty of this team is that they don’t need Zion to be an All-Star or Jrue to win MVP. They are going to overwhelm people with their defense, speed and athleticism like the Thunder used to. They just need to jell, and I have confidence that they will. Besides, Redick has been in the league for 13 seasons and never missed the playoffs. For that reason alone, the Pelicans are in.

Skeptical fan: How scientific of you. I mean, this is clearly the honeymoon phase. They haven’t played a single game, and it is easy to say that they (in theory) have the best of both worlds: a path to the 2020 playoffs and long-term upside. But while it feels like they are doing things “the right way,” I have to remind you that Ingram is eligible for an extension now and Ball will be in the same position this time next year. Neither has established himself as a surefire star, and I can’t just assume that everything is going to work out, both in terms of this coming season and the broader plan. 

Eye on:

The whole bottom half of the roster is worth monitoring. I count seven players — Holiday, Redick, Ingram, Williamson, Favors, Ball and Josh Hart — as shoo-ins for the rotation. E’Twaun Moore averaged 27.6 minutes in 2018-19 and 31.5 minutes the year before that, but Ball, Hart and Alexander-Walker have complicated matters. The returning Kenrich Williams, Jahlil Okafor and Frank Jackson had their moments last season, too, and they will have to fight for every minute they get. Melli, 28, didn’t leave Fenerbahce because he thought he’d be riding the bench, but if Hayes, 19, shows he’s ready for regular minutes, there could be a battle of backup bigs. 

All of this is to say that my eye is on Gentry, who should be tinkering with starting lineups and closing lineups throughout the regular season. I want to see Williamson play point-center, Hart play power forward and Holiday, Ball and Alexander-Walker play together. Everything is new, and nothing should be off the table.