When the New Orleans Pelicans landed the right to seize the beginning of Zion Williamson’s basketball career, the reaction was swift, predictable and consistent: “What did those people do to deserve such a prize?”
The answer, of course, is nothing, as in, “Nothing more than any of the other 12 teams did.” That is, unless you think new general manager David Griffin gamed the system by giving head coach Alvin Gentry the tie former Cleveland Cavaliers executive/confidant Jeff Cohen wore when the Cavs won three lotteries in four years.
But you did hear a lot how the Pelicans didn’t deserve such fortune because they haven’t created a nirvana for Anthony Davis, or because they didn’t trade Davis to Los Angeles and save the Lakers from the cesspool that is the Lakers, or because they are an NBA backwater, or because the league can’t maximize Williamson’s Zionitude unless he is in a large market.
All of these suppositions carry with them just enough truth to be stupid, and just enough falsehoods to be irrelevant. In other words, a perfect story for our times.
If ineptitude is a disqualification for being “deserving” of Williamson, who caused so much slack-jawed drooling in his limited time at Duke, no team actually deserves him save maybe the Golden State Warriors, and nobody thinks that’s a helpful solution save the hyper-acquisitive owner Joe Lacob. The lottery is the place for match-throwers, bumblers, the perpetually unlucky, and Sacramento.
But unless your argument is that the draft in and of itself is wrong (it is) and that Williamson should be afforded the right to choose his next employer in an open process (he should be), no team would have been worthy, in the same way that the Cavs didn’t deserve to draft LeBron James or the Timberwolves deserved Karl-Anthony Towns, or the Wizards deserved Kwame Brown.
Let’s deal with what did happen, though. The Pelicans have changed their ownership (well, Tom Benson died and left control to his widow Gayle, if that’s your idea of change) and front office (Griffin replaced Danny Ferry who replaced Dell Demps in the wake of the Davis non-trade fiasco), and Davis wanted out of the chaos. He might have been granted his wish save for the Lakers’ clown-car front office and its spectacularly lard-handed attempt to force the Pelicans’ hand, and now Davis gets a chance to rethink his position with a new chip on the table. Davis has the same leverage he had before, but now he has better intel with which to decide. For one, the team he is currently on has a better chance to become a force in the Western Conference, which certainly helps some. For two, he got to learn the true levels of what is making the Lakers an organizational and structural rival of the Miami Marlins.
So to the question. “Why the Pelicans?” the obvious and correct answer is “Why not the Pelicans?”
Which brings us to the final claim, which is that the league needed Williamson in a major market. This is patently idiotic, the kind argument medioids make because the think this is still 1990. The Lakers are an ongoing disgrace, airing dirty laundry, petty politics, and plain ignorance for your amusement. The Knicks are perpetually and utterly leprous. The Chicago Bulls are dull and clunky and tedious. The game as business is bigger than the cities in which they are played because Giannis Antetokounmpo is in Milwaukee and the Warriors are in Oakland (for a few more weeks) and, for a few years there, three of the most exciting basketball players on the planet played in Oklahoma City—and the league has never cashed more or larger checks or attracted more eyeballs and ears.
If you want to make the argument that ratings are down this year, remember that the reason most cited is that LeBron James moved from Cleveland to Los Angeles. You want the definition of “backwater”? It doesn’t get much clearer, unless you want to throw in the Knicks for institutional incompetence. Los Angeles and New York prove that even in the lottery era, there are some places where the meritocracy works.
You can trust us on this: Williamson the Pelican will get massively rich and famous, so much so that he will be able to find the misery that so many other athletes find when they discover that wealth and fame are only part of the happiness equation. There are lots of things that make people content, and Williamson will see if New Orleans is to his liking in the way that Antetokounmpo has found happiness in Milwaukee and smoothies. Remember, just like Zion, Stephen Curry originally wanted to be drafted by the Knicks; you think he’d trade that alternate universe for the reality he found in Oaktown? Let me save time and answer that one for you. No.
In short, the only way the new, re-weighted draft lottery could have gone wrong would have been if the incompetent Lakers or Knicks or the even more egregious aggressive tankers like Phoenix and Cleveland HAD won the lottery. Not that that can’t happen in future drafts, or that teams won’t keep tanking for a 14 percent chance at the top pick rather than 25 percent. Still, it worked this time, and had it not, an argument could be made that such a prize would never have been less earned, or been presented to less qualified people. New Orleans may not have gotten what it deserved, but they come a hell of closer than their alleged peers.
Ray Ratto wants to note that Memphis has the second pick, which could be Zion if he says he would never play in New Orleans, which he probably won’t.