Mar 28, 2019; Washington, DC, USA; Duke Blue Devils forward Zion Williamson (1) speaks in a press conference during practice for the east regional of the 2019 NCAA Tournament at Capital One Arena.

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Pelicans celebrate #1 pick, big-market elitists melt down

Zion could be headed to New Orleans. Get over it.

Seth Dunlap
May 15, 2019 - 8:05 pm
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The cheers of joy and tears of triumph inside the Pelicans front office and among their fans hadn’t begun to subside when the chorus of hate and disdain from across the country took aim at New Orleans.

In a remarkably shocking moment, the Pelicans had turned their six-percent chance of winning the NBA Draft Lottery into the No. 1 overall pick.  After months of inescapable sports dread, the city and region finally had reason to celebrate.  Not only did New Orleans win the lottery, but they did it in a year when the most highly regarded prospect since LeBron James was set to enter the league. 

It was an epic coup for a franchise that was still reeling from, and figuring out how to deal with, the Anthony Davis trade request.  Sure hiring of David Griffin provided real promise, but most fans has become inoculated from any real hope.

The moment NBA deputy commissioner Mark Tatum announced the Pelicans beat the odds and secured the top overall pick, the city began a primal celebration that Louisiana sports fans hadn’t experienced since perhaps the Saints hoisted the Lombardi Trophy in 2010.   Everybody from Alvin Gentry, to the Pelicans ticket sales team, to the die-hard Pelicans fans who’ve experienced 17 years of disappointment were in a euphoric stupor.  Splendid sports bliss.

Yet as soon as the Pelicans celebration started, the inevitable national backlash ensued.  Headlines blared “What if Zion Williamson Refuses to Play for the Pelicans?”  Radio mouthpieces shouted that Williamson shouldn’t even think about playing in New Orleans.  Cable networks seemingly devoted the entirety of the ensuing 24 hours to hypothesizing reasons why the Pelicans weren’t worthy of the young star’s talents.

What amazing times we live in when disdain from the elitist big city sports punditry somehow trumps the raw euphoria in one of America’s greatest, albeit not-so-big, cities.  In an age when everything has turned to us-versus-them, even the NBA lottery isn’t immune.

Not only is the backlash as absurd as it was inevitable, but it’s completely unwarranted.  At least if these so-called fans and analysts are interested in a healthy, vibrant professional basketball league.  If we are to believe the Pelicans are so unworthy of drafting Zion Williamson, then why is most of the country propping up the New York Perennial Laughingstock Knicks as the fortification of basketball relevance where Zion’s services are most required?

Let’s first dispatch with this silly Pelicans-versus-Knicks debate. 

The Pelicans have won 21 more regular season games than New York this millennium.  Oh, and the Pelicans franchise didn’t exist until 2002.  The current owner of the Knickerbockers, James Dolan, seems more interested in banning unhappy fans from Madison Square Garden than he is winning basketball games.   Dolan treats his franchise more like a status symbol to be admired than a business to be cultivated and groomed to excellence.  To say Dolan is the laughingstock of NBA owners is an insult to laughingstocks. 

Meanwhile the Pelicans have a new, dedicated owner in Gayle Benson who is quickly becoming admired across the league for her raw passion for the sport and franchise.  She somehow convinced David Griffin, the most sought-after front office talent in the NBA this offseason, to take control of the Pelicans as their new President of Basketball Operations.  Griffin parlayed his hire by luring Aaron Nelson, the most well-respected medical professional in the league, away from the Phoenix Suns. 

A trial-by-combat between the Pelicans and Knicks front offices and ownership groups would be a mismatch as big as The Mountain vs. Qyburn.  The people offering up Zion to New York are either blindly aware of the absurdity of their comparison or willfully trying to execute subject Williamson to four-plus years of unearned basketball torture. 

The Pelicans also have a decided roster-talent advantage over their northern counterparts.  Jrue Holiday, Julius Randle, and Anthony Davis (yes, he’s still under contract) are a vastly more formidable trio than anything the Knicks could surround Zion with.   Even if Davis is, as expected, eventually traded away, the Pelicans would get back a king’s ransom in return.  New Orleans is set up for near-immediate Western Conference relevancy while the Knicks are multiple stars away from competing in the surprisingly top-heavy East.

This fools tale that the Knicks deserved Zion should be quickly hand-waved away.  The more disturbing aspect of the post-lottery discussion has been the earnest desire of far too many people to strip down a small market team to benefit a large market team because, well, that’s what they want and they’re throw a tantrum until it happens.

First, it’s unclear if most people actually understand percentages and odds.  The Pelicans were incredibly fortunate to win the lottery with just six-percent odds, or a roughly one-in-17 shot.   The Knicks, meanwhile, had a 60-percent chance of not being in the top three of the draft, and they had about a one-in-seven shot at grabbing the top spot.   The Knicks were indeed fortunate to land the number three spot, but they would have defied the odds to get the No. 1 pick, just as any franchise would have in the new lottery formula.  Those suggesting the Knicks were robbed of a chance to draft Zion with the top selection may need to brush up on their math skills.

More importantly, it’s imperative that the NBA maintain at least the sense of competitive balance that their 30 franchises now enjoy.  There are real built-in disadvantages for a franchise in a small market, like New Orleans, but there is clearly precedent where those teams can succeed with smart drafting, prudent decisions in free agency, and a wise allocation of their resources.  San Antonio, Orlando, Oklahoma City, Cleveland, Indianapolis, Milwaukee, and Salt Lake City have combined for 38 conference finals appearances, 16 NBA Finals trips, and five championships in the past quarter-century.  The myth that a small market can’t success in the NBA is just that; a myth.

However, if the league begins to whittle away at the main pillar for small market competitiveness – the NBA Draft – then the NBA would quickly truncate into what essentially is an eight city league.  If the Pelicans don’t deserve Zion, then who do they actually deserve?  Some other big market cast-offs where New Orleans can play minor league little brother to the Lakers, Knicks, Warriors, Bulls, and others?

It’s the unfortunate reality that professional sports leagues, at least the ones that fans and viewers flock to in droves, are built on competitive balance.  The NFL built its empire on exactly that, where all 32 football franchises have an equal chance to build a contender through the draft and free agency.  The NBA has moved on from the David Stern era, where continuous decisions and policies benefitting the largest markets were enacted.  Remember the essential death-penalty Stern issued to the Timberwolves? 

Current NBA commissioner Adam Silver quickly learned from the mistakes of the Stern Era, and is genuinely trying to create a model inspired by the NFL.  The power of the Players Association, along with the lack of a hard salary cap, make achieving competitive balance in the NBA more difficult, but it can be done.

There’s no reason to believe the NBA can’t thrive with one of their biggest stars in New Orleans, in the same way the NFL isn’t concerned about Aaron Rodgers playing in Green Bay or Drew Brees in New Orleans.   The interconnectivity of our world in 2019 brings the biggest stars and games straight to households across the world.  Want to watch a Blazers game in Memphis?  It’s as easy as flipping the channel or opening up the NBA app on your phone.   Those complaining that the league’s product will somehow be hurt by Zion playing in New Orleans are living in a bygone age.

What’s even more bizarre is how most of these same people spent the past four months incessantly ranting on how sports inherently aren’t fair and the people of New Orleans need to get over their heartbreak.   The NOLA No Call was unfair, they said, and fans need to move on.  Anthony Davis asking for a trade away from the Pelicans might not be fair, but *shrug* stop the whining.  Now, somehow, the world is supposed to listen to the cries for sports fairness, whatever that is in their twisted minds, from those same people?

Zion may decide he wants to play another year at Duke.  That’s certainly within his rights.  He may decide to request a draft-day trade to another team, also his right but one that is highly unlikely to work on a skilled negotiator like Griffin.  But right now the Pelicans have an incredible amount of leverage in the draft and in the negotiations for a possible Davis trade.  It’s one of the rare times that basketball fans in New Orleans have had real reason to celebrate. To all the haters: get over it!

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