We find ourselves living in the age of NBA player empowerment, meaning if you’re a big enough name, you can more or less determine your own fate, with disgruntled stars like Anthony Davis and James Harden routinely orchestrating trades to teams and cities considered more desirable. Many would argue this role reversal, transferring power from the hands of wealthy owners in air-conditioned luxury suites to the players actually fighting in the trenches, was long overdue, though it’s also brought a host of unintended consequences. For instance, the threat of a disgruntled employee, once seen as a minor inconvenience, is now treated as a red-alert crisis of the highest order. If homegrown talents like Damian Lillard and Luka Doncic decide they want to play elsewhere, finally giving into the super-team movement after years of trying to do it on their own, what’s stopping them?
It was only a matter of time until Zion Williamson, a fully-formed superstar who erupted to the tune of 27 points per game in 2020-21, outgrew New Orleans. It would be unprecedented for a 20-year-old with barely two seasons under his proverbial belt to hold a team hostage in pursuit of a trade, though the cracks in Zion’s relationship with the organization that drafted him first overall in 2019 are already beginning to show.
As detailed by Shams Charania, William Guillory and Joe Vardon in a lengthy profile for The Athletic, members of Williamson’s family have grown increasingly impatient with the Pelicans, feeling they haven’t surrounded the 6’7” forward with a strong enough supporting cast while also taking umbrage with many of the team’s coaching and front-office decisions. In particular, Williamson was “irritated” New Orleans dealt veteran JJ Redick, one of his closest friends on the team, to Dallas at the March 25th trade deadline. Williamson’s camp also weren’t fans of coach Stan Van Gundy (who parted ways with New Orleans after one season earlier this week), arguing that he was “too rigid and demanding” of his players.
In unspooling the Rubik’s Cube known as the player empowerment phenomenon, Bomani Jones of ESPN recently expressed to The New Yorker, “The NBA has a problem, which is it’s got some bad real estate. They put a lot of teams in places that young black men don’t necessarily want to live.” For all its tourist attractions, New Orleans isn’t exactly a bustling media market and hasn’t fielded a competitive hoops team since the Chris Paul Era (they were still known as the New Orleans Hornets back then).
Williamson still has three years remaining on his rookie contract, but has already alluded to his interest in New York, marveling at Madison Square Garden upon playing there earlier this year. The Duke alum may not have the stomach for a messy breakup like the one Harden initiated in Houston this winter, and finding a coach that meshes with Zion’s personality could go a long way toward keeping him in the Big Easy. But with friends and family whispering in his ear, many of whom are eager for him to ditch the Pelicans for a more relevant franchise in a bigger city, Williamson’s days in New Orleans could be numbered.