Paying customers and plenty of media members have loudly expressed their frustrations with how the New Orleans Pelicans have handled the injuries and updates regarding Zion Williamson and Brandon Ingram, to the point of calling the organization outright liars.
Sure, there were frustrations with injuries derailing the season, but the messaging did not come from a place of dishonesty. It came from the type of misunderstandings and miscommunications that can ravage any type of relationship.
The obvious friction within the team the last few seasons were publicly expressed through curt answers and solemn body language on gamedays. Executive vice president David Griffin even admitted last July that the Pelicans “did a really bad job organizationally" in handling some situations, especially after Williamson’s viral pregame dunk and vague comments to the media. It took a summer of reconciliation, but the most pressing relationship issues have been resolved. Everyone understands how to speak each other’s basketball love language and approach expectations for the coming season.
It all started with listening sessions this summer, which were a reason Williamson stuck around town for the offseason. But go back and listen to how Williamson and Ingram talk about basketball in press conferences over the years. Examining how they speak about the game explains a lot in how they’ve approached their careers thus far.
Ingram has been using the term "professional" and "basketball" while talking like a hardwood scientist since his rookie season. It would not be surprising for B.I. to break down film at 4 a.m., making calls to wake sleepy-eyed teammates. Specifically, Devonte’ Graham and Josh Hart have shared on record how Ingram’s film studies helped their game. Even when Ingram was out with an injury, the deep film sessions to help his teammates improve remained part of his routine. His methodical game reflects his intense devotion to his craft, though Ingram’s personality comes off as a bit more laid back.
Williamson “just loves hooping” by his admission this Monday and in past interviews. Both are highly talented and naturally gifted and, as one source put it, “They both love the game, but show it in different ways. The game has loved them back in different ways.” Organizationally, there have been some growing pains as perhaps some things got taken for granted along the way for a franchise shaping a new identity.
That’s starting to change and it is a two-way street. This team knows it was in first place last December and Williamson’s renewed commitment has been the theme of the offseason with those I’ve spoken with.
"This was the first summer where we’ve seen Zion take his profession seriously like that and invest in it off the court on his own in a way that, I think, is meaningful," Griffin revealed during media day.
This is a reassuring development considering the past four years. Now, Zion still loves to hoop. There is no doubt. No one shows up on an outdoor court in New Orleans to work up a mid-summer sweat with some high-school kids without loving to hoop. Roll a ball out on a court and a smiling Williamson is like an overeager puppy. At least Alvin Gentry got that right in Zion’s rookie season.
However, Williamson has not had a healthy relationship with NBA basketball the last few years. The NBA Draft is a crap shoot and New Orleans was not exactly a prime location. The new front office had a few growing pains earlier than expect as a result. NBA HQ added some bumps and bruises to the process as well. The national-TV-heavy schedule as a rookie and through the COVID bubble was unwarranted, unnecessary attention; it was just premature pressure on someone who couldn't legally buy a drink.
Attention before production paired with injury setbacks put pressure on every strained relationship, which partly factored into the Pelicans parting ways with coaches Gentry and Stan Van Gundy after just a year each with Williamson on the roster. Zion even went to rehab in Oregon away from the team, returning to the bench just weeks before the team’s playoff run.
Publicly and privately, it’s “all water under the bridge” between the locker room and front office. Aaron Nelson is still with the team, but in an advisory role that’s far more hands-off on the day-to-day. Newly-hired Amy Atmore, the team's physical/performance therapist and director of rehabilitation, has already made the players comfortable with the revamped staff and new "ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure" process. There are a few more full-time staffers to welcome into the group but by all accounts, head coach Willie Green has righted the ship culturally in the locker room. The leadership hierarchies and trust circle bonds are very strong and have been unanimously agreed upon.
In contrast to Williamson’s on-court hooper mentality paired with a dozen endorsement deals, Ingram loves professional basketball and has been able to operate as an under-the-radar, one-time All-Star. This approach leads to multi-generational wealth that secures family futures. Ingram did not sign a contract extension this summer because "they handing a lot of people big money, [and] I’m trying to get some big money” next summer.
Ingram smiled while delivering that media-day-gold statement, but Zion was refusing to flash a grin for anyone to start training camp. This isn’t just hooping anymore. This is serious, professional basketball and it would be a disservice to his talents and teammates to not approach this season as the opportunity of a lifetime. It’s also a chance to win back all the fans and provide a return on the team’s investment. Williamson loves to be loved. Ingram, especially after the FIBA experience, is after All-NBA respect before negotiating a contract extension.
The revamped player performance and medical staff changes were a direct result of the front office listening to player feedback. Williamson, who just signed a max-level extension, can see that.
"The Pelicans have put in a lot of things this offseason…" Williamson said. "I think what the Pelicans have done is add good structure and we'll see as the season goes… being on the same page with the personal trainers, really locking into every aspect of my body.''
Williamson also listened to feedback from the front office and the team’s veterans. He got the message from CJ McCollum and Larry Nance Jr., who played through injuries last season, to set an example.
"I think [the changes] should help us," McCollum said. “A lot of it is on us and how we prepare. Your staff can only do so much."
Off the court, Williamson’s larger-than-life, crowd-pleasing ways mesh well with Ingram’s reserved, low-key-funny, musically-inclined chill. Now, the Pelicans need them to make it work on the court when the stakes are highest. Like any relationship seemingly stuck running in place, huge consequences are resting on the next decision.
“If this team can’t take that next step, we need to know that as quickly as possible,” Griffin stated straightforwardly at media day.
It’s tough to hear for a young team, but at least the tough love is understood as coming from a place of caring about what’s best for everyone.
Former NBA vet and Pelicans general manager Trajan Langdon said he felt players have returned with a bitter taste in their mouths after the way last season ended and expects them to come into camp highly motivated to show their true potential. Griffin, who is passing off some of the medical-team-oversight responsibilities to Langdon, feels this group is “really optimistic."
"We have pieces that can be really dynamic and win together," Griffin said. "They haven’t done a lot of it and they know they have something to prove."
Williamson definitely has something to prove and has new motivations in life to live up to his potential. The expecting father with no more viable professional excuses or blame to be placed on youth ''wanted change."
"If I want change, I have to do something different so I sat down with the Pelicans and came up with a great plan," Zion said.
All public signs from the front office, All-Stars and those speaking behind the scenes point to a mended, healthy relationship between all parties as reason for future optimism. Reports of mutiny or group dissension are downright wrong according to what I’ve been hearing. Hot takes to insinuate the franchise operates from behind a smoke screen miss the mark at best and at times show the worst of biases from people who wouldn’t know which coach or player had a family sitting next to them in the arena.
There were no ultimatums. It was a remodel, not a revolt. The front office took feedback from their players and ran with it. That’s a positive relationship. It’s boring for offseason news but has long-term benefits for the team and it’s fans.
"If we would have controlled the narrative, it would have made (the media’s) jobs a lot more boring, but it would have put [Williamson[ in a better position to succeed," Griffin said last summer. "I feel like to a huge degree, I failed him in that sense."
The Pelicans and Williamson are now in a position to succeed with a clear narrative: Win and show the world their true capabilities. Williamson, who trained to be “un-guardable” this offseason, switched vocabulary halfway through the press conference with an admission that he is “a basketball player."
"I simply want to win and impact the game. I train to impact the game from all areas… Griff, Trajan and Swin [Cash], those three have been really helpful," Williamson added. "They've supported me, they've had my back and we all got the same goal in mind, which I think is what family is about – people having your back no matter what and wanting the best for each other.”
Williamson went further, going out of the way to declare his loyalty to New Orleans.
“This is home for me. This is where I want to be…" he said. "If something were to happen to me where basketball wasn’t there or my life is changed, who would be there for me? Realistically, who would be there for me? I had to come to that realization that when it comes to them, the family, and the city, it’s always good so I focus on that.”
Frankly, if that doesn’t hit you right in the feels as a fan of the Pelicans, it might be time to re-examine your engagement with basketball and this team. Either way the franchise is moving forward with stronger relationships just as their championship window is truly opening. A great start to the season might even feel like a second honeymoon for fans with an open mind and little bit of hope for the future.
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