How Zion Williamson’s reported unhappiness could help Lonzo Ball this offseason

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In the modern NBA, keeping star players happy is of the utmost importance. The era of player empowerment means a franchise hero can turn to a franchise villain with one tweet, report or poor wardrobe choice.

That a story on Thursday from The Athletic’s Shams Charania, Joe Vardon and Will Guillory indicated family members of Zion Williamson were unhappy certainly would raise eyebrows inside the Pelicans front office. Williamson is a star even in his second year in the NBA. And after watching Chris Paul and Anthony Davis demand out, the franchise likely had a tinge of déjà vu while reading the piece.

First, it should be noted the phrase “certain family members” matters in this report. It’s intentionally vague and offers hardly any insight into how much their opinion matters to Williamson or factors into his decision-making.

At the same time, this report surfacing means someone wanted it out, whether it Williamson himself or someone in his camp. A private person off the court, Williamson isn’t known for leaking stories to the media. It should matter that THIS is the first one that comes out.

Ultimately, Williamson’s future in New Orleans isn’t up in the air in any way. He’s under contract for multiple seasons. Williamson not signing an extension after his rookie deal is still a move with nearly zero precedence in league history.

But this is a warning shot across the bow of the Pelicans’ front office. Williamson understands his power within the franchise and chose to use it heading into one of the more important offseasons in the franchise’s history.

On top of needing to find a new head coach, the front office must remake a roster that was one of the most disappointing in the league last season. Executive Vice President of Basketball Operations David Griffin, a consistent winner of press conferences, has done little other winning in his two seasons in New Orleans. Landing Williamson, the consensus No. 1 pick in the draft, is the one unquestioned victory he’s had in the Big Easy.

Eric Bledsoe and Steven Adams, the two marquee acquisitions last offseason, struggled to fit around Williamson and Brandon Ingram. Neither Lonzo Ball nor Josh Hart, two of the few players that have flourished next to the Pelicans’ two All-Stars, received an extension before the season and have been shopped on the trade market to varying degrees in the last year.

Ball, particularly, will be an interesting case study of how much sway Williamson has in the franchise. Despite making noticeable jumps in production in both seasons with the franchise, Ball was shopped extensively at the trade deadline. He enters a free agency process that will be interesting. Ball will likely demand a large salary the franchise may not be willing to offer.

Adding more intrigue is that Williamson — along with Ingrampublicly stumped for Ball in his exit interview and openly desired for the return of the team’s starting point guard. The two have created a bond on and off the court in their short time together.

If Ball is re-signed this offseason, it will not only be a result of Williamson asking for his return. But would the franchise be willing to stoke the flames even more when it comes to Williamson’s unhappiness? No one move led to Davis or Paul asking out of New Orleans in the past just as no one move will ever lead to Williamson asking for a trade.

But the path to those past trade demands are littered with Omer Asik contracts and Austin Rivers lottery selections. Not matching a Ball offer sheet this summer is a surefire step toward that trade demand.

Ball’s hard work, dedication and determination have helped him become the valuable player he now is in the NBA. He wants to remain in New Orleans and likely will give them ample opportunity to make that happen. But Williamson publicly set a clock with this week’s story and as each moment ticks away in the back of the minds of the Pelicans’ front office this offseason, can they afford another move to speed that clock up by letting Ball go?

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