New Orleans Pelicans fans likely are still catching their breath from an exhilarating, but all be it disappointing 2020-21 campaign. The team blew 14 double-digit leads and was an NBA worst 3-10 in games decided by 3 points or fewer. Even with a lackluster 31-41 finish, the promise of Zion Williamson and Brandon Ingram’s future as two budding stars are enough to warrant excitement heading into the Willie Green regime.
Before they even played a game together, the duo had been the epicenter of discussion about the future of the New Orleans Pelicans. The front office and fans alike had a vision that Zion and Ingram would usher in a new era that would culminate in the Larry O’Brien trophy. This fantasy has caused many to ignore that, from an on-court standpoint, the pairing doesn’t work.
New Orleans Pelicans: Can Zion Williamson and Brandon Ingram have long-term success?
It’s undeniable that Zion is the alpha of the two. There have only been 20 seasons where a player averaged at least 27 points, 60% shooting from the field, and played in at least 60 games. One of those campaigns was achieved by Zion this past season when he was just 20 years old. He’s a generational talent that the franchise has already committed to for the long haul. To avoid the Pelicans from having an Anthony Davis déjà vu moment, the team has to surround Zion with talent that can help him succeed before it’s too late.
Zion does most of his work near the rim, with over 70% of his career shot attempts from within 3 feet of the basket. That means that spacing the floor is critical when Williamson is on the court. It’s no surprise that this off-season the New Orleans Pelicans have already dealt Steven Adams, who was unplayable for the team due to his lack of an outside shot. Eric Bledsoe was also shipped off, who shoots under 35% from downtown in his career.
Brandon Ingram is far from poor beyond the arc, converting 38% of such shots this past season. You have to go beyond the surface to pinpoint that three-point attempts make up only a third of his shot attempts on offense. Ingram does most of his work from 10 to 20 feet, making himself regarded as one of the best mid-range shooters in the NBA. His specialty correlates with clogging the lane. Thus, Zion is not able to have the space needed to maximize his talents as a number one option offensively.
This synopsis might sound hyperbolic, but the numbers back it up. Zion played over 500 minutes with 5 players last season, and his partnership with Ingram ranked third in total points per 100 possessions. Teams have figured out they can outpace the two by shooting a high volume of threes. Even if the Pelicans shoot within the arc efficiently, it is impossible in today’s NBA to trade two’s for threes.
The offense might be clunky, but the defense is abysmal. Ingram was 163rd in defensive win shares and struggled to defend wings of similar or greater athleticism. His frame also makes him vulnerable when defending in the post, which is disappointing for someone with the length Ingram possesses. Zion is a much better natural defender but has struggled with defensive rotations for a large portion of his career so far.
Because of their shortcomings on the defensive end, the Pelicans finished 23rd in defensive rating. When the tandem struggles to get stops when they’re on the court together, coupled with their offensive flow being outdated at best, the writing should be on the wall.
Ingram is still young and possesses a ceiling of a top 25 player in the league. However, he is not a good fit next to Zion, which matters more than anything else. Exploring potential trade options for Ingram to get Zion a co-star that is more suitable for his game makes too much sense. Due to Ingram’s age and potential, plus other young assets on the roster to sweeten the deal, such as Jaxson Hayes and Kira Lewis, there’s no telling what David Griffin could bring back.
As unpopular as it might be, this would be a way to improve the team and prolong Zion’s stay in the Big Easy.