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Report: Pelicans to offer Zion Williamson large – but not fully guaranteed – contract extension

Pelicans big Zion Williamson

NEW ORLEANS, LOUISIANA - MARCH 15: Zion Williamson #1 of the New Orleans Pelicans stands on the court during the first quarter of an NBA game against the Phoenix Suns at Smoothie King Center on March 15, 2022 in New Orleans, Louisiana. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading and or using this photograph, User is consenting to the terms and conditions of the Getty Images License Agreement. (Photo by Sean Gardner/Getty Images) (Photo by Sean Gardner/Getty Images)

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Zion Williamson said he’d sign a contract extension if the Pelicans offer this offseason: “Of course, I couldn’t sign it fast enough.”

Pelicans lead executive David Griffin said not so fast.

Brian Windhorst of ESPN:

From what I have been told, the Pelicans, at this point, are not willing to offer a full five-year guaranteed deal. And a lot of it is flowing down from ownership. Gayle Benson, the owner, is also the owner of the New Orleans Saints. And I have been told they’re going to take a football-style, Saints-style mentality with this contract negotiation. They will offer him a huge contract but will not guarantee all of it.

Williamson’s max extension projects to be worth $182 million-$195 million over five years (more if Williamson makes an All-NBA team next season).

Windhorst mentioned the possibility of $100 million guaranteed. It’s unclear whether he was reporting that as an amount New Orleans is eying or just speculating.

Joel Embiid set a precedent by signing a max-salary rookie-scale extension that wasn’t fully guaranteed. Like Williamson, Embiid had substantial injury issues his first three seasons. However, Embiid’s deal would have saved the 76ers money only if he missed a certain number of games due to re-injury and Philadelphia waived him. The injuries would have had to be devastating for the 76ers to drop Embiid outright.

Will the Pelicans give Williamson that type of deal? Or will they try to include incentives that allow them to keep Williamson regardless but have his salary fluctuate based on benchmarks? (If including incentives – or paying Williamson less than a max salary – the extension could be for only up to four years.)

There’s obviously a lot to negotiate.

Remember, though, New Orleans has Williamson under contract through next season. If he hits 2023 free agency, the Pelicans can make him restricted, giving them the right to match any offer. New Orleans isn’t at risk of suddenly losing Williamson (though slowly losing Williamson is a worry).

Williamson doesn’t have to accept an extension offer this offseason, either. He could play out next season, hopefully healthier, and bargain from a position of strength next summer.

So, both sides are trying to convince the other this is the right time to lock in – on that side’s desired terms. Which means attempts to gain leverage.

Remember those reports a few years ago Pelicans owner Gayle Benson wouldn’t trade Anthony Davis to the Lakers? New Orleans obviously did trade Davis to the Lakers. So, maybe those reports were just wrong. But it also seems possible she was being used as a bargaining tool. Griffin could tell the Lakers: I really want to trade you Davis, but our owner is opposed, so your offer needs to be even better. The Lakers eventually surrendered a haul for Davis.

Perhaps, Benson really is driving a hard bargain with Williamson. But maybe her purported stance is just a way for Griffin – who has a fragile relationship with Williamson – to play hardball without further alienating the young star. If Benson is willing to play the bad guy, that might help her franchise.

Williamson is too unreliable to depend on with a fully guaranteed max extension. But drawing that conclusion is just the start. Determining how much money to offer Williamson and make him feel good about the organization after what could be contentious negotiations will be bigger challenges.