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Report: Zion Williamson’s issues with Pelicans started with rookie season rehab

Golden State Warriors v New Orleans Pelicans

NEW ORLEANS, LOUISIANA - MAY 04: Zion Williamson #1 of the New Orleans Pelicans dribbles the ball downn court during the fourth quarter of an NBA game against the Golden State Warriors at Smoothie King Center on May 04, 2021 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)

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Throughout last season, there was smoke coming out of New Orleans that Zion Williamson was frustrated with the Pelicans and that his relationship with the franchise was frayed. Or worse. Maybe Zion’s agents at CAA were throwing fuel on that fire, but there was undoubtedly something to all the heat.

That troubled relationship with the Pelicans and GM David Griffin goes back to Williamson’s injury his rookie year, according to a fantastic bit of reporting in the Times-Picayune by Christian Clark. And a lot of blame is laid at the feet of Griffin.

Throughout his rookie season, Williamson had grown increasingly frustrated with the Pelicans for the number of hoops they required him to jump through to return from the knee injury he suffered in the preseason. The team initially provided a return-to-play timetable of six to eight weeks, but it took more than three months for Williamson to get back on the floor. When he was finally given the thumbs up to play, he was placed on “burst” limits, which he detested. The way Williamson’s return was handled caused significant tension between him and the team’s medical staff, sources said.

Williamson’s relationship with Griffin had also begun to sour. Although they communicate infrequently now, Griffin tried hard in Williamson’s rookie year to forge a bond. One example: During the Pelicans’ bubble stay, Griffin asked to meet with Williamson and played the piano for him.

Griffin was brought into New Orleans because of the success in building Cleveland on his resume (building a team LeBron wanted to return to and could win a ring), and he walked in the door talking about a culture change in the Big Easy. He quickly got the team as good a deal as possible in the Anthony Davis trade, and with the No. 1 pick in Zion, there was a real chance to build something special. Everyone bought in, including coach Alvin Gentry.But inside the Pelicans offices, that positive start quickly faded, according to the new report, and there is plenty of staff that are not fans of Griffin (enough that some are talking to reporters like Clark).

Then-coach Alvin Gentry told several people around him, “This is going to be great.” Within months, however, Griffin began blaming Gentry for the Pelicans’ poor start. Once, on a road trip, Griffin was approached by someone he hadn’t spoken to in weeks. Unprompted, Griffin said: “I give Alvin all the answers to the test, and he still fails.” It’s unclear whether Gentry knew of this exchange. He declined to comment.

That Griffin sometimes contradicted his own sunny vision caused a segment of team employees to actively dislike him. When “The Last Dance” documentary aired in April 2020, some staffers began referring to Griffin as “Griff Krause” in a group text. It was a reference to Jerry Krause, the NBA executive who dismantled the 1997-98 Chicago Bulls after they’d won a third straight championship.

This feels a lot like an echo of the Anthony Davis era in New Orleans, where botched attempts to build around a No. 1 pick and top-five talent led to an ugly breakup down the line. Zion will be on his third coach in three seasons this year (Willie Green gets a deserved shot), Devonte’ Graham is in at the point, Jonas Valanciunas is a better fit at center, and this feels like a solid but not special team. The fit between Zion and Brandon Ingram remains a question. And the team’s star and GM not seeing eye-to-eye is unquestionably a concern.

There is reason for CAA to fuel the fire — Zion will be extension eligible next offseason, and he is a clear max player ($181 over give years) despite the injury concerns (maybe he gets a Joel Embiid style max with games played incentives to hit that number). However, only the Pelicans can give him the most money, unless he is traded on this rookie contract before any extension is signed.

Expect more Zion rumors this season, especially if the team struggles on the court out of the gate. That said, don’t expect a trade, that is not on the table. The most likely scenario is Zion signs an extension with the Pelicans next summer, but a shorter one — maybe three seasons, then a player option — to line up better with when money from the new television deal kicks in, likely spiking the salary cap. Some people think Zion might be the first player to play out his rookie contract, not sign an extension, take the qualifying offer in his fifth season ($17.6 million) and bet on his health and that Nike shoe money to get him out of town. Maybe. But so far no player has ever done that, while $17.6 million is a lot of money, it is not the generational wealth of $181 money and so far no player has left that max money on the table for a reason. Agents don’t advise clients to take that kind of a financial risk.

Expect the Zion rumors to continue, and expect David Griffin’s seat to get hot if the Pelicans struggle again this season.