The Zion Apocalypse Pt.1

Updated: September 30, 2021
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There have been speculations surrounding physical phenom Zion Williamson and his future as a New Orleans Pelican. The whispers are linked to reports that his camp is discontent with the franchise and how they have built around the projected future MVP thus far. As of last week, the new rumors are that if New Orleans fails to make the postseason or even if they look like a non-playoff team by the deadline that a trade demand may be issued on Zion’s behalf. Similar to the Ben Simmons saga in Philly, the ramifications of how things play out will not be isolated to this specific situation. For Simmons, no player has ever demanded a trade with 4 years left on a max deal, and for Zion, there has never been a player to leave the cash on the table for a rookie Max extension.

The way that the contract process has been structured was created specifically that accepting the rookie max extension was essentially mandatory. The purpose was to allow small-market teams to retain a player for the first 7 years after they were drafted, regardless of a player’s New York or LA aspirations. Zion could change all of this if he is willing to leave New Orleans and a guaranteed 175 million dollar 5-year deal. With the 30% escalation clause he presumably would have built into the contract, if he were to make an All-NBA team and remain healthy, that contract would translate into 5 years 210 million. If Zion opted to decline this massive salary and instead sign his 17-million-dollar qualifying offer for the 2023/24 season, in 2024/25 season he would become an unrestricted free agent and be able to sign a max elsewhere. To complete this process though, it would be this year and the next he would miss out on nearly half the salary he would have been guaranteed if he took his max-extension.

If Williamson and his camp were able to force a trade to another franchise, he would give up his bird rights and the ability to receive his max extension, and would only be eligible for a 4-year 95 million dollar deal. No player has ever turned down the bag, and for good reason, you can never get back what you leave on the table if an injury occurs. Zion being an injury-prone player from the jump is probably not the player to test these waters, especially with recent reports of a foot surgery this offseason. However, with his off-court endorsements, economically he is the ideal candidate.

Especially considering that, if Zion were to be in New York, LA, and quite frankly any actual contender, he has the potential to become not only the face of a franchise but the NBA itself. That simply will never happen with him playing in New Orleans. Especially with how they have operated this offseason with letting Lonzo Ball go for virtually nothing and failing to sign any above-average free agents unless Zion averages 30+ this season, it is hard to even imagine the Pels making the playoffs. It is an easier story to envision where Zion does average 30 and they still fail to make it to the postseason.

It is understandable why Zion’s camp would rather have him build his legacy elsewhere, especially since with his body type and freakish explosion, these next handful of years may actually be his prime rather than the usually 26-31 developmental progression that most players go through. It is not unreasonable that he is able to do so with the fact that he has so much access to off-court endorsements, and they would only grow in a bigger market. However, like we started this conversation with, this would be the first domino to fall that would alter not only how rookie contracts are viewed, but more importantly the totality of the draft pick system that the NBA GM framework is dependent on. If this precedence is set, what is to stop Cade Cunningham 3 years from now forcing his way to New York or Los Angeles? And more importantly, if this becomes a normalized option, what exactly is the value of say the Milwaukee pick to New Orleans in 2027, even if it were to end up being the 1st pick in the draft? Or the 2027 Brooklyn pick owed to the Houston Rockets. If this domino falls, does that devalue these future assets for small market teams?

In part two of this discussion, I will argue that simply isn’t the case. The value that is created by a player who has so much clout he can give up the rookie max extension can be traded for such a substantial trade package, that even if it was the plan to make a player the face of their franchise when this plan fails, the treasure chest of assets he fetches in a trade is a success in itself.

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