The Curious Case of Zion

I’m thinking of a number between 1 and 181,000,000. You win if you guessed 181 million. I don’t know about you, but I’m guessing that you will agree that nine digit amounts of money is a lot. I’m guessing that you and I don’t have that much money. I’m also guessing that neither of us would waste that much if we had it. Can we both agree that a person with that kind of cash shouldn’t gamble it or foolishly toss it around?

This is where Zion comes into the equation. Is he a generational talent? Is he a bust? What we know is that he is freakishly athletic, when on the court. We know that he is ultra efficient, when on the court. We know that he will draw crowds that will fill seats, when on the court. This is where the gamble comes in. Are you willing to bet $181 million on him being out there? I’m not, but let’s be honest, I don’t matter. I’m a teacher and married with kids- I haven’t held $181 in my hands in years. The Pelicans, on the other hand, do have the money and the invitation to the high rollers club.

History shows us that such a gamble can work out. Joel Embiid overcame a similar start to his career and has produced MVP caliber seasons. Anthony Davis missed double digit games early on but won a championship with the Lakers. Of course, both of these players have still had injury issues and missed copious amounts of games. Plus, not every situation of early career injuries ends up working out- look at Greg Oden.

The most concerning thing about Zion’s situation is his commitment to the Pelicans. First, his weight has been the target of many articles. I’m not going to say that this is a deal breaker as Shaq struggled with his weight and would show up to season out of shape. Second, his flight to Portland is a little concerning. Zion hasn’t been the most upfront about his injury or his rehab. The lack of disclosure is hard to justify or mitigate.

Yet, none of this truly matters. The Pelicans have to sign him for $181 million. The NBA is a league of stars, and Zion is wildly popular. A failure to sign the extension would alienate fans for the foreseeable future. Luckily, this is actually a good thing. The necessity of signing takes the guesswork and dithering out of the equation. Honestly, the question was never whether or not to extend- the question has always been how to maximize the investment.

My plan, if I was the Pelicans GM, would center solely around getting Zion to sign a deal where the last three years are guaranteed and the first two are dependent on hitting a games threshold. The two years puts pressure on Zion to get healthy and in shape, gets two solid years of play, and minimizes all of the risk for the Pelicans. It also will be more palatable to Zion as he wants a fully guaranteed contract, so two years is a “compromise”. The two years buys time to decide whether Zion was just the victim of bad luck or if he is just a regular on the DL.

The two year window checks a lot of boxes. First, it puts butts into seats. The fan base is happy as the franchise player is out there. Second, the fan base will be more likely to understand a trade if Zion continues to miss time. Third, it gives time for the master plan to come to fruition.

My end game would be to trade Zion down the road for a haul similar to the Anthony Davis deal. Getting 60 games a year would make every team in the league line up and mortgage the farm. Zion is traded at the time when the guaranteed money kicks in and at the time where Zion would start breaking down again. We have now saddled a team with a max contract that will hamper their ability to be free agency movers and given me assets to be a player in the trade market. Based on the examples of Embiid and Davis, it is very likely that Zion will continue to have problems staying healthy in the future. This looks risky right up until Zion goes on the DL (think how the Anthony Davis situation has played out).

The best part is it still allows me to keep Zion if he looks like he is sturdy and engaged. A two year non-guaranteed contract is a no loss situation. Realistically, it is the only responsible thing to do when $181 million dollars is on the line.

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