Parting ways with Stan Van Gundy after just one season is not the biggest problem facing the New Orleans Pelicans. They have been unable to put together the right elements to make rising star Zion Williamson and his family happy, and multiple sources have told The Athletic that certain family members want Williamson on another team.
For months, sources from all NBA corners have pointed to the Pelicans as a heap of dysfunction. There was a growing unease between Van Gundy and his players, and Van Gundy and the New Orleans front office, which came to a head Wednesday with the veteran coach and organization agreeing to part ways with three years left on his contract. Most of the attention, however, from numerous sources across the league, has centered on Williamson’s family members’ thinly veiled unhappiness with the Pelicans, and whether those feelings seeped into the player’s own views.
At his end of season press conference, his frustrations were made evident. “It’s disappointing. I’d be lying to you if I said anything else,” Williamson said, when addressing the team’s performance this year. “It’s very disappointing. But the best thing we can do is regroup, come together as a team, come together as coaches this offseason, talk and do what we need to do to be better next year. It’s not much to it, we just gotta be better.”
The Pelicans control Williamson’s contract situation for at least three more years after making him the No. 1 overall pick of the 2019 draft. Those who know Williamson well say he just wants to win and compete at the highest level. They say he remains focused on basketball and helping New Orleans win next season. Over his first two seasons, Williamson has already established himself as an All-Star forward whose affable, carefree and passionate style on the court makes him a fan-favorite. A franchise that three seasons ago had to deal with Anthony Davis’ trade demands, which began with grumblings from Davis’ father, the Pelicans know not to misread the tea leaves here. No one as young and as inexperienced as Williamson has tried to force their way out via trade before. Across the league, however, it has become common practice among veteran NBA stars to do just that.
During the training camp portion of the NBA’s season restart at Disney last season, Williamson was dealing with a minor leg injury, to the point where it had forced him out of portions of Pelicans practice. Shortly after that, he left the bubble for what both the team and player would only say was an “urgent family medical matter.” Neither the team nor family ever disclosed what the issue was. Two sources with knowledge of Zion’s absence said there was an issue, but questioned the urgency to leave the bubble, which kept him away from the team for about a week.
The Pels made changes to their support staff to fit Williamson’s wishes over the offseason, and he returned in much better physical condition. But for most of this season, certain Williamson family members voiced displeasure with the organization. Among the targets of their criticism was Van Gundy, who they felt was too rigid and demanding as head coach, but also with the organization, which they claim did not live up to what they felt should be the standard for a star like Williamson. Numerous opposing league executives had heard the complaints, and they were confirmed by Pelicans officials.
When the Pels traded J.J. Redick to Dallas in March, it not only upset Redick but also is said to have irritated Williamson. Redick had asked to either be traded before the season or to stay in New Orleans all season for family reasons and proceeded to blast the organization and executive vice president of basketball operations David Griffin on his podcast after the trade. Redick was a veteran with whom Williamson had grown comfortable in their two seasons together, and the dysfunction Redick accused the Pelicans of harboring is said to have stoked some of Williamson’s own feelings with regards to the direction of the franchise.