The Long Two: Will Kings and Pelicans win-now moves pay off?

Indiana Pacers, NBA, NBA Trade Rumors, New Orleans Pelicans, Portland Trail Blazers, Sacramento Kings

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Both the Sacramento Kings and New Orleans Pelicans took bold swings head of the NBA trade deadline, but where will those moves ultimately take them?

Both the blessing and the curse of building around someone like Zion Williamson is the urgency he places upon the present. A player this dominant, this soon with this kind of injury history all but mandates his team to do all it can to maximize his best years before he either can’t play at the same level or doesn’t want to do it in New Orleans.

That thinking surely motivated the Pelicans’ decision to trade for CJ McCollum, Larry Nance Jr. and Tony Snell this week, giving the Pelicans a more competitive roster around Williamson and Brandon Ingram but shortening that roster’s shelf life as a potential threat in the Western Conference.

Will the Pelicans win enough to change Zion Williamson’s mind?

The deal cost New Orleans Josh Hart, Nickeil Alexander-Walker (later traded to the Jazz), Tomas Satoransky (later dealt to the Spurs), Didi Louzada, a first-round draft pick and two second-round picks. That’s a fairly steep price for a 30-year-old combo guard on a near-max contract, a big man dealing with nagging injuries and a potentially washed swingman, but these sorts of swings at rapidly improving the roster typically require front offices to sacrifice more than they would have to in longer rebuilds.

McCollum is a far better shooter than anyone the Pelicans gave up to get him, and he gives New Orleans the kind of reliable floor spacing and secondary creation on the perimeter it hadn’t been able to put around Williamson. Nance theoretically offers a combination of secondary playmaking, floor spacing and defensive versatility that could perfectly complement Williamson’s strengths and weaknesses, though he’s currently unavailable after undergoing knee surgery.

Assuming Zion comes back anything like his old self, the Pelicans have the makings of an offense that could realistically crack the league’s top five if all goes smoothly. McCollum’s silky jump-shooting should mesh well with Williamson’s punishing interior offense (not to mention Devonte’ Graham’s court-stretching shooting or Jonas Valanciunas’s bruising post game), and Nance can be a useful connector who moves the offense from one advantage to the next.

Williamson is a generational paint scorer whose pressure at the rim warps opposing defenses in ways no other big man in the league can. That should allow McCollum, who isn’t particularly interested in getting to the rim, to work from his preferred spots on the floor without the pressure of additional defenders swarming him. Pick-and-roll and dribble-handoff actions between McCollum and Williamson could prove incredibly difficult to guard, and the Pelicans should feast on kick-out 3s when Williamson collapses defenses.

McCollum’s arrival might leave Ingram in a slightly precarious spot once Williamson comes back, though Ingram is a good enough shooter and passer to operate as a co-secondary option and gives Willie Green a readymade creator to lead second units. If anything, playing next to another elite shooter and ball-handler could spare Ingram some of the difficult shots that have dragged down his scoring efficiency this season.

That best-case scenario, however, feels pretty distant at the moment. The Pelicans are currently 24th in the NBA in net rating, with a bottom-six offense and a below-average defense. McCollum and Nance almost certainly make New Orleans better in the short term, but do they change the team’s trajectory enough to justify the opportunity cost? Would the Pelicans have been better off waiting and using the assets they gave up for McCollum — who is due to make $100 million over the next three seasons — on someone else?

As valuable as shot creation can be in the playoffs, there’s a chance that Williamson, McCollum and Ingram’s ball-dominant games become duplicative and leave one of the three slightly marginalized, and none of the three are positive defenders. Nance will be on the shelf for the next six weeks, and there currently isn’t a timetable for Williamson to return; this team’s ceiling depends heavily on the health and fit of injury-prone players, one of whom will be 31 by the time this core has its first shot of winning a playoff series.

It’s impossible to predict these outcomes without the clarity Williamson’s return will bring, but this was undoubtedly a significant gamble by the Pelicans. Yet given all of the factors at play, maybe they couldn’t afford to play it safe.

And then there are the Sacramento Kings…

The Sacramento Kings, arguably the NBA’s most myopic franchise, failed to see what was right in front of them. Trading Tyrese Haliburton to Indiana (along with Buddy Hield and Tristan Thompson) in the middle of just his second NBA season is, on its own, a bit odd; rebuilding teams don’t typically cut bait with lottery picks this early in their careers, especially ones having such promising sophomore seasons. But considering what Sacramento received in return — Domantas Sabonis, Jeremy Lamb, Justin Holiday and a second-round draft pick — the deal becomes almost inexplicable.

Haliburton, at age 21, is already a dynamic offensive player both on and off the ball. He has become one of the NBA’s preeminent pull-up shooters and pick-and-roll scorers, an excellent shooter off the catch and a canny passer in both scripted and improvisational actions. Perhaps most importantly, he’ll be under team control through at least the 2028 season. That isn’t to say Haliburton is a surefire superstar, or even a future All-Star; he remains a below-average defender, he doesn’t have much of a left hand and the Kings have in fact been worse with him on the floor this season than with him off.

But while Haliburton may never be the centerpiece of an elite team, he’s exactly the kind of versatile threat an organization should want alongside its best player. At the very worst, he’ll complement whatever offensive catalyst he plays next to, and even provide passable primary creation when necessary. Players like that don’t usually join teams like the Pacers on their own, and Indiana was smart to pounce on the opportunity to acquire a key long-term piece when it could.

Sacramento, meanwhile, remains stuck in the same place it’s been for well over a decade. Sabonis is a rock-solid big man whose high-post passing and interior scoring will take the Kings’ offense in new and interesting directions, but he neither gives the team short-term relevance nor points it in any clear long-term direction. He’s four years Haliburton’s senior, a trickier fit with the current Kings roster and a potential unrestricted free agent in 2024, and frankly isn’t a good enough offensive floor-raiser to make Sacramento more than a play-in team.

Both his and De’Aaron Fox’s inability to stretch the floor could cramp the Kings’ halfcourt offense (recall that Hield, the Kings’ best shooter, was also traded to Indiana). Lamb and Holiday will help assuage some of those fit concerns, as will Harrison Barnes’ flexible offensive game, but none of those players, Sabonis included, is likely to make the Kings meaningfully better than they were on Monday.

These are the kinds of “win-now” moves that have repeatedly kept Sacramento from reaching even the modest heights to which it aspires. The franchise continues to prioritize a present that isn’t good enough over a potentially bright future in pursuit of the elusive playoff appearance they keep pushing out of their own reach. The more desperate Kings owner Vivek Ranadivé and his front office become, the more they undercut their own success, and the refusal to properly invest in a young core of players has left Sacramento pivoting between ill-conceived, unsuccessful runs at mediocrity.

Tuesday’s short-sighted trade will likely extend the team’s 15-year playoff drought, but even if the Kings manage to crack the play-in tournament this season — or even make the playoffs — is that fleeting short-term gain worth the hard ceiling they have now imposed upon themselves? Is this roster set up for sustainable success? Is there more than a three percent chance that Sacramento develops into even a fringe championship contender in the next five years?

The answers to those questions, by now, are obvious to everyone but the people that should be asking them.

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