June 15, 2024

Don’t trade Brandon Ingram: Why Pelicans keeping him is smartest move for both

NEW ORLEANS — Amid their most successful season as pros, Zion Williamson and Brandon Ingram both got a taste of what rock-bottom feels like.

Williamson’s experience came in December after the New Orleans Pelicans suffered a 44-point loss to the Los Angeles Lakers in the semifinals of the NBA’s inaugural In-Season Tournament. At that point, it was the biggest NBA stage Williamson had ever played on, and he and his squad turned in a massive flop.

As a result, the face of the franchise dealt with a tidal wave of scrutiny from fans and media alike about his physical fitness, commitment to winning and capabilities as a leader. After the season, he admitted it was “one of those things I needed to experience” because “I didn’t look at anybody else. I looked at myself.”

He got in better shape, improved his focus and played the best basketball of his career down the final stretch of the regular season before suffering a hamstring injury in the Pelicans’ Play-In Tournament loss to the Lakers. Above all, he responded to adversity as stars are expected to do.

Now, it’s Ingram’s turn to dig himself out of a similar hole.

His rock-bottom moment came during the Pelicans’ first-round sweep at the hands of the top-seeded Oklahoma City Thunder. While Ingram was out of rhythm after returning from a knee injury that sidelined him for a month before the start of the playoffs, his performance in that series was his worst stretch in a Pelicans uniform. In four games against Oklahoma City, he averaged 14.3 points and 3.3 assists while shooting 34.5 percent from the floor. He made Thunder forward Luguentz Dort look like the greatest defender ever.

After Ingram’s ineffectiveness against one of the Western Conference’s top teams — now and in the future — it took no time for questions to start popping up about his future. With Ingram entering the final season of his current contract, those whispers turned into alarm sirens. Add in Pelicans Executive Vice President of Basketball Operations David Griffin saying “this is not going to be a summer of complacency” for the Pelicans, and all eyes turned to Ingram, given his contract situation, recent struggles and Williamson’s ascension. There’s no question the Pelicans need to make some changes to the roster, and their best way to add a significant piece is to move Ingram in a trade this summer.



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But I have one question for everyone who has been so active on the trade machine over the past month: Is there a way for the Pelicans to trade Ingram and come away from that deal a better team than they were with the group that won 49 games this season?

I’m not convinced.

While the Ingram-Williamson duo has been far from perfect since each arrived in the summer of 2018, they showed their potential this season as a tandem once they finally were healthy enough to play together for extended stretches. They looked even more dangerous once Williamson locked in during the second half of the season, at least until Ingram’s bone bruise in late March.

Lineups featuring those two with some combination of Herb Jones, Trey Murphy III, Dyson Daniels and Naji Marshall made New Orleans long, athletic and one of the league’s most disruptive defensive units. Even though they looked so outmatched against OKC without Williamson, these pieces can make New Orleans a tough playoff matchup for anyone if the ever get their star to suit up in the postseason.

While Williamson is expected to be featured more often as the primary ballhandler going into next season, having a No. 2 option like Ingram who can score and, increasingly, create for teammates in one-on-one situations is invaluable. This is the same guy who averaged 27 points per game in the playoffs against a Suns team that won 64 games in 2022.

Even though Ingram was awful against the Thunder in this year’s postseason, assuming he’s the wrong guy to put next to Williamson long-term seems shortsighted after all the progress he’s shown in previous seasons.

Keeping him around will be complicated. Ingram, who turns 27 in September, is eligible for a four-year, $208 million extension this summer. Considering their current and future financial situation, the Pelicans are unlikely to offer him that maximum deal this offseason, league sources tell The Athletic.

With Murphy also hoping to sign a lucrative extension with New Orleans this summer, having Ingram and Murphy on the books with new deals, along with the combined $84 million owed to Williamson, McCollum and Jones in 2025-26, would almost certainly make the Pelicans a luxury tax team in the 2025-26 season no matter how they fill out the rest of the roster. This franchise hasn’t paid the luxury tax in its 22-year existence.

Still, Ingram’s role as a stabilizing presence on and off the floor, especially amid past drama surrounding Williamson’s injuries and relationship to the organization, has been integral in players like Murphy, Jones and Jose Alvarado blossoming into key contributors. Removing Ingram from the locker room would represent a massive shake-up for a young team still working to find itself.



Brandon Ingram faces his toughest opponent: himself

And, again, it’s hard to see how any of the potential Ingram deals often suggested in recent weeks return a player of his caliber to improve New Orleans on the court.

In any Ingram deal, the Pelicans would likely be looking to address the two biggest holes on the roster: center and point guard. Center is the more immediate need with Jonas Valančiūnas likely leaving in unrestricted free agency, but New Orleans could only replace Ingram’s offensive production if it added a dynamic guard to play next to Williamson. The only issue is there aren’t a lot of great fits out there for the Pelicans to pursue.

New Orleans was in talks with the Atlanta Hawks and Cleveland Cavaliers leading into the trade deadline this past season, and they seem like obvious fits for a potential Ingram trade. Both teams have accomplished young guards and bigs that could be available for the right deal, and while the two teams were separated by 13 games in the standings, both are looking for a change after tumultuous finishes to their seasons.

A deal with Cleveland centered around Darius Garland and Jarrett Allen would fill both of New Orleans’ biggest needs with young All-Star talents, but would Cleveland be willing to give up both to get a package centered around Ingram? Meanwhile, getting just one of them back in an Ingram deal wouldn’t be as appealing to New Orleans. While Garland has shown the potential to make a considerable jump on a team that provides him more on-ball responsibility, he may not get that wish playing next to Williamson. Also, having Garland, McCollum, Alvarado and Jordan Hawkins in the same backcourt would make the Pelicans tiny and defensively challenged on the perimeter.

Any deal with the Hawks is more likely to center around Dejounte Murray than Trae Young. Young is still owed north of $137 million on his contract over the next three seasons, so swapping Young and Ingram does nothing to solve the Pelicans’ financial hurdles. Plus, there are cultural concerns with replacing a locker room mainstay in Ingram with a dominant on-court presence like Young.

Murray’s length and athleticism fits with the attributes the Pelicans have prioritized on the perimeter, and his contract (four years and $114 million total, including a player option for 2027-28) fits more cleanly into New Orleans’ future salary structure. However, Murray’s marriage with Young in Atlanta has been mostly sporadic because, like Garland, he is much more comfortable playing in a system that gives him freedom to control the ball. How good would he be in New Orleans if he’s asked to function in an offense that runs through Williamson most of the game?

A move with Atlanta centered around Murray and either 23-year-old backup center Onyeka Okongwu (who just signed a four-year, $62 million extension) or 31-year-old starter Clint Capela (who will be owed $22.3 million in 2024-25 in the final year of his contract) would be much more cost-friendly. But it’s hard to sell the idea that a team whose second option is Murray, McCollum or Murphy is a genuine threat in the loaded West. Even if the pieces fit together slightly better, the playoffs are all about talent. A deal like that is a talent downgrade to avoid the luxury tax.

Could Minnesota’s Karl-Anthony Towns be an option after his lackluster showing late in the Timberwolves’ playoff run? Even if Towns was, swapping Ingram for him would require a huge financial commitment from the Pelicans, as Towns still has more than $159 million guaranteed on his contract over the next three seasons.

If anything, the Timberwolves offer a case study in patience considering their success in making the Western Conference finals this season.

The Timberwolves are another franchise that has historically avoided the luxury tax at all costs, but they have thus far committed to their current group despite owing more than $174 million to the top six players on the roster next season. They could’ve moved Towns last summer after a disappointing 2022-23 season to avoid being in this current cost predicament. Instead, they believed in the talent on the roster and it paid off with their most successful season in two decades.



The Timberwolves face a fraught financial future, but it might be worth it

There’s no guarantee that keeping Ingram and Williamson together for another season will result in anything more than another first-round exit. However, the past few seasons have repeatedly shown the value of continuity and positional versatility in the playoffs. Ingram brings both.

One risk in the Pelicans keeping Ingram is that they won’t find a contract extension number that suits both parties. Then, Ingram could decide to leave in free agency in 2025 or angle to be traded to a franchise willing to make a financial commitment to him that New Orleans may be reluctant to do.

But Ingram and the Pelicans have been working to build something for the past five seasons. Last year, before the late-season injuries to Ingram and Williamson, all that hard work was finally yielding the success this fan base has craved for years. If Ingram and the Pelicans ignored that progress and pulled the plug at this juncture, it would feel like a mistake by both sides.

Unless there’s a clear path to upgrading the roster, trading Ingram is a bad idea for the Pelicans.

(Top photo: Stephen Lew / USA Today)