February 29, 2024

When the New Orleans Pelicans extended the contract of Zion Williamson in July 2022, it was a jubilant moment for the franchise. New Orleans managed to lock up Williamson for five additional years for $197 million, ensuring the star No. 1 overall pick. 1 in 2019, would remain in the city.

The deal itself was significant, with Williamson viewed not only as the key to turning the Pelicans into a contender, but also as an example of a young All-Star willing to sign a long-term deal with a reach small market team. It wasn’t without risk, though — Williamson missed significant parts of his first three years in the NBA, including the entire 2021-22 season. Because of this, the team negotiating large fences linked to Williamson’s health and conditioning in case he has trouble staying on the court.

According to the contract, which was reviewed by The Athletics, the final three years of the deal are no longer guaranteed after Williamson was only able to play in 29 games last season. By missing more than 22 games last season, Williamson triggered a clause that changed the salary he is owed for the 2025-26, 2026-27 and 2027-28 seasons from guaranteed to non-guaranteed. That means the Pelicans have the contractual power to waive Williamson after the 2024-25 season without any financial ramifications — although rival team executives believe this would only happen in extreme circumstances. And if Williamson misses significant time this season, it could cut into his guaranteed salary for 2024-25.

The contract also has ways for Williamson to earn back the guarantees by playing in enough games and hitting specific weigh-ins.

When approached by The Athletics, the Pelicans have repeatedly declined to comment, answer questions about the contract or make Williamson available to speak. Williamson’s agent, Austin Brown, did not return messages seeking comment.

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Williamson, 23, is in the first year of his five-year extension, and his health and availability have quickly become big topics again. He has stayed on the court thus far, playing in 23 of 28 games while averaging an efficient 22 points in 30.5 minutes per game, but his conditioning has been sharply questioned. He looked lethargic in an ugly In-Season Tournament loss to the Lakerswhich prompted TNT’s Charles Barkley and Shaquille O’Neal to criticize himsays he’s out of shape. The New Orleans Times Picayune reported that the team has long questioned Williamson’s work ethic.

The Pelicans guarded themselves against such uncertainty when they reached the extension last year. The complex deal, the key details of which were confirmed by six league sources on condition of anonymity, includes unusual measures taken by the Pelicans to tie guaranteed salary directly to games played.

Except the shift for the last three years of the agreement, Williamson risks losing even more guarantees if he doesn’t hit certain points during regular checks of his weight and body fat. Under the contract, the sum of Williamson’s weight in pounds and his body fat percentage must be less than 295. He was listed as weighing 285 pounds last season, meaning his body fat couldn’t be higher than 10 percent.

The Pelicans also protected themselves in case Williamson had any further significant problems with the fifth metatarsal in his right foot. If he suffers a fracture or a stress injury to that bone or the healed callus, or has what the contract calls a “hardware failure” related to the previous injury there, then half of his base salary for 2024- ’25 would no longer be guaranteed if the team released him.

While the complexity of Williamson’s contract is highly unusual, the NBA has seen contracts that offer teams injury and playing time protection before. Joel Embiid‘s rookie expansion with the Philadelphia 76ers was a max deal that also gave the franchise financial coverage if he gets hurt again after Embiid missed his first two NBA seasons with foot injuries. Jonathan Isaac a four-year extension with the signing Magic that extends through the 2024-25 season, but is only partially guaranteed for this season and non-guaranteed for next season after dealing with a slew of injuries during his first three years.

Williamson’s deal is much more layered in comparison.

Williamson said he worked on his body this offseason after building a plan with the Pelicans. He realized, he said, that he had to change his routine. Williamson said on a podcast hosted by former NBA star Gilbert Arenas this summer that he is focusing on flexibility and band work, and ways to stay on the court longer. LeBron James, he said, serves as a blueprint; James is known to spend huge amounts of money every year on his health and conditioning and remains dominant at 38.

Before this season began, Pelicans president of basketball operations David Griffin, who declined to be interviewed for this story, said the franchise had finally seen Williamson commit wholeheartedly to his health.

“This was the first summer where we saw Zion really take his profession so seriously and invest it on his own off the court in a way that I think is meaningful,” Griffin said in October. He added: “He found a level of commitment that was important.”

Four executives from other NBA teams, who spoke on condition of anonymity so they could discuss Williamson’s arrangement, said the Pelicans were unlikely to waive him unless the situation worsened significantly. However, the contract provisions give the team flexibility and a safety net, and could make it easier to trade Williamson because potential partners would have escapes that could lower the risk of adding his salary to their ledger.

There are also ways for Williamson to get portions of, or even all of, his salary re-guaranteed. Twenty percent of his salary for the 2025-26 season will be guaranteed if he passes all six of his weigh-in points during the 2024-25 season, another 40 percent if he plays in at least 41 games in 2024-25 and a additional 20 percent if he plays in at least 51. The final 20 percent is guaranteed again if he plays in at least 61 games. He can also re-guarantee portions of his salary for the 2026-27 and 2027-28 seasons by reaching the same milestones in the previous seasons.

There are also a number of vesting dates in the agreement that bind the team and the player together.

Williamson’s contract for the 2024-25 season is fully guaranteed as long as the Pelicans do not waive him on or before January 7 of that season. His 2025-26 salary is 100 percent protected as long as he is not waived on or before July 15, 2025. His 2026-27 compensation is 100 percent protected as long as he is not waived on or before July 15, 2026. And the final season’s salary is 100 percent guaranteed as long as Williamson is not waived on or before July 15, 2027.

For the Pelicans, the contract provisions protect against worst-case scenarios. But both sides would clearly prefer to see Williamson play out his contract and dominate — and get paid well. Williamson was also invested.

“Whether people believe it or not, being on the sideline, man, it hurt me more than anything,” Williamson said of the missing playing time, speaking on the Arenas co-hosted podcast. “I just want to hoop.”

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(Photo: Christian Petersen / Getty Images)


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