Through 15 games this season, the New Orleans Pelicans had just the 18th most efficient offense in the NBA. Then, they made a revolutionary tactical adjustment: have your best player do more things.
During his rookie season, Zion Williamson possessed the ball for an average of 1.4 minutes a game, per Second Spectrum. In December and January of this season, he averaged 2.1 minutes of possession time. Over his last 15 games, that number has spiked to 3.5 minutes.
In 2020, New Orleans used Williamson like a traditional big man. By finishing lobs, soaking up offensive rebounds for putbacks and ranking among the top 10 players in post-ups per game, he led the league in points per game within five feet of the basket.
Recently, the Pelicans have asked the power forward to play more like a traditional guard, having him initiate pick-and-rolls using his dribble and dish to teammates. He’s averaging 4.7 assists since January 29, up from just 1.9 prior to that date.
Putting the ball in Williamson’s hands has also opened new scoring avenues for him. Last season, Williamson finished fewer than 10 plays as a pick-and-roll ball handler. This season, he’s already up to 74 and ranks in the 90th percentile for points scored per possession on these plays.
Over their last 20 games, the Pelicans have scored 123.2 per 100 possessions, second behind only the vaunted Brooklyn Nets’ three-headed monster, and that is in large part thanks to Williamson, who was rewarded with a spot in Sunday night’s All-Star Game.
The Pelicans’ approach with Williamson is representative of a larger trend. Teams are relying on their All-Stars to generate an unprecedented percentage of their offensive production. Big men are no longer just paint scorers; they’re expected to serve as offensive hubs around which their teammates revolve. Look no further than this year’s Eastern Conference frontcourt All-Stars. The Pacers’ Domantas Sabonis, the Knicks’ Julius Randle, the Nets’ Kevin Durant and the Bucks’ Giannis Antetokoumpo are each averaging more than five assists per game.
The trend is so extreme in the Western Conference that it’s befuddling those who prescribe to rigid definitions of basketball positions. LeBron James was listed as a forward for All-Star voting purposes, but he led the NBA in assists last season and has possessed the ball more than any other frontcourt player this season, causing the website Basketball Reference to list him as a point guard. Meanwhile, the Nuggets’ Nikola Jokic is assisting on a higher percentage of his teammates’ baskets than any center ever has in a single season.
All-Stars are shouldering much more of their teams’ offensive loads than they used to. This is apparent when looking at two statistics: usage rate, the percentage of team possessions that result in a scoring attempt or a turnover by a player while he’s on the court, and assist percentage, an estimate of the percentage of teammates’ baskets that a player assists while he’s on the court. Both metrics measure how involved a player is in his team’s offense.
The average usage rate and the average assist percentage of NBA All-Stars have been steadily rising over the past quarter of a century.
On the court, the NBA is an increasingly star-driven league. Off the court, though, All-Stars’ salaries have not seen growth commensurate with their increased on-court responsibilities until this season.
The average 2021 All-Star is earning $27.6 million this season, or 21.3% of the average team payroll of $129.4 million. That’s the second highest percentage since 1997, the season Michael Jordan signed a famous one-year, $30.1 million deal with the Chicago Bulls that exceeded the entire payrolls of 21 teams and is partially responsible for the spike on the left side of the chart below.
Shortly after this period of ballooning contracts—Patrick Ewing also made 76% of the league’s salary cap in Jordan’s final season—the collective bargaining agreement (CBA) that ended the 1999 NBA lockout set a limit on individual player salaries. Players were eligible to earn either 25%, 30% or 35% of the salary cap depending on their years of experience in the league. Subsequently, the share of teams’ overall payrolls that went to All-Stars decreased, reaching a nadir in 2002 and 2003.
Since then, All-Star salaries relative to team payrolls have fluctuated, but largely remained steady, as rules regarding maximum salaries have changed minimally. The most significant change was the “supermax” provision in the 2017 CBA (officially called the “Designated Veteran Player Extension”), which allows teams to sign their own players who are entering their eighth or ninth season for up to 35% of the cap, if the player meets certain criteria. Steph Curry signed the first “supermax” deal in 2017, and five others have followed suit.
Antetokoumpo’s and Damian Lillard’s “supermax” contracts kick in next season, so the average compensation for All-Stars should rise again in 2021-22 if those two are given nods as expected. Although the original intent for the “supermax” deal was to incentivize players to re-sign with their current teams, it may also have the consequence of boosting salaries for the league’s brightest stars as teams trend towards heliocentric offenses.
Like other All-Stars, Williamson has assumed more responsibilities on the court, but he’ll have to wait for that bigger paycheck. He is the 119th highest-paid player in the NBA, and in just the second season of his four-year rookie deal.