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Three Things to Know: After latest Zion recovery setback, what is next for Pelicans?

Memphis Grizzlies v New Orleans Pelicans

NEW ORLEANS, LOUISIANA - NOVEMBER 13: Zion Williamson #1 of the New Orleans Pelicans stands on the court prior to the start of a NBA game against the Memphis Grizzlies at Smoothie King Center on November 13, 2021 in New Orleans, Louisiana. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading and or using this photograph, User is consenting to the terms and conditions of the Getty Images License Agreement. (Photo by Sean Gardner/Getty Images)

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Three Things is NBC’s five-days-a-week wrap-up of the night before in the NBA. Check out every weekday morning to catch up on what you missed the night before plus the rumors, drama, and dunks going that make the NBA great.

1) After latest Zion recovery setback, what is next for Pelicans?

We’re not going to see Zion Williamson on the court anytime soon.

This latest setback feels ominous — as in “will we see him on the court this season?” ominous. Or “will we see him in a Pelicans’ jersey again?” ominous.

Hopefully, the answer to both of those questions is yes. Over the weekend, the Pelicans announced a setback in Zion’s recovery and that the “volume and intensity of his training will be reduced for an extended period.” That’s vague phrasing, but there is no timeline — it certainly is possible Zion will return to the court this season. You can also see a path to how he does not. His fifth metatarsal (the bone connecting the little toe and the ankle) is not healing the way doctors want, so they are scaling back his workouts. That is not an area of the foot with good blood flow, and recovery can be slow. There are still four months of NBA regular season left, is that enough time?

For the sake of basketball fans everywhere, hopefully we see Zion on the court this season because when he has played he has lived up to the nearly impossible billing he had coming into the league (25.7 points, 7 rebounds and 3.2 assists a game on average, and last season proving he could be a point-forward and hub of the offense).

However, the reports of tension between Zion’s camp and the Pelicans are legitimate, multiple sources have told NBC Sports. Whether that tension is with president/GM David Griffin or the medical staff or the franchise as a whole is a matter for speculation — because Zion doesn’t talk publicly. And because, in his desire for personal privacy, there is not a well-coordinated string of sourced leaks and reports letting the fan base know and understand his thinking. He expressed his love for New Orleans on media day — the last time he spoke — but that was also the day he said he expected to play on opening night. Since then, it’s been radio silence. That’s not to say Zion has been a recluse. According to reports in local papers, he has been seen around New Orleans, and good luck finding anyone who has dealt with him personally who has a bad thing to say about the man. He is friendly and genuine by all accounts.

If he’s frustrated with the Griffin or the organization, he can get in line with the Pelicans fan base. New Orleans is 8-21, dead last in the Western Conference, with a bottom-five offense and defense — the roster built to go around Zion isn’t very good. How far could a healthy, in shape, peak Zion have lifted this roster? The play-in games? Even that may be optimistic.

Things around Zion feel ominous in part because we’ve seen this movie before: New Orleans fails to build a good roster around a superstar level player and he eventually bolts. New Orleans needs to avoid a sequel.

The latest setback in his recovery means the Pelicans have some decisions to make.

In the short term, the team needs to make roster decisions looking ahead to next season and beyond. Who plays and how much — more Herb Jones, more Jaxson Hayes or Kira Lewis Jr. if it helps them develop — experimenting with lineup combinations, and even who could get traded (and for what) are decisions to be made looking through a prism of what is best for next season and beyond. That doesn’t mean tank this season, but at this point reality says even the play-in is out of reach, don’t make decisions based on a fantasy run to those games.

Also, Zion owes the Pelicans more. He needs to be in shape, dedicated to and diligent with his rehab, and he needs to get back on the court as soon as he can. If Zion’s defenders and the people around him want to say “he has done that,” then he needs to show those things. Zion needs to come out of his protective bubble.

Then next summer, Zion is eligible for a contract extension to his rookie deal. No. 1 picks traditionally end up with a max extension — which in his case would be five years, $181 million, with the potential to go higher if he made an All-NBA Team next season — but this has been anything but a traditional situation.

Do the Pelicans put the five-year max extension in front of him? Yes. Almost certainly. The potential for loss is too great not to. This is akin to the Joel Embiid situation: Despite all the time lost to injury (he had played 31 games in three years), Philadelphia realized his potential and put the max in front of Embiid (with a few very specific injury exceptions) and hoped he would grow into the player that deserved it. He has. New Orleans would be betting on the same basic scenario.

Will Zion sign that deal? Or will he become the first player to turn down a max extension, trying to force his way out of New Orleans with a trade? Those are good questions, and speculation is all we have on that front.

But even without Zion on the court, the next seven months in his future could be very, very interesting.

2) Who is your MVP? Kevin Durant drops season-high 51 in Nets win

ESPN’s Tim Bontemps recently completed his first straw poll on the MVP race, polling a group of 100 media members with a similar make up to the actual voters. The results: Stephen Curry is the runaway early leader.

Kevin Durant would like to have a word with voters.

Sunday, on a night James Harden was out for rest, KD dropped an NBA season-high 51 points to lift the Nets’ to a win over the Pistons.

“I knew I probably needed to pick up a little more of the scoring tonight,” Durant said, via the AP. “We were turning the ball over more than we should, and I was doing as much of that as anyone, so I figured I better just keep shooting.”

Curry is unquestionably putting up impressive numbers — 27.1 points and 6.3 assists a game, shooting 40.4% from 3 — but his raw numbers are down from last season when he finished third in MVP voting. What is different is the Warriors are winning and winning big this season. They are a surprise success — most pundits picked them to finish fifth or below, possibly in the play-in games — and arguably the best team in the NBA (it’s the Warriors or Suns).

Kevin Durant is putting up numbers, too: 29.4 points per game, 7.6 rebounds and 5.6 assists a night, shooting 52.9% overall and 38.3% from 3, and he leads a 19-8 Nets squad that sits in first place in the East (despite the fact Harden has not been himself this season and Kyrie Irving is not with the team, he’s off somewhere quietly being the voice of the voiceless, or whatever is going on).

The difference is we expected the Nets to be elite; the Warriors’ success is a surprise. The resurgence of the Warriors to championship level gives Curry the narrative edge. And I agree with the voters (my ballot right now would go Curry, Durant, Giannis Antetokounmpo, Nikola Jokic, then… not sure, fifth is wide open). It just should be closer than the poll indicates.

Last season at the halfway point of the season, LeBron James and Joel Embiid were battling it out for 1-2 in the MVP race. Things ended differently. Judging the NBA MVP race now is like judging a horse race midway through the backstretch, things are getting set up, but the real race is to come.

Count Durant out at your own risk.

3) Zach LaVine makes it nine Bulls players in health and safety protocols

I’m afraid I will get sick just writing about the Bulls.

On Sunday, Chicago’s Zach LaVine and Troy Brown Jr. went into the league’s health and safety protocols. They join DeMar DeRozan, Coby White, Javonte Green, Matt Thomas, Derrick Jones Jr., Ayo Dosunmu and Stanley Johnson, who were already there. Throw in Patrick Williams — out injured — and it is conceivable the Bulls will not have the league required eight players needed to play Tuesday night against the Pistons.

White is reportedly already back at the team facility, and Green also will be beyond the 10 days required by the protocols and could return (if they have produced negative tests and can pass a cardiac test). Officially, their status is unknown.

Like the rest of the nation, the NBA is seeing an increase in coronavirus cases, in part because the league ramped up testing. So far, no games have been postponed, but that could change this week if more players test positive.

Highlight of the Night: Three massive blocks from LeBron James

The Lakers look much better when LeBron James is both healthy — which he said he is feeling the last week with his abdomen — and decides to take the regular season seriously (which he has to do for this Lakers team to win, but that’s another discussion).

He was everywhere Sunday against Orlando: 30 points, 11 rebounds, 10 assists, but it was the three massive blocks that were the most impressive.

Last night’s scores:

Milwaukee 112, New York 97
Brooklyn 116, Detroit 104
Dallas 103, Oklahoma City 84
San Antonio 112, New Orleans 97
Minnesota 116, Portland 111
LA Lakers 106, Orlando 94