2020 NBA champion will join long list of titles with asterisks

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NBC Sports

2020 NBA champion will join long list of titles with asterisks

The resumption of the NBA season is around the corner. On Monday, the Toronto Raptors arrived in Southwest Florida, the first of 22 teams expected to start making their way toward the Orlando campus. 

On Tuesday, teams began mandated coronavirus testing. Now, the tough part begins.

The list of players opting out of the NBA bubble is growing. Earlier this week, Washington Wizards sharpshooter Davis Bertans (injury concern), Los Angeles Lakers guard Avery Bradley (personal matters) and Portland Trail Blazers wing Trevor Ariza (personal matters) voluntarily declined to partake in the resumption.

Bertans, Bradley and Ariza join a number of stars and high-profile players who won’t be participating in the resumption of the 2019-20 season in Walt Disney World due to injury concerns including Brooklyn Nets forward Kevin Durant, Brooklyn Nets guard Kyrie Irving, Washington Wizards guard John Wall, San Antonio Spurs center LaMarcus Aldridge, Phoenix Suns wing Kelly Oubre and Utah Jazz forward Bojan Bogdanovic.

And that list figures to get longer and more star-studded as injuries and virus-related issues inevitably arise.

In other words: get ready for asterisk talk.

Even though every team is managing through the same global pandemic, many have said the 2020 NBA title will be tainted by the advantages afforded to the eventual champ.

I think it’s only appropriate to place this year’s playoffs in proper historical context. To that end, here’s a comprehensive list of NBA titles, in chronological order, that deserve an asterisk due to unfair and/or questionable circumstances.

2019 NBA champions: Toronto Raptors*
Asterisk reason: Kevin Durant ruptured his Achilles tendon in Game 5 and Klay Thompson tore his ACL in Game 6. Kawhi Leonard rested all season and a timely gust of wind at the end of Game 7 against Philadelphia 76ers nudged the ball just enough to fall in the basket. Unfair.

2018 NBA champions: Golden State Warriors*
Asterisk reason: LeBron James “pretty much” broke his hand. Chris Paul’s hamstring popped. And if that’s not enough, the Game 7 referee audit produced by the Houston Rockets that showed 81 potential missed calls that cost the Rockets 18.6 points. Fraudulent championship, certified by accountants.

2017 NBA champions: Golden State Warriors*
Asterisk reason: Kawhi Leonard landed on Zaza Pachulia’s foot while up 23 in Game 1 of the Western Conference finals and Leonard never played again. But mostly: Kevin Durant joined a 73-9 team because of a cap spike. Scandalous.

2016 NBA champions: Cleveland Cavaliers*
Asterisk reason: Draymond Green got suspended in a potential clinching Game 5 for things he did two months prior and Stephen Curry might have been hobbled and Harrison Barnes missed several very open shots. Stars aligned a little too well, don’t you think?

2015 NBA champions: Golden State Warriors*
Asterisk reason: Did Kevin Love and Kyrie Irving even play in the Finals? Also, James Harden tallied 12 turnovers in the Western Conference finals-clinching loss in Game 5, but it’s unclear what another referee audit might uncover. Very questionable circumstances.

2014 NBA champions: San Antonio Spurs*
Asterisk reason: In Game 1 of the NBA Finals in San Antonio, the Spurs’ home arena’s air conditioning “malfunctioned” due to electrical failure and LeBron had to be carried off the floor due to leg cramps. Spurs won Game 1 by 15. Need I say more?

2013 NBA champions: Miami Heat*
Asterisk reason: Reigning 2012 Western Conference champs traded away future MVP James Harden before the season and lost Russell Westbrook to injury when Patrick Beverley needlessly collided with him in the first round of the playoffs, paving the way for the Heat to repeat. Invalid.

2012 NBA champions: Miami Heat*
Asterisk reason: Lockout season, broken bodies. Derrick Rose tore his ACL and Joakim Noah injured his foot, torpedoing the No. 1-seeded Chicago Bulls’ season. Thus, the No. 2-seeded Heat cruise by default and take down the up-and-coming Thunder that never fully arrived. Lucky LeBron.

2011 NBA champions: Dallas Mavericks*
Asterisk reason: They played a lot of zone. Unsportsmanlike conduct. Penalty: title vacated along with dignity.

2010 NBA champions: Los Angeles Lakers*
Asterisk reason: In Game 7, the Lakers took 21 free throws in the fourth quarter while the Celtics took 17 all game. You tell me.

2009 NBA champions: Los Angeles Lakers*
Asterisk reason: Kobe Bryant dodges LeBron James yet again. King James averaged 38.5 points, 8.3 rebounds and 8.0 assists for the 66-win Cavs in the Eastern Conference finals, and somehow it wasn’t enough. Of the 229 individual opponents that Kobe faced at least 20 times in his career, Kobe’s lowest win percentage came against LeBron, losing 6 of his 22 games against the four-time MVP, per Basketball Reference. Kobe and the Lakers faced Dwight Howard instead. Lakers catch another break.

2008 NBA champions: Boston Celtics*
Asterisk reason: Celtics legend Kevin McHale called up his former Celtics teammate Danny Ainge and traded him Kevin Garnett in his prime. Luck of the Irish, I guess.

2007 NBA champions: San Antonio Spurs*
Asterisk reason: Amare Stoudemire and Boris Diaw -- both in their primes, were suspended for a pivotal Game 5 of the Western Conference semifinals for stepping onto the floor at the wrong time. The Spurs go on to face a 50-win team in the Finals. An asterisk among asterisks.

2006 NBA champions: Miami Heat*
Asterisk reason: The disparity in free throw totals were so egregious in the Finals, Mavs owner Mark Cuban reportedly put a former FBI agent on the case. Moving on...

2005 NBA champions: San Antonio Spurs*
Asterisk reason: The league expanded from 29 to 30 teams. Diluted title.

2004 NBA champions: Detroit Pistons*
Asterisk reason: After averaging 18 points in the first round of the playoffs, Los Angeles Lakers forward Karl Malone’s knee imploded by the NBA Finals. David beats Goliath, but if only Goliath had no knees left.

2003 NBA champions: San Antonio Spurs*
Asterisk reason: If a tree falls in the forest and nobody is around to hear it, does it make a sound?

2002 NBA champions: Los Angeles Lakers*
Asterisk reason: Ask the Sacramento Kings.

2001 NBA champions: Los Angeles Lakers*
Asterisk reason: The Lakers lost both games to Ray Allen and the top-scoring Milwaukee Bucks in the regular season, which is notable because Allen all but said the Bucks-Sixers Eastern Conference finals was rigged so the NBA could get regular-season MVP Allen Iverson and Philadelphia in the Finals against the Lakers. Bucks fans have already asterisked this one for years. 

2000 NBA champions: Los Angeles Lakers*
Asterisk reason: The referees swallowed the whistle when Shaquille O’Neal drilled Steve Smith in the lane in the closing seconds of Game 7 of the epic Blazers-Lakers Western Conference finals. (Smith has thoughts). Shaq-sized asterisk.

1999 NBA champions: San Antonio Spurs*
Asterisk reason: Lockout season. Doesn’t count.

1998 NBA champions: Chicago Bulls*
Asterisk reason: MJ pushed off.

1997 NBA champions: Chicago Bulls*
Asterisk reason: Voters got bored and gave Karl Malone the MVP and thereby gave life to Michael Jordan’s vengeful loins. Also, Scottie Pippen grabbed the rim. Tarnished title.

1996 NBA champions: Chicago Bulls*
Asterisk reason: Adding the Toronto Raptors and Vancouver Grizzlies this season diluted the overall talent pool for Michael Jordan and the Chicago Bulls to feast on. But the real reason for this asterisk is two-time All-Defense member Nate McMillan’s back. If it doesn’t turn to mush, this is Sonics in six, not the Bulls. The franchise isn’t the only thing stolen from Seattle. 

1995 NBA champions: Houston Rockets*
Asterisk reason: Michael Jordan was playing golf.

1994 NBA champions: Houston Rockets*
Asterisk reason: Michael Jordan was playing baseball.

1993 NBA champions: Chicago Bulls*
Asterisk reason: Voters got bored (again) and gave Charles Barkley the MVP and thereby gave life to MJ’s vengeful loins. Jordan inexplicably finished third in MVP that year. The real voter fraud that no one is talking about.

1992 NBA champions: Chicago Bulls*
Asterisk reason: Arvydas Sabonis, arguably the best basketball player in the world not named Michael Jordan at the time, was in his prime playing for Real Madrid instead of the Blazers who had drafted him in 1986. If Sabas didn’t wait until 1995 to join the NBA, this is a very different 1992 Finals battle between the Blazers and Bulls. Call it the Arvydas Asterisk.

1991 NBA champions: Chicago Bulls*
Asterisk reason: Lakers’ top scorer James Worthy and top shooter Byron Scott both got hurt and couldn’t play the decisive Game 5 of the NBA Finals. What could have been?

1990 NBA champions: Detroit Pistons*
Asterisk reason: Again, Sabonis wasn’t playing in America so the Pistons avoided him starting for the Blazers in the Finals and flipping the NBA paradigm. Also, the Pistons couldn’t beat Michael Jordan in basketball so they turned to boxing and football tactics in their Eastern Conference battles. Not basketball. Not fair.

1989 NBA champions: Detroit Pistons*
Asterisk reason: Magic Johnson blew out his hamstring in Game 3 of the NBA Finals, ending both the MVP’s season and the legitimacy of the Pistons title.

1988 NBA champions: Los Angeles Lakers*
Asterisk reason: Isiah Thomas suffered a debilitating ankle injury in Game 6 and he barely played in Game 7, a game in which the Pistons lost by a measly three points. Too close to call, in my opinion.

1987 NBA champions: Los Angeles Lakers*
Asterisk reason: A year after winning Sixth Man of the Year for the title-winning Celtics, Bill Walton’s feet gave out yet again and the Lakers won the championship without having to face one of Boston’s key players. Lakers lucky again.

1986 NBA champions: Boston Celtics*
Asterisk reason: After Michael Jordan scored 63 points against the Celtics in the first round, Larry Bird said, “It’s just God disguised as Michael Jordan.” By beating the Bulls and sending Jordan home, the Celtics were literally the only team that postseason to be touched by the hand of God. All other teams were touched by mere mortals. Let’s chalk this up to divine intervention.

1985 NBA champions: Los Angeles Lakers*
Asterisk reason: Celtics starter Cedric Maxwell, who won the 1981 Finals MVP, missed 25 games following knee surgery late in the season and was a shell of himself upon his return. The Lakers cruise again with their Finals opponent battered. 

1984 NBA champions: Boston Celtics*
Asterisk reason: Hall of Fame forward Jamaal Wilkes was averaging 17 points per game for the Lakers that season and then missed the first round of the playoffs dealing with a gastrointestinal virus. He lost his starting gig and became a non-factor in the playoffs, scoring double-digits just once the rest of the way. If Wilkes doesn’t get the bug, Boston doesn’t get the trophy. Can’t argue with science.

1983 NBA champions: Philadelphia 76ers*
Asterisk reason: Notice that Moses Malone’s famous quote is “Fo’, fo’, fo’” and not “Fo, fo’, fo’, fo’.” That’s because, at this point in NBA history, the top two seeds received a first-round bye and only played three series for a championship. I think we can all agree that real champs win four series.

1982 NBA champions: Los Angeles Lakers*
Asterisk reason: Again, top seeds skipped the first round. This is extra important in 1982 because the Philadelphia 76ers, as a No. 3 seed, had to play an extra series in their disproportionately grueling road to the NBA Finals. Case in point, playoff games played before the Finals: Sixers 15, Lakers 8. Of course, the Lakers prevailed in six games.

1981 NBA champions: Boston Celtics*
Asterisk reason: To win the NBA Finals, the Celtics needed to beat a 40-42 Houston Rockets team. Not a typo. If that’s not asterisk-y enough for you, I don’t know what is.

1980 NBA champions: Los Angeles Lakers*
Asterisk reason: Philly, as it was in 1982, played the Lakers in the Finals with the burden of playing an extra series. With less miles on their tires, the Lakers cruised to the title against their more-fatigued foe. Soft!

1979 NBA champions: Seattle Supersonics*
Asterisk reason: In a rematch of the Bullets-Sonics Finals a year ago in which the Bullets won, the Sonics benefitted by injuries knocking out two Bullets starters Kevin Grevey (hamstring) and Tom Henderson (ankle) in Game 5 of the NBA Finals. Not a fair fight.

1978 NBA champions: Washington Bullets*
Asterisk reason: The defending-champion Blazers’ repeat hopes were derailed when Bill Walton broke his foot in February while the team was 50-10 -- easily the best record in the NBA. No Walton, no glory.

1977 NBA champions: Portland Trail Blazers*
Asterisk reason: In the first season with the NBA-ABA merger, the Blazers made the playoffs for the first time and won the title all in the same season. Seems totally legitimate except for this important detail: the NBA referees went on strike during the playoffs. Oh.

1976 NBA champions: Boston Celtics*
Asterisk reason: Half the best players were in the ABA. (Ten of the 24 All-Stars in 1977 were former ABA players, including All-Star Game MVP Julius Erving and five of the 10 starters in the 1977 Finals were ABA players).

1975 NBA champions: Golden State Warriors*
Asterisk reason: Half the best players were in the ABA.

1974 NBA champions: Boston Celtics*
Asterisk reason: Half the best players were in the ABA.

1973 NBA champions: New York Knicks*
Asterisk reason: Half the best players were in the ABA.

1972 NBA champions: Los Angeles Lakers*
Asterisk reason: Half the best players were in the ABA.

1971 NBA champions: Milwaukee Bucks*
Asterisk reason: Half the best players were in the ABA.

1970 NBA champions: New York Knicks*
Asterisk reason: Half the best players were in the ABA.

1969 NBA champions: Boston Celtics*
Asterisk reason: Half the best players were in the ABA.

1968 NBA champions: Boston Celtics*
Asterisk reason: Half the best players were in the ABA.

1967 NBA champions: Philadelphia 76ers*
Asterisk reason: There were only 10 teams.

1966 NBA champions: Boston Celtics*
Asterisk reason:  There were only nine teams.

1965 NBA champions: Boston Celtics*
Asterisk reason: There were only nine teams.

1964 NBA champions: Boston Celtics*
Asterisk reason: There were only nine teams.

1963 NBA champions: Boston Celtics*
Asterisk reason: There were only nine teams.

1962 NBA champions: Boston Celtics*
Asterisk reason: There were only nine teams.

1961 NBA champions: Boston Celtics*
Asterisk reason: There were only eight teams.

1960 NBA champions: Boston Celtics*
Asterisk reason: There were only eight teams. But more importantly, as late as 1960, it was understood that only four Black players were allowed per NBA team, according to Warriors legend Al Attles. So, yeah, asterisk on this whole era.

1959 NBA champions: Boston Celtics*
Asterisk reason: There were only eight teams.

1958 NBA champions: St. Louis Hawks*
Asterisk reason: There were only eight teams.

1957 NBA champions: Boston Celtics*
Asterisk reason: There were only eight teams.

1956 NBA champions: Philadelphia Warriors*
Asterisk reason: There were only eight teams.

1955 NBA champions: Syracuse Nationals*
Asterisk reason: There were only eight teams. Well, technically nine, but the Baltimore Bullets disbanded 14 games into the season. 

1954 NBA champions: Minneapolis Lakers*
Asterisk reason: There were only nine teams. The Indianapolis Olympians dropped out after they went 28-43 and got swept 0-2 in the playoffs.

1953 NBA champions: Minneapolis Lakers*
Asterisk reason: There were only 10 teams.

1952 NBA champions: Minneapolis Lakers*
Asterisk reason: There were only 10 teams.

1951 NBA champions: Rochester Royals*
Asterisk reason: There were only 10 teams. Well, technically 11, but the Washington Capitols (correct spelling) folded halfway through the season. On Nov. 22, 1950, the Fort Wayne Pistons beat the Minneapolis Lakers 19-18. Final score.

1950 NBA champions: Minneapolis Lakers*
Asterisk reason: In the inaugural NBA season, there were 17 teams, six of which were contracted by Year 2 of the NBA. Rebounds would be introduced as an official stat in 1951. New rule: if rebounds aren’t counted, the title shouldn’t either.

Follow Tom Haberstroh on Twitter (@TomHaberstroh), and bookmark NBCSports.com/Haberstroh for my latest stories and videos and subscribe to the Habershow podcast.

Will the NBA bubble be safe for players?

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NBC Sports

Will the NBA bubble be safe for players?

The NBA recently released a 113-page health and safety protocol for the 22-team NBA restart.

Will it be enough to keep the players safe in the NBA bubble?

“There are millions and millions of people and thousands of activities that are far riskier than what the NBA is trying to attempt here,” said Nate Duncan on The Habershow podcast with NBC Sports national NBA Insider Tom Haberstroh.

Duncan, the host of a popular NBA (Dunc’d On Basketball) and COVID (Covid Daily News) podcast, does not anticipate a large spike in positive COVID-19 tests among NBA players.  

“Once we actually get into the bubble, between that point and the end of the season, I think fewer than 16 players will test positive,” Duncan said.

LISTEN TO THE HABERSHOW HERE

Here are the timestamps for Haberstroh’s interview with Duncan:

8:10  The NBA's rules for the bubble

17:20  Why Disney staffers don't necessarily need to be tested daily

32:10  The biggest threat to the bubble

42:30 Why the NBA could be in big trouble for next season

46:50  Whether the NBA should finish this season or not

For more from Haberstroh, listen to his conversation with TrueHoops’s Henry Abbott on life inside the NBA bubble

Zion Williamson, Pelicans enter NBA restart as most compelling team

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NBC Sports

Zion Williamson, Pelicans enter NBA restart as most compelling team

With the NBA heading to Orlando next week, there is no shortage of storylines to follow in the leadup to the league’s late-July restart. Everyone will be closely monitoring the coronavirus front. Go ahead and brace yourself for silly asterisk talk. Keep an eye on the lack of home-court advantage. The mental health aspect of spending months in a bubble will be a challenge but maybe also an opportunity

But in my mind, no storyline is more fascinating than the immediate future of the New Orleans Pelicans. Between New Orleans’ explosive young roster, led by teenage phenom Zion Williamson, potential coronavirus complications on the floor and the bench, and a run at the No. 8 seed out West, no team embodies the full spectrum of conflicting emotions heading into the NBA bubble quite like the Pelicans. 

By all indications, all systems remain a go for Williamson. The plan is for him to continue progressing toward playing in Orlando, but, like the rest of the league, the Pelicans are not yet authorized for five-on-five work with their players. How Zion or any other player’s body responds to four months without organized basketball is anyone’s guess. 

Let’s assume Williamson does make the trip. That in itself is great news for the Pelicans, for fans, and, most notably, TV partners. 

It’s not a surprise the league put Williamson and the Pelicans front and center in a 6:30 p.m. ET tip-off against the Utah Jazz on ESPN to kick off the restart. New Orleans was booked for a franchise-record 30 national TV appearances in Williamson’s rookie season -- with good reason. According to ESPN tracking, national TV ratings were 30 percent higher for Williamson’s national TV games than the average nationally televised game. 

Zion-related ticket sales saw a similar boost. In road games that Williamson played, attendance in those visiting arenas soared to 19,022 fans on average, a towering figure that would have ranked No. 1 in road attendance for any team. By comparison, Anthony Davis and the 2018-19 Pelicans ranked just 19th in road attendance.

It’s worth noting that part of the surge in excitement was due to Williamson missing the first three-plus months of the season with a knee injury. However, once Williamson took the court in late January, he more than lived up to the hype. The 19-year-old was a marvel on the boards and showed far better playmaking skills than many expected. No teenager has ever posted a Player Efficiency Rating (PER) north of 22.0 in the NBA. Not LeBron, not Luka, not Kobe, not AD. 

Zion, entering Orlando play, is at 24.2. This is rarified air among rarified air. 

Now, it’s true that plenty of stud rookies put up monster numbers without corresponding team success (Kyrie Irving’s rookie season comes to mind). And yes, the Pelicans haven’t exactly lit the world on fire this season, but they’re 10-9 in games that Zion plays and 18-27 in games that he doesn’t. If you drill down even further, a superstar-level impact -- not just box score stats -- begins to emerge.

In the 565 minutes that Williamson played this season, the Pelicans have outscored opponents by 120 points, which works out to plus-10.4 points per 100 possessions. For any player, that’s an incredible figure. Among All-Stars, only Giannis Antetokounmpo, Khris Middleton and Kawhi Leonard have higher on-court ratings. For a teenager, that’s obscene.

Worse yet for the league is the fact that the Pelicans are in prime position to maximize Williamson’s talents both now and in the future. Veterans Jrue Holiday, Derrick Favors and JJ Redick helped boost Williamson’s on-court numbers this year, while Lonzo Ball and All-Star forward Brandon Ingram, both just 22 years old, feature complementary skill sets to Williamson.

Knowing what kind of once-in-a-generation talent they had on their hands, the Pelicans didn’t want to overdo it with his minutes early on. But in time Williamson regularly played between 30 and 35 minutes and produced like a top-15 player in the league in those minutes.

It remains to be seen how the Pelicans plan to manage Williamson’s workload in the seeding games. Given his injury history, the long layoff and his immense size, Williamson’s availability will be one of the most fascinating storylines of the restart.

But one has to always wonder if his head coach, Alvin Gentry, will be managing those minutes at all. CDC guidelines state that individuals who are 65 years old or older are high risk for serious illness due to COVID-19. Gentry, who is 65, remains steadfast in his intentions to be in Orlando with his team at full capacity, telling The Athletic on Tuesday: “I plan on coaching without any restrictions. We’ll see if the league comes up with a different plan.” 

The coaching situation around the league remains fluid, sources say. While the National Basketball Players Association and National Basketball Referees Association have both announced ratified agreements on a return-to-play, the coaches’ union has not publicized a similar pact. Gentry’s top assistant coach and defensive guru Jeff Bzdelik, 67, may also be in occupational limbo due his age. According to Dallas Mavericks coach and president of the National Basketball Coaches Association Rick Carlisle, the NBA has told coaches that age alone won’t be sufficient enough of a reason to keep them from going to Orlando. Coaches, along with all staffers, will have their medical records screened by a panel of independent physicians to determine their risk levels.

To give it their best shot at the playoffs, the Pelicans will need all hands on deck. Beyond Williamson and the coaching situation, perhaps the most intriguing part of the Pelicans’ restart is their playoff situation. The Pelicans are currently 3.5 games back of the Memphis Grizzlies for the No. 8 spot, tied with the Portland Trail Blazers and Sacramento Kings in the standings. Historically, a gap that wide is just about insurmountable.

But the Pelicans have been gifted a unique opportunity to punch their ticket into the postseason. New Orleans can earn a play-in series if they finish as the No. 9 seed and are within four games of the No. 8 seed. Heck, the Pelicans could supplant the Grizzlies in the eighth slot altogether.

Using win-loss records from the 2019-20 season, the Pelicans have the easiest strength of schedule of all the 22 Orlando-bound teams, with an average opponent win percentage of .495.  

They could fumble out the gate, but it will get easier. After two tough games against the Jazz and Clippers, the final six games on the Pelicans’ schedule will be against teams with losing records: Memphis, Sacramento, Washington, San Antonio, Sacramento (again) and Orlando. Even better for Pelicans’ chances, their strength of schedule pales in comparison to Memphis (.603), Portland (.601), San Antonio (.567) and to a lesser extent, Sacramento (.530). 

The path is there. If the Pelicans go 7-1 in the seeding games and the Grizzlies sputter with a 3-5 record or worse, the Pelicans would earn the No. 8 seed (barring a similarly dominant run by Portland, San Antonio or Sacramento).

At first glance, this appears to be an inside job by the NBA to get Williamson into the playoffs, but that’s not what’s happening here. With a brutal front-loaded schedule back in November and December, the Pelicans were supposed to have the easiest remaining strength of schedule down the stretch. The soft slate in Orlando actually maintains the integrity of the team’s original 82-game itinerary.

A lot can change between now and the Pelicans’ July 30 game. Medical staffs around the league remain worried about how players’ bodies will adjust to the new normal and a short ramp-up time. Four months without organized five-on-five basketball is unheard of in these players’ careers. 

And then there are the virus concerns. Three unnamed Pelicans players tested positive with coronavirus this week and there’s no telling how that might impact their health on or off the court. On Wednesday, Brooklyn Nets guard Spencer Dinwiddie tweeted that he’s still feeling ill nearly a week after his initial positive test. The self-isolation programs may be completely prudent from an infectious-disease perspective, but it’s undeniably troublesome for a player’s conditioning and readiness to play. It’s unclear at this point if the Pelicans players who tested positive are symptomatic or expected to play without restriction in Orlando.

Raising more questions for New Orleans is the free agency side of things. Favors will be an unrestricted free agency this summ-- uh, fall and will be looking to cash in after a strong age-29 season. Meanwhile, Ingram will be a restricted free agent hoping for a big pay day from New Orleans or elsewhere. If either of those players feel significantly less than 100 percent in Orlando, it wouldn’t be a surprise to see them sit out to preserve their long-term health and earning potential.

You can say what you want about LeBron James’ Lakers, Giannis Antetokounmpo’s Bucks and the rest of the contenders (don’t sleep on Houston or Philly, by the way). But in my book, no team is more compelling over the next month than the Pelicans. If Williamson is playing his full minutes and they’re able to send their complete coaching staff, I’m picking the Pelicans to make the playoffs and face none other than the Lakers in the first round. After the Davis trade a year ago, wouldn’t that be fun? Come to think of it, that matchup might be the most intriguing aspect of it all.

Follow Tom Haberstroh on Twitter (@TomHaberstroh), and bookmark NBCSports.com/Haberstroh for my latest stories and videos and subscribe to the Habershow podcast.