The numbers behind NBA chemistry

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NBC Sports

The numbers behind NBA chemistry

Is it possible to quantify chemistry on a basketball court?

For years, the analytical world has tried to tackle that question. This has been the blind spot of the statistical community for decades, and really, the basketball community as a whole. The box score can only go so far.
 
But now we have passing data that helps us understand how players mesh on the basketball court. Thanks to the NBA’s recent partnerships with SportVU and Second Spectrum technologies, we can see which players tend to pass to each other and even which players shoot on those passes. For example, did you know that Lonzo Ball shoots just 29 percent on 2-pointers when he receives a pass from LeBron James, but 51 percent when he’s fed by other teammates? Well, now you do.
 
So, which stars pass to each other the most? The least? We can take a step further and see how those player-to-player interactions change when the lights get brightest. If you want to see which players a coach trusts, don’t look at the starting lineup; look at the finishing lineup. In the same way, we can perhaps take a glimpse into which players trust other teammates when the game is on the line. For that, we’ll look at player-to-player assist rates overall and when the game enters clutch time (that is, final five minutes and game within five). 

Let’s get to it.
 
Washington Wizards
Back in 2013, Bradley Beal was still a teenager when he started next to John Wall for the first time. Nearly six years later, we’re not quite sure if they’re a good match. Beal recently told NBC Sports Washington’s Chris Miller that the two All-Stars are opposites, but in a peanut-butter-and-jelly kind of way. So, that’s nice.

The numbers aren’t shy about it: Wall loves passing to Beal. Wall has 51 assists to Beal, the most among any tandem in our study through Monday’s games. And it’s not just because they play a lot of minutes together. Wall assists Beal once every 12.3 minutes on the floor, one of the most frequent rates in the league. What’s more, that rate actually accelerates in crunchtime, as Wall has assisted on four Beal buckets in clutch situations (9.8 minutes per assist). 

In the other direction, Beal has been better at finding Wall this season. Last season, he assisted Wall every 67.4 minutes on the floor together, but that has quickened to once every 41.7 minutes, which is better than a lot of star guard-to-guard interactions. In the clutch, Markieff Morris has been Wall’s top feeder, generating three assists to the Wizards’ point guard.

Really, Wall and Beal is not the partnership to worry about. Otto Porter Jr. is another story. The Wizards’ highest-paid player made his first clutch bucket in Monday’s win over the Houston Rockets, having entered that game with only four shots (all misses) in 23 minutes of clutch action. Wall assisted Monday’s floater, but Porter needs to look to score much more if the Wizards want to make the playoffs.  (Coach Scott Brooks hasn’t minced words when it comes to Porter’s aggressiveness).

Bottom line, if you think Wall and Beal don’t have on-court chemistry, the numbers disagree.

Philadelphia 76ers
Jimmy Butler just arrived, but he’s showing far more chemistry with Ben Simmons than Markelle Fultz ever did. The Fultz-Simmons pairing registered a putrid offensive rating (go watch the BIG Number!), but the Butler-Simmons tandem boasts a spectacular 115.0 offensive rating together. Simmons has already assisted Butler 16 times, sprinkling multiple beautiful dimes to Butler in transition. Sixers fans will be happy to know that two of Butler’s five clutch buckets were fed by none other than Simmons.

Embiid’s chemistry with Butler? That’s ... still a work in progress. Embiid has assisted Butler twice in 159 minutes on the court, which pales in comparison to Embiid’s 14 assists to Fultz in 331 minutes, per NBA.com tracking. Butler is shooting two of 10 (20 percent) off of Embiid’s passes whereas Fultz shot 33 of 71 (46.5 percent) this season.

When you peak behind the curtain, the most jarring stat of all is that Jimmy Butler is scoring just 15.9 points per 36 minutes with Embiid on the floor. That number soars to 30.1 points per 36 minutes when Butler isn’t flanked by Embiid on the court, per NBA.com/stats data. That might be Butler just trying to defer to Embiid (Butler’s field goal attempts slice in half when he plays with Embiid in Philly), but the Sixers should look to improve that tandem’s chemistry going forward. If they want to make it to the Finals, they need Embiid and Butler to be firing on all cylinders. Get this: Despite all the turmoil in Minnesota, Butler and Karl-Anthony Towns’ assists to each other occurred more frequently this season than Butler and Embiid. Keep an eye on that.

Portland Trail Blazers
Like Wall and Beal, the Damian Lillard-C.J. McCollum duo is the rare backcourt with both players scoring above the 20-point mark. But unlike the Wizards, they don’t rely on each other to get those numbers. Wall assists Beal twice as often as Lillard-to-McCollum (every 12.3 minutes compared to every 30.6 minutes). The same goes for Beal-to-Wall (every 41.7 minutes) and McCollum-to-Lillard (every 80.4 minutes).

One contributing factor: McCollum has shot 33.3 percent from 3-point land on Lillard’s passes compared to 40.8 percent from all other teammates. That same lopsided split showed up last season, too.

But Portland fans shouldn’t fret too much just yet. The Portland offense has been far healthier than the Wizards’ outfit. Portland’s 113.4 offensive rating with Lillard and McCollum on the floor suggests they don’t need to reinvent the wheel here. Furthermore, Lillard isn’t a natural distributor like Wall, so setting up McCollum all the time isn’t a huge surprise. 

The chemistry between McCollum and Lillard isn’t super inspiring when it comes to crunchtime. In 28 minutes of clutch situations this season, Lillard and McCollum have combined for 13 field goals between them, but interestingly enough, no assists from each other. Lillard has fed Al-Farouq Aminu and Jusuf Nurkic for buckets twice, but nothing to McCollum. 

This isn’t a new thing either. Last season, Lillard assisted just six of McCollum’s 37 crunchtime buckets and McCollum assisted just one of Lillard’s 39. The fact that Lillard only scored once off of a McCollum pass looks worse when you consider that McCollum had 14 clutch assists last season. The lesson here is that Lillard and McCollum don’t need each other to put up big numbers. But they might need to if they want to take the leap in the playoffs.

Oklahoma City Thunder
Paul George re-signing in OKC was one of the bigger surprises of the summer, and he’s quietly playing some of the best ball of his career. George is averaging a career-high 24 points per game, but it’s not because Westbrook is doing all the work for him.

In fact, it’s quite the contrary. Backup point guard Dennis Schroder has assisted George 24 times compared to Westbrook’s total of 17. Westbrook delivers an assist to George once every 19 minutes this season, which may seem like an impressive figure, but then you consider that in the 2015-16 season, Westbrook assisted Durant a whopping 250 times, or once every 8.3 minutes. On the other hand, Durant may be the best scorer ever. So, duh.

But what this really points to is that the Thunder are spreading the ball this season, which is a good thing. In years past, the offense became too Westbrook-dependent and it’s probably good to be more egalitarian. Last season, Westbrook assisted 181 of George’s buckets and the next highest assister had just 28 (Raymond Felton and Carmelo Anthony were tied). This season, Billy Donovan has given Schroder a lot of run alongside the two stars, which eases the burden on Westbrook.

The funny thing? George is shooting just 38.5 percent off of Schroder passes and 35.9 percent off of Westbrook’s. Maybe George should never give up the ball and just take it for himself.

Golden State Warriors
Let’s get to the good news first. Of the 34 teammate pairings in this study, one Warrior tandem bested everyone in fewest minutes between assists. Which assister-assistee showed the most chemistry by this metric? Draymond Green to Klay Thompson. Through Monday’s games, Green had assisted 36 Thompson buckets in 356 minutes, or once every 9.9 minutes. That’s absurd. A big part in that: Thompson is shooting 50.6 percent off of Green’s passes and 44.8 percent on 3-pointers, easily his best marks for any of his high-volume passers. 

Amazingly, Thompson has assisted Durant just five times in 584 minutes, representing the most minutes in between assists of any pairing in this study. In fact, Thompson has dropped more dimes to Jonas Jerebko (6) than Durant (5). None of Durant’s 42 field goals in the last three games came from Thompson.

This season’s lack of Thompson-to-Durant cohesion is especially bizarre considering they’ve had to play large minutes without Curry or Green this season. It gets even weirder when you discover that Thompson assisted Durant 30 times in 1,690 minutes last season, or twice the rate he’s doing this season. 

Perhaps that’s just randomness. But then again, Thompson is gunning like never before, taking 70 field goal attempts over his last three games with just two assists. That’s Klay being Klay.

OK, now the bad news. Remember that blow-up between Green and Durant? I’ve written here about how Draymond had a point. But Durant’s beef about Draymond hogging the ball? That may be spot-on, too. Green has zero assists in 40 minutes of clutch play. Durant has eight. I mean, Kevon Looney has two. I repeat: Green has zero. 

Last season, we didn’t see this oddity. Green led the team with 17 clutch assists in 85 minutes, or one every five minutes. Maybe this changes with a larger sample size. Maybe it’s bad luck. But get your popcorn, this is something to watch.

Boston Celtics
The Celtics’ offense is a mess this season as they re-introduced Kyrie Irving and Gordon Hayward into the mix. But looking strictly at the All-Star pairing of Irving and Al Horford, something interesting emerges. Last season, Irving assisted Horford 80 times and Horford assisted Irving 80 times -- an equal distribution. But this season, Irving has assisted Horford twice as often.

Most of this change is due to Horford shooting a blistering 61.9 percent on 2s and 37.1 percent on 3s off of Irving’s passes this season, far better than the 2017-18 campaign. But one of the reasons why the Celtics outperformed expectations and why Irving’s name was in the MVP race last year was the amazing chemistry between these two. 

Last season, Irving shot 51.8 percent from the floor on passes from Horford (a ridiculous 48.2 percent on 3s) but just 43.0 percent on passes from all other players. That magic between Irving and Horford isn’t happening this season as Irving is shooting just 43.7 percent on his passes. In other words, it’s leveled out. Everyone on the Celtics has to shoot better, but rekindling the Horford-to-Irving interaction can help turn things around.

Toronto Raptors
Rather than running it back with Kyle Lowry and DeMar DeRozan yet again, Raptors general manager Masai Ujiri flipped DeRozan to the San Antonio Spurs for Kawhi Leonard. How has that turned out? Not bad so far.

Leonard and Lowry hit it off right away. Leonard has been assisted by Lowry once every 17.6 minutes this season, which is actually more often than the Lowry-to-DeRozan connection last season (every 19.8 minutes). 

Leonard doesn’t find Lowry (every 76.2 minutes) nearly as often as DeRozan did (24.7 minutes), but the Raptors’ offense is humming right along. With Leonard and Lowry on the floor, the Raptors score an incredible 118 points per 100 possessions, which is a tad below the Curry-Durant partnership (118.7), which led this group of tandems. Last season, the Lowry-DeRozan lineups churned out 112.5 points per 100 possessions. They went from good to great.

Speaking of the Spurs, LaMarcus Aldridge and DeRozan have been doing just fine. DeRozan and LaMarcus Aldridge have a 109.3 offensive rating on-court, but they only have one assist to each other (it was DeRozan to Aldridge) in 49 minutes of clutch time. Meanwhile, DeRozan has three clutch assists to Rudy Gay, his former teammate in Toronto. With a healthy Leonard, the Spurs were the best clutch team in the NBA, but they’re still searching without him.

Memphis Grizzlies
Marc Gasol and Mike Conley have been playing together since John Wall was playing at University of Kentucky. To be honest, the two vets could probably play the two-man game with their eyes closed.

And the numbers bear this out. Conley assists Gasol once every 10.1 minutes on the floor, which is the second-best rate in this whole group of stars (only Green-to-Thompson ranked higher). That’s a big improvement compared to last season when he assisted Gasol every 14.7 minutes on the floor.

Gasol returns the favor, assisting on 13 Conley buckets, the most for any of Conley’s teammates. With about a decade of making music together, this is chemistry at its finest -- the new Tony Parker and Tim Duncan.

Houston Rockets
This might be the most interesting team of the bunch. Chris Paul and James Harden perennially rank among the league leaders in assists, so it would make sense that they’d find each other a ton in Houston, right?

Well, they almost never assist each other. This season, Paul has assisted Harden just four times in 274 minutes on the floor together. Harden has assisted Paul just three times, or once every 91.3 minutes on the floor, the second-worst connection in this group of All-Stars and scorers. 

The only tandem that assisted each other less often was Thompson to Durant. But Thompson averages 1.7 assists. That’s understandable. Harden averages 8.2 assists. Only three of his 131 assists have gone to Paul. That’s astounding for two top playmakers.

These two scorers were devastating in one-on-one isolations last season and operated mostly in silos on the offensive end. The hero-ball tendencies resulted in the best offense in the league. Not passing to each other isn’t the issue. The issue is that they haven’t been hitting shots. Paul is shooting 44.1 percent from the floor, his lowest figure since 2006-07. Harden is shooting a mere 4-of-13 (30.8 percent) on catch-and-shoots this season. The result is that Harden and Paul have the worst offensive rating for any duo in this study (104.4 points per 100 possessions).

That’s a far cry from their 117.0 offensive rating last season. Last season, Paul assisted Harden 29 times while Harden assisted Paul 19 times. They have a lot of catching up to do, which could be said for the team as a whole.

* * *

Numbers, of course, are not the only way to measure chemistry. Coaches might draw up plays that artificially shape these numbers; players might be on a hot or cold spell on passes from certain teammates; players can also have on-court chemistry that doesn’t show up in passing data. All that might be true.
 
But for decades, analysts, coaches and fans have been yearning for hard passing data, and now we have it. We’re getting closer to finding out which teammates vibe with each other on the floor, which players put the blinders on and who players like to target in clutch situations. Now we can test what our eyes tell us and what our gut senses when we watch the action. And coaches can alter their game plans.
 
Now we know that Green is twice as likely to find Thompson for a bucket than he is Durant. Now we know that even though Westbrook, Wall and Harden are 20-and-10 threats every night, they arrive at those big assist totals very differently. And while you might think Wall and Beal are the Eastern Conference version of Lillard and McCollum, they feed off each other far more than their Portland peers. After all, the box score can only tell us so much.
 
So next time you see Harden and Paul feed one another for a bucket, gather all your friends, family and followers and scream from atop a mountain. It’s basically a once-in-a-lifetime moment.

To see the full breakdown of this study, click here

Kobe Bryant leaves behind lasting, unbelievable legacy

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NBC Sports

Kobe Bryant leaves behind lasting, unbelievable legacy

This is the darkest day in the NBA since I began covering the sport a decade ago. 

Kobe Bean Bryant, 41, and his daughter Gianna (Gigi), 13, died aboard a fatal helicopter crash in Calabasas, California, NBA commissioner Adam Silver confirmed in a statement.

Bryant will go down as one of the best players who ever played basketball. But more respected? Maybe Michael Jordan can rival Bryant in that category. Maybe. Certainly not in Los Angeles. You don’t get bigger than Kobe. 

LeBron James, in Lakers purple-and-gold, passed Bryant for third all-time in scoring in a game against the Philadelphia 76ers on Saturday, in the city where Bryant was born and went to high school. After the game, James was struck by the poetic circumstances.

"I'm just happy to be in any conversation with Kobe Bryant, one of the all-time greats to ever play," James said.

Kobe Bean Bryant is the closest thing the NBA has to religion. He won five NBA championships in a Los Angeles Lakers uniform -- right there beneath the Hollywood sign -- which is the surest way to gain immortality in the basketball world. His career was defined by toughness, longevity and brilliance on the court.

There were so many things about Kobe’s career arc that seemed surreal, like a Hollywood screenwriter drunkenly went off the rails with the script. But it was real life, a storyline befit for the silver screen.

Bryant made his Lakers debut less than three months after his 18th birthday. He never wore another jersey ever again, retiring in that same purple-and-gold 20 seasons later with 33,643 points to his name.

In 2006, he scored 81 points against the Toronto Raptors, the most by any guard in NBA history. Better than Michael Jordan’s best. After accounting for scoring pace across eras, the numbers show that Bryant’s 2005-06 season was the best scoring season ever.

In the final game of his career, he scored 60 points on his home floor. He made his last nine shots of the game (four coming from the free throw line) in front of those who had watched him do that so many times over the previous two decades.

When Kobe tore his Achilles tendon in the middle of the game back in 2013, he calmly walked -- yes, walked -- to the free throw line and made two free throws with the largest tendon in his body rolled up in a ball by his ankle. His free throws splashed through the net unaffected by the trauma to his leg.

He played in 18 All-Star games and was named to 15 All-NBA teams. He finished top-five in the MVP vote for all but one year in a 12-season reign from 2001-02 to 2012-13, winning the award outright in 2007-08 when he averaged 28.3 points for top-seeded Lakers in the West. No one has ever won more championships in a Lakers uniform -- Bryant’s five titles in Los Angeles is tied for most with Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Michael Cooper, Magic Johnson and Derek Fisher.

He is the closest proxy to Michael Jordan that we may ever see. The size, the grace, the fadeaways, the winning. Even down to the way he talked, it seemed Bryant was always this generation’s Jordan.

Bryant wasn’t short on drama. He demanded a trade from the Lakers in 2007 that ended up falling through and the Lakers netted Pau Gasol, a key to their back-to-back titles in 2009 and 2010. Of course, the soap opera between Shaq and Kobe in the early 2000s was fit for a Hollywood stage and even has its own Wikipedia page, complete with 159 citations. Any bad blood Kobe had with Shaq didn’t last long. Bryant on Sunday morning was checking in with Shaq’s son, “You good fam?”

The drama drew Bryant in. When it comes to clutch performers, no one carried more prestige in the post-Jordan era than Bryant. According to Basketball Reference’s shot database that dates back to the 2000-01 season, no one made more shots to tie or go-ahead in the final 24 seconds of a fourth quarter or overtime than Kobe Bryant. He took 160 of these shots since 2000-01, making 47 of them (29.4 percent; league average is 27.7 percent). He retired four years ago and still holds the 21st-century record. LeBron James just trails behind him, making 38-of-128 (29.7 percent) such shots.

It’s fitting that Bryant holds the record for most misses in NBA history. He was never afraid to take the shot, no matter how many players were guarding him. Bryant’s prime existed before modern-day shot-tracking technology could quantify shot difficulty, but he surely was tops in the league in that category, too. 

Bryant’s life wasn’t spotless. The 2003 Eagle, Colorado incident in which he was accused of sexual assault by a hotel employee will always be a chapter in his life story. The accuser dropped charges after failing to testify, but later filed a civil lawsuit that was settled privately. Until then, Bryant held a pristine image inside and outside the sport, with names like McDonald’s, Nike and Sprite lining up to be associated with him.

Over the years, Kobe cultivated a strong, nearly cultish, following through his self-marketing. He nicknamed himself The Black Mamba, in honor of an extremely venomous and fast African snake, and built the Mamba Academy in his name. Bryant packed a vicious bite with his teammates, chewing out his teammates in legendary fashion, as former teammate Brian Shaw will attest. Bryant never shied away from the moment and made the most of it. Michael stuck out his tongue; Kobe jutted out his jaw. 

When the text messages filled my phone alerting me about news of Bryant’s shocking death, I couldn’t stop thinking about his daughters. The basketball side of his life, that could wait.

There’s a good chance you know about his daughters already, because Kobe was not just one of the most visible basketball players ever -- he’s one of the most visible fathers the game has seen. His Instagram account is filled with photos of his daughters. Like, this one seven days ago. No caption. Just a photo of his daughter wearing Dad’s jersey. Or this one, of his family dressed as Wizard of Oz characters for Halloween. His Instagram is a scrapbook of fatherhood and father-daughter pride.

Perhaps my emotions were playing with me a bit because I found out about Kobe’s death while holding my four-month-old daughter in my arms, shattering a day that, until that moment, was brimming with love. Hours earlier, I celebrated my oldest daughter’s third birthday with her friends. I thought about how lucky I was to see her smile and witness this moment. My grandfather passed away suddenly when my father was 2 years old. The third birthday hit a little differently for me.

And now it’ll hit differently for another reason. Even as I type this, the backspace is getting extra work because my hands shake as I think about Bryant in those last moments with his daughter Gigi and what he told her.

Little of this feels real. Little of this makes sense. That was often the case with Bryant. The scoring, the winning, the Achilles, the 60-point final act -- Bryant’s story would hardly be believed if it didn’t happen. Right up until his tragic passing.

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

Pelicans' Zion Williamson looks every bit the superstar in NBA debut

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NBC Sports

Pelicans' Zion Williamson looks every bit the superstar in NBA debut

We waited, and then we waited some more. In one of the most highly-anticipated regular-season game in years, Zion Williamson made his debut for the New Orleans Pelicans against the San Antonio Spurs three months after undergoing surgery to address a torn lateral meniscus in his right knee. Though he played for the first three quarters, we didn’t see Zion be Zion until the fourth quarter.

And boy, was it worth the wait. Williamson went nuclear in the fourth quarter, scoring 17 straight points in the final frame on 6-of-8 shooting, including 4-for-4 from 3. He became the first player in NBA history to make more than three 3-pointers without a miss in his NBA debut, per Basketball Reference. It was the most thrilling three-minute stretch of basketball all season and I’m sure there were plenty of well-rested people waking up with regret this morning.

For the game, the 19-year-old finished with 22 points, seven rebounds and three assists in just 18 minutes. This, after coming off a monstrous preseason in which he averaged 23.2 points, 6.5 rebounds and 2.2 assists per game on 75.5 percent shooting on 2s and 25 percent shooting on 3s.

On its own, this was everything the Pelicans and the NBA could have asked for in a debut. The slow build made the fourth quarter that much more enjoyable to witness. But in the bigger picture, there’s a lot to unpack after Wednesday’s explosion.

Here are three takeaways on my mind as I watched Zion’s debut.

Upgraded Blake Griffin is Zion’s real comp

Williamson’s other-worldly combination of skill, strength and springs has generated an endless stream of player comparisons from Charles Barkley to Larry Johnson to Bo Jackson. But the one that stands out to me most these days is Blake Griffin -- an upgraded hybrid of Lob City Griffin and Point Forward Griffin.

Just like Williamson, Griffin faced a litany of knee problems at Williamson’s age. As an electric high-flying teenager at Oklahoma, Griffin suffered a sprained MCL in his freshman season in one knee and months later, tore his meniscus in his other knee, requiring arthroscopic surgery to remove the torn cartilage. That’s nearly a carbon copy of Williamson’s past year. 

But there’s an important difference between the two No. 1 overall picks. When Griffin underwent arthroscopic surgery, he missed less than a week. You read that correctly. In a 2013 interview about Derrick Rose’s torn meniscus, Griffin said that, under the watch of the Oklahoma Sooners, he “had surgery on Sunday and played on Saturday.” 

Williamson, on the other hand, missed just over 13 weeks. 

This distinction is important, because the long timetable was by design. The Pelicans have been extra careful with Williamson. They’ve attempted to re-program how Williamson moves around the floor and protect him as much as possible from serious injury. 

At the direction of the Pelicans’ training staff, led by newly-hired VP of Player Care, Aaron Nelson, Williamson needed to reach a series of biomechanical benchmarks in order to get cleared to play. The regimen was mocked by Barkley on TNT, but Williamson said his body “does feel a lot better” on a revealing episode of the JJ Redick Podcast.

“I think the biggest challenge has been just the challenge of rehab,” Williamson said. “You know how tough it is, for hours, people watching you, how you land, how you bend when you do this motion -- over and over? ‘Make sure that knee doesn’t cave in. Make sure it stays out. Make sure it’s above the third toe. Make sure you’re standing straight. Land like this.’ Even when I’m out on the court, it’s still the same thing.”

This is all part of VP of Basketball Operations David Griffin’s plan. Months before Williamson underwent knee surgery, Griffin (no relation to Blake) said the team would exercise “an abundance of caution” when it came to Williamson’s health. At the behest of Griffin, who was hired in April, the team had already invested in a multi-million-dollar upgrade of its practice facility and pried Nelson away from the Phoenix Suns to oversee their player health department.

"I feel like the whole vibe, the whole attitude in the facility and with the staff has just been different," point guard Jrue Holiday told ESPN recently. "It definitely feels like people are ready and excited. It's been like that ever since Griff has come into place."

Still, executives around the league have been surprised at how guarded the Pelicans have been with their prized rookie. The team shut Williamson down for the entire Vegas Summer League with a bruised knee after just nine minutes of action. Following the meniscus tear, the official six-to-eight week timetable turned into more than three months on the sidelines. And less than two months into rehab, the team had already ruled him out of playing in back-to-backs, at least initially, upon his return. 

David Griffin has said many times this year that he has never seen a player like Zion Williamson, who is 6-foot-6 and 285 pounds. He claims that Williamson has more lateral quickness than any point guard that has played under him. Keep in mind, Griffin has led or been a part of front offices that employed Kyrie Irving, Steve Nash, Stephon Marbury and Jason Kidd. More mobility than those guys? 

“Yes,” Griffin told me recently. "Without a doubt.”

It remains to be seen how Williamson will fare with the “abundance of caution” approach. But even if Williamson faces chronic knee issues, the Blake Griffin comparison could prove to be an illuminating one for Williamson’s development.

No knee or body is the same, but in surveying executives around the league about what to expect with Williamson’s injury, Griffin’s name popped more often than any player as a reference point. Dating back to college, here’s a history of Griffin’s knee problems: a sprained MCL in his left knee in 2008; a torn meniscus in his right knee in 2008; a broken kneecap in his left knee in 2010; a torn meniscus in his left knee in 2012; a surgical clean-up in his right knee in 2016; another sprained MCL in his left knee in 2017; another torn meniscus in his left knee in 2019; and finally, earlier this month, season-ending surgery to remove a torn meniscus in his left knee.

Knee injuries are rarely a one-time deal (see: Derrick Rose), but players can overcome them and still play at a high-level. Early in his career after a series of knee issues, Griffin was still a wrecking ball around the rim. In his second season, when Lob City became a national sensation, one out of every five of Griffin’s baskets was a dunk, according to Basketball Reference tracking.

But as knee injuries took their toll, Griffin altered his game to be more grounded, yet no less effective. Last season, Griffin dunked the ball once out of every 33 baskets, but he was still an All-Star averaging 24.5 points, 7.5 rebounds and 5.4 assists at the age of 29. Now, instead of a high-flying trapeze artist, Griffin functioned more as a point forward in the Pistons’ offense and made more 3-pointers (189) than any power forward or center last season.

In Wednesday’s debut, Williamson showed his capacity to be that type of player for New Orleans right now. Though the world wanted to see him fly all over the floor, Williamson spent most of his time on Wednesday facilitating for others (Pels coach Alvin Gentry, in his mid-game interview, noted that a nervous Williamson was playing “so conservative.”). 

A couple possessions stood out above the rest. In the second quarter, while playing nominally as the Pelicans’ center, Williamson grabbed a rebound, dribbled up the floor as the de-facto point guard and drove right into LaMarcus Aldridge in the lane. When the Spurs player collapsed around Williamson, he left his feet and improvised by kicking it out to a wide-open E’Twaun Moore, who clanked an easy 3-pointer. Good process, bad result. 

Williamson’s trust in his teammate would be rewarded later. Early in the fourth quarter, after skying over Jakob Poeltl for a defensive rebound, again as the Pelicans' center, Williamson led a fastbreak in the open court and threw an absolute laser to a slashing Moore. This time, Moore finished at the rim for Williamson’s third assist of the night. While it was obvious Williamson was rusty after missing three-plus months, his feel for the game jumped off the screen. Plays like those Moore setups demonstrate Williamson’s vision and knack for a Griffin-like evolution as a player. 

Like those passes, Williamson’s most insightful moments Wednesday were not the high-flying leaps but rather the things he did in between. The Spurs practically begged him to take 3-pointers and Williamson stepped into them with confidence, splashing all of them through the net. The doubters who think he’s just a dunker? This was a reckoning.

Gentry pulled Williamson amid his supernova run to protect him from overdoing it in his debut, much to the chagrin of many on the broadcast and on Twitter. But medical staffs are there for a reason. With all the hand-wringing about Williamson’s minutes restriction and their comprehensive approach that drew Barkley’s ridicule, I thought about something Doc Rivers told me in 2017. This was right after Steve Ballmer bought the Los Angeles Clippers and invested heavily in sports science and player health following Donald Sterling’s infamous bargain-basement reign. Rivers said the Clippers “were just behind” in the sports science and training staff, noting that Sterling would only pay for one trainer and one physical therapist. (The Pelicans currently have nine such staffers).

Sitting in his Staples Center office, I asked Rivers whether he thought Griffin’s long line of leg injuries were preventable if the franchise had invested real dollars in player health. He stammered for a while.

"With Blake, you know ... you never know. Like, if we ... I don't know. I mean, I actually think Blake's ... you couldn't have ... I think Blake's was probably -- I always say that if you miss games, and he missed with his [broken] hand, then when you come back, everything falls apart next. He had what we call 'one of those years.' And there was nothing you could do about it."

And then Rivers paused.

"But you still wonder, like, if there was ... would we have been ready to do it?"

Hello Zion, the floor-spacer

Williamson’s four triples on Wednesday were a revelation. The Spurs dared him to shoot and he did, splashing every shot as the Smoothie King Center erupted. 

What’s interesting about Zion’s 3-pointer spree is that it came when he was playing the center spot with the second unit. I don’t think that’s a coincidence. When playing next to the starting unit of Holiday, Lonzo Ball, Brandon Ingram and Derrick Favors, Williams looked like he was in second gear for much of the night.

As the focal point with the reserves, Williamson broke out. He’ll need to find his spots next to the starters, but I’m not worried about that, considering what we saw in the preseason. Even if he doesn’t consistently hit those 3-pointers yet, he can still be a terror on the perimeter.

Back in 2014, cutting-edge numbers from fancy new player-tracking cameras revealed that Dwyane Wade was an elite floor-spacer. At first blush, this didn’t make sense. Wade wasn’t a great 3-point shooter -- not even a good one. And yet, Wade was treated with the same respect as sharpshooters Kyle Korver, Klay Thompson and J.J. Redick. 

What was happening? Well, Wade was spacing the floor, but not as a 3-pointer. Instead, Wade was causing havoc as a devastating cutter to the rim. Fall asleep even for a second and Wade would dart to the rim for a soaring bucket. If defenders didn’t pay him appropriate attention at the 3-point line, he burned them so often that over time, those sagging defenders adjusted and stuck to him like glue. 

And it drove Wade crazy.

“I’m just like, ‘Damn, did I just start shooting 3s and I didn’t know about it?’,” he told me at the time.

Just like Wade, Williamson will soon have the gravitational pull of the sun. The Pelicans suspect it already. Watch their actions off the ball and you’ll see how Williamson’s cutting abilities will transform him into a devastating floor-spacer -- even if he doesn’t hit a 3-point shot.

When defenders shaded off of Williamson in the corner in his preseason slate of four games, the Pelicans liked to have their center, whether it was Favors or Jahlil Okafor, screen Williamson’s sagging defender. The result was almost always a bucket, because it gave Williamson a runway to play downhill. And if you give Williamson a runway, he will launch himself above the defense.

In the preseason, on five off-ball screens for Williamson where he started beyond the 3-point line, the rookie generated five layups, totaling eight points in all, according to Synergy Sports tracking. Flat-footed defenders in his way posed as mere traffic cones. The alternative is defenders stick to Williamson and hope that he can’t break free as easily. 

You may be able to give Williamson the Rajon Rondo treatment on the ball and dare him to shoot. The Spurs did it four times on Wednesday and paid dearly before Williamson checked out (thanks, minutes restriction!).

But off the ball? He can be a nightmare for opponents, even without a knockdown 3-point shot at his disposal. Just ask Dwyane Wade.

Will Zion push the Pelicans into the playoffs?

After Wednesday’s loss, the Pelicans are now 4.5 games behind the Spurs, who sit in sole possession of the No. 8 seed in the West. That’s a noteworthy gap, but Williamson was good enough in his debut to give New Orleans reason to believe that it can make up the deficit by April. 

Buckle in because there is still a very real chance that we’ll be gifted an Anthony Davis Bowl playoff, with New Orleans facing Davis’ top-seeded Los Angeles Lakers in the first-round. 

To get into the playoffs, the Pelicans would have to leapfrog four other teams: Memphis, Phoenix, Portland and San Antonio, just to get there. And yet, FiveThirtyEight.com’s projections have the Pelicans as 53-percent favorites to get into the postseason. 

It all has to do with the schedule. 

Expecting to have box-office-superstar Williamson healthy, the NBA heavily scheduled the Pelicans against marquee teams in their early primetime slate. The result was a brutally-difficult schedule in the opening months without one of the Pelicans’ best players. But that also means the Pelicans are facing the fourth-easiest remaining schedule in the NBA.

The Pelicans have already said that they’re planning to rest Williamson during back-to-backs, but they only have three of those sets left on the schedule, with the next one not until early March. If Williamson sits the second night of those three back-to-backs and plays 34 of the Pelicans’ final 37 games, they should be doing backflips. 

Integrating a star midseason is always tricky without the ramp up of training camp and preseason. Paul George didn’t make his Clippers debut until a month into the season due to shoulder rehab and is now nursing a nagging hamstring injury that has sidelined him for seven of the last eight games. Kyrie Irving is also dealing with a sore hamstring after playing four games following a two-month layoff with a hurt shoulder.

Soft-tissue injuries like a strained hamstring are the things that keep trainers up at night, because those are usually caused by overuse. The Pelicans can certainly make a playoff push if Williamson plays like he did on Wednesday. But Griffin’s revamped staff will certainly be monitoring Williamson’s workload going forward -- and with good reason.

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