Should the surprising Heat go star hunting?

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NBC Sports

Should the surprising Heat go star hunting?

The Miami Heat have never gotten off to a better start. Not the Heatles, not the Shaq-led teams, no team in the 32-year history of the franchise. At 18-6 through 24 games, none have won more games than a ragtag team led by the 30th pick of the 2011 draft, Jimmy Butler.

This Heat team fully embodies the underdog mentality of Butler, whose ESPN recruiting page still reads NR -- for Not Rated. Two of the team’s starters, Kendrick Nunn and Duncan Robinson, spent last season in the G League. Meyers Leonard, who’s starting at power forward, was iced on Portland’s bench last season until Jusuf Nurkic broke his leg in late March. 

Then there’s Miami’s affinity for late-game heroics. Led by the best closer in the NBA, Butler and the Heat are 6-1 in clutch situations this season, trailing only James’ Lakers for the best record in the league in those moments.

But the biggest revelation has been Bam Adebayo, who, similar to what Butler did in Chicago, patiently bided his time on Miami’s bench behind the Heat’s $100 million man, Hassan Whiteside. Few would blame Adebayo if he checked out while watching Whiteside’s listless play be rewarded with a starting gig. Instead, the former No. 14 overall pick is dazzling alongside Butler.

Following the surprising start and with Butler and Adebayo already racking up triple-doubles, is it time for the Heat to go big-game hunting in the trade market? Miami has all the markings of a classic “one player away” team and several league executives have pegged the Heat as the East’s most interesting team as the December 15 landmark approaches, unlocking 2019 free-agent signees to be eligible for trade. 

Is Chris Paul in their sights? Is Kevin Love or Blake Griffin? Let’s take a look at the NBA’s most surprising contender and whether they need to trade for another big-name player.

Adebayo is already Butler’s co-star

I mean, where to begin with this guy? Adebayo might be the best quarterback in South Florida, which, granted, isn’t saying much these days. But no team in the NBA has scored more points off of handoffs than the Heat, with Adebayo at the forefront of most of them, per Synergy Sports tracking. In a departure from Whiteside, Adebayo actually seeks bodily contact with opposing defenders on these handoffs, flicking the ball to shooters in the pocket as they curl around Adebayo’s Mack-truck-like hip-checks.

But Adebayo isn’t just a hand-off quarterback. Like Nikola Jokic does for the Denver Nuggets to much greater fanfare, Adebayo also runs Miami’s offense often. Five of his 11 assists against Atlanta on Tuesday night came after he started his dribble beyond halfcourt. Point guards almost never make an outlet pass to their center, but this happens all the time with Nunn and Adebayo. With Adebayo regularly playing the “point center” role, it’s downright dizzying for defenses to figure out who’s running the fastbreak. In fact, Adebayo has assisted more of Nunn’s baskets than the other way around.

No one’s prouder of this development and the changes in Miami this year than Heat coach Erik Spoelstra. The man who popularized the term “positionless basketball” is seeing his versatile dream come to life. His power forward, Leonard, is shooting 50 percent from downtown. His center, Adebayo, is second on the team in assists. If Adebayo added a 3-point shot, he’d be the basketball antithesis of Whiteside, whose tunnel vision and me-first mentality weighed heavily on the locker room, league sources told NBC Sports. 

Heading into this season, Heat officials privately raved about how different the locker room felt compared to years past. Players were genuinely playing for each other. They were having fun again. And while that’s a common preseason refrain across the league, Miami’s 5-1 start and wins over the Milwaukee Bucks and Houston Rockets showed that there was something different happening in Miami this season.

While Butler has gotten the headlines, Adebayo might just be Miami’s difference-marker. As of Wednesday, Adebayo ranks 10th league-wide in win shares, making him and Butler one of two team pairings among the league’s top 10 (the other duo was featured in Wednesday’s Haberstat). The Heat are also 7.5 points per 100 possessions better with him on the floor, per NBA.com. And those 11 assists from Wednesday night? More than Whiteside tallied in all of his 17 starts last season combined.

Just 22 years old, Adebayo has already developed into one of the most untouchable young players in the NBA. Unless someone like Giannis Antetokounmpo is put on the table, don’t expect the Heat to take trade talks involving Adebayo seriously -- not even for a future Hall of Fame point guard.

Should the Heat go after Chris Paul?

It’s not hard to talk yourself into Paul on the Heat. Who is more hell-bent to win a championship than Pat Riley? It could be Butler, who has never even reached the conference semifinals. It could be Paul, who, along with Steve Nash, might be the best player ever without a Finals appearance. Theoretically, those ultra-competitive spirits could fuse a bond between Riley, Paul and Butler.

Also, Paul is still playing at a high level and could really help the Heat with Goran Dragic battling nagging injuries. You need high-IQ grown-ups to win in the playoffs and Paul is definitely that (almost to a fault at times). Sharing the ball with Shai Gilgeous-Alexander has hurt Paul’s box-score numbers, but the 35-year-old’s positive impact is undeniable. The Thunder are plus-59 with Paul on the floor and minus-44 with him on the bench. (Sidenote: Gilgeous-Alexander has seen the opposite scoreboard impact). 

There’s also the Banana Boat factor. The transitive property of NBA friendship suggests that Butler would get along with Paul. Butler is close with Wade. Wade is close with fellow Banana Boat member Paul. Therefore, a Butler and Paul pairing would work out, right?

Don’t hold your breath. Before trading Russell Westbrook to Oklahoma City, the Rockets tried to engage the Heat on a three-team deal to reroute Paul to Miami, but the Heat resisted, multiple sources told NBC Sports. The Heat’s desire for Westbrook was “a level above” their interest in Paul, according to one high-level source involved in those talks. 

As it stands now, the Heat aren’t expected to make a run at Paul, per multiple sources. They like their locker room chemistry and aren’t actively looking to shake it up. More importantly,  Paul’s contract complicates Miami’s potential future. Paul will be 35 years old in May and is due $41.4 million next season and will be 37 when he’s due $44.2 million. A glamour market like Miami doesn’t need to make trades to acquire a star. Smaller markets like Utah, Charlotte and Portland do.

The same goes for big-name players like Kevin Love and Blake Griffin, each of whom, like Paul, are due north of $30 million 2021-22. Reminder: Antetokounmpo could be a free agent in 2021.

After polling executives, the league-wide sense is that Paul will remain with the Thunder this season simply because of his enormous contract. While it’s theoretically possible that Paul could agree to turn down his $44 million player option for 2021-22 to grease the wheels on a potential trade, right now, that is the longest of long shots. Besides overcoming the idea of giving up 44 million buckaroos, Paul is also the president of the players’ union and it would be a bad look to set that precedent of turning down that amount of money to make it more palatable to a team. 

If Paul were younger and didn’t have that price tag hanging over his head, he might be Miami-bound. But at the moment, it doesn’t look like a Paul-Butler partnership is in the cards, leaving Miami to hunt for help on a different level.

What about smaller fish?

Butler may not be an ideal fit with Paul, but there’s one name to watch as Dec. 15 approaches: Kyle Lowry. By extending his contract to 2020-21 last summer, Toronto made him more palatable to teams like Miami that want to keep their options open for the summer of 2021. Lowry would be an title-tested upgrade over Dragic and has looked strong this season following offseason thumb surgery. 

As of this writing, it’s unlikely Toronto cuts bait on Lowry with the Raptors playing this well. Alongside MVP candidate Pascal Siakam and Fred VanVleet, Lowry might actually be closer to a title in Toronto right now than he would be in Miami. But if Toronto’s season began to sour or if president Masai Ujiri wanted to get ahead of an offseason remake of the Raptors, the Heat could be an enticing dance partner. Would a package of 23-year-old Justise Winslow and Dragic’s expiring contract be enough to open a dialogue? It’s worth keeping an eye on.

If not Lowry, then New Orleans Pelicans guard JJ Redick could be a target of the Heat. Despite going separate ways this summer, Redick and Butler grew close in Philadelphia as like-minded competitors and, per a source, to this day they maintain regular communication through a group chat forged in Philadelphia.

Redick signed a two-year, $27 million contract this past summer to act as NOLA’s floor-spacer and veteran mentor. Things haven’t gone to plan. Redick may have joked at media day about Zion Williamson messing with his postseason streak, but at 35 years old, Redick didn’t exactly expect to be 6-18 at this point in the season. No one in New Orleans did.

Redick would thrive in Miami. He’s shooting a blistering 44.9 percent on 3-pointers and would be a sniper in Miami’s hand-off offense. Redick and Joel Embiid cooked teams with that action last season, making Redick an ideal fit next to Adebayo (Philly ranked No. 1 in points off handoffs last season).

The problem with Redick is that New Orleans might not be ready to flip that switch just yet. There’s still time for Williamson to return and right the ship before the Pelicans are forced to make a drastic change. They didn’t acquire Redick for him to be a two-month rental. But the Heat have five players -- Justise Winslow, James Johnson, Dion Waiters, Kelly Olynyk and Meyers Leonard -- near Redick’s salary number to make salary-matching easier and a few young assets that could entice New Orleans to act. Would the Heat put Nunn on the table to acquire Redick? I’d do it if I’m the Heat.

Another floor-spacer to monitor is Davis Bertans, who is a leading candidate for Most Improved Player alongside Adebayo, Siakam and Charlotte’s Devonte’ Graham. Bertans makes the Wizards competitive, but he could make a borderline contender like Miami into a legitimate Finals threat. 

With a $7 million contract that expires in the summer of 2020, Bertans would be more affordable salary-wise than Redick. It also means the Heat would have to toss more sweeteners into the deal to make it palatable for Washington. The Heat only have two of their next seven second-rounders and can’t trade a first-round pick until 2025.

Teams like Miami will be making calls on Bertans, who figures to be the Nikola Mirotic of this year’s trade deadline. But the Latvian may be playing his way off the trade market. At 27 years old, he fits in line with Bradley Beal and John Wall’s long-term trajectory. Don’t be surprised if Wizards GM Tommy Sheppard signs him to an extension and keeps him for the long haul. He’s been that good. 

Whether Bertans remains available or the Heat chase someone like Redick or Lowry, it’s clear the Heat are better positioned to add a solid rotation player than a max-salaried All-Star like Paul, Griffin and Love. It’s tempting for Miami to go all-in and try to load up for the 2020 NBA Finals, but that route makes more sense for a small-market team.

The allure of a 2021 free agent class that could feature Antetokounmpo, Paul George, LeBron James, Kawhi Leonard, Donovan Mitchell and Victor Oladipo is too good to pass up.

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

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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