Three questions Blazers must answer this summer

190521-haberstroh-blazers-obit.jpg
USA Today

Three questions Blazers must answer this summer

For the third straight year, the Portland Trail Blazers’ season ended in demoralizing fashion. Another sweep, with the Golden State Warriors once again holding the broom just as they did in 2017. The Blazers did manage to steal one game against the Warriors in 2016, but that playoff victory comes with an important footnote: Stephen Curry sat out with a knee injury. 

That’s been the story for the Blazers. After falling to 0-10 against the Warriors in the playoffs with Curry in uniform, it’s clear Portland hasn’t figured out this team. 

Well, guess what? No one else has either. 

Since Steve Kerr took over in 2015, the Warriors have won an astounding 17 of 18 playoff series. The one team that beat them -- the 2016 Cleveland Cavaliers -- needed LeBron James, a Draymond Green suspension, and last-second heroics in Game 7 to pull off the upset in the NBA Finals.

Just when the Cavs thought they may have solved the riddle, the Warriors added Kevin Durant and dismantled the Cavs over the next two Finals. Following a 2017 sweep, James packed his bags for Hollywood. 

Should the Blazers try going in a different direction just like LeBron did? 

Let’s get into that and two other big questions the Blazers offseason.

1. Do the Blazers blow it up?

Under contract for two more seasons, Damian Lillard and CJ McCollum won’t be partaking in the free-agent frenzy this summer. But even if they did have the ability to leave Portland, they’d have little reason to flee like Durant in 2016 or James in 2018. The Warriors have that effect on people.

It may not feel like it now, but this was the best realistic outcome for the Blazers. Vegas preseason projections saw a 42-win team, not enough to even make the playoffs. Multiple media outlets agreed with that grim outlook, envisioning a team that would take a huge step back after a 49-33 season in 2017-18. 

Led by Logo Lillard’s attack, the Blazers didn’t just make the playoffs, they improved to 52-30 and became one of the last two West teams standing. 

That they managed to fight this far should be the legacy of this team. The owner, Paul Allen, died two days before the season opener. McCollum missed nearly a month at the end of the season with a knee injury. Jusuf Nurkic, the starting center and a legitimate candidate for Most Improved Player honors, broke his leg three weeks before the playoffs. 

The Blazers could have huddled up, put their hands together and chanted “1-2-3, Cancun!” and it would be an understandable reaction given their recent history of consecutive first-round sweeps. Instead, the Blazers changed the narrative of the franchise, marched to the Western Conference finals and took down three superstars in Russell Westbrook, Paul George and Nikola Jokic along the way.

Nurkic’s injury was devastating for the Blazers’ hopes, but on one level, it may be a blessing in disguise for this group. Clearly overmatched against the Warriors, the absence of Nurkic gives them fuel for redemption next season. Maybe Nurkic doesn’t stop the Draymond Green show in this series, but the Warriors clearly didn’t think much of the Blazers’ depleted frontcourt, choosing to swarm the backcourt and dare everyone else to beat them.

If Nurkic is healthy, that plan may not have been as wise. The Bosnian center is Portland’s best passing big man, averaging 3.2 assists per game and providing a release valve in the event that Lillard and McCollum are blanketed up top. Though Meyers Leonard did the best he could in a pinch, the playoff stage at this juncture demands two-way players and Nurkic provides a much stiffer presence on the defensive end and on the boards, where the Warriors can be exploited. 

The expectation around the league is that the Blazers will run it back and give it another go. With Lillard, McCollum and Nurkic back for at least two more seasons, this core will likely have another crack at the Warriors in postseasons to come. As we saw in this series, Durant’s potential departure may not matter for the Blazers’ prospects, but Nurkic’s return should at least give them a fighting chance.

The future is brighter than it seemed a year ago. This is a small-market team with Lillard, McCollum and Nurkic all under 30 years old entering next season, which can’t be said for the starry cores in Houston and OKC. Denver is on the rise, but the Blazers just beat them. Both L.A. teams have uncertain futures. Utah and Minnesota didn’t take the step forward that many envisioned.

Portland is in a great spot in a league marked by uncertainty. That doesn’t mean they don’t have offseason questions. Seth Curry, Enes Kanter, Rodney Hood and Al-Farouq Aminu will all be unrestricted free agents this summer. Of those names, the Blazers only have Bird Rights on Aminu, which means the Blazers, as an over-the-cap team, won’t be able to offer substantial raises to Curry, Hood and Kanter when they hit a seller’s market.

That doesn’t mean the supporting cast won’t return. If role players turn down more money from elsewhere, it’s because they appreciate Portland’s stable environment, escaping the very real stresses and expectations of a marquee franchise. With so much free-agent turnover around the league, the Blazers’ relative calm and order can be an appealing draw.

With that said, it would be a surprise if Curry, Hood and Kanter return on below-market deals. Curry will likely want to cash in after missing the 2017-18 season rehabbing his knee and proving this season he can still be helpful rotation player for a winner. Hood has put his playoff demons to rest with his strong play and hits a free-agent market light on shooting guards. Kanter also earned himself some coin after he averaged a double-double this postseason until Tuesday’s Game 4. 

The Blazers could re-sign one of them or Aminu using the taxpayer’s mid-level exception of three years and $18 million, but they might opt to spread it out on multiple players. Names like Wayne Ellington, Mario Hezonja and Quincy Pondexter could eye Portland to revitalize their careers like Curry, Hood and Kanter did.

You can also bet that front offices around the league will use the 2018-19 Blazers team as an example of why owners should pay up to keep your core and build around it. The Blazers have caught a lot of heat for their spending sprees. After inking Lillard to a five-year max in 2015, the Blazers doubled down in 2016 and signed McCollum to a four-year, $107 million extension while inking big deals with Evan Turner, Festus Ezeli and Allen Crabbe. 

The Blazers made a $220 million bet that Lillard and McCollum’s talents and leadership abilities would make them a perennial playoff team who could, at its peak, contend for the Finals. It’s hard to argue with that thinking now. A little over a year after trading for Nurkic at the ’16-17 trade deadline, the Blazers locked him into a four-year, $48 million extension in 2018, which now looks like a steal, even with his horrific injury.

For years, GMs pointed to the 2010-11 Dallas Mavericks as “Exhibit A” for preaching patience and waiting for the cracks to break open. While Portland hasn’t won a championship yet, but the ‘18-19 Blazers run may be cited just as much going forward. They may not ever topple the Warriors, but there’s no shame in trying.

2. What did we learn about Zach Collins?

For many, if the Blazers made the playoffs and saw development from the 21-year-old Collins, this season would be seen as a success. 

The first item on that list? Check. The second one? Another check.

Collins showed enough promise this season to make the Blazers feel OK about selecting him 10th overall in the 2018 draft over other big men like Bam Adebayo (14th), John Collins (19th) and Jarrett Allen (22nd). Though he didn’t flash quite the same All-Star potential as those other names, Zach Collins undoubtedly took a step forward this season, becoming a much better shot-blocker and more reliable shooter on open jumpers. 

Collins’ youth was exposed a bit this postseason, biting on the slightest of pump fakes and leading all postseason players in fouls per minute (minimum 100 minutes played). But he should get better with that as he gains more experience and understands player tendencies. He’s certainly not JaVale McGee in that department.

Collins isn’t close to taking Nurkic’s job any time soon and he isn’t ready to be slotted in as the starting power forward quite yet. While Stotts has used Kanter and Collins together a bunch in the frontcourt, the coach has shown little interest in the Collins-Nurkic look as the tandem shared the court for only 65 of Collins’ 1,356 total minutes in the regular season. 

Collins will likely enter 2019-20 as Nurkic’s backup center again alongside Leonard until Collins shows the ability to stretch the floor a bit better. Collins shot just 29.8 percent on catch-and-shoot jumpers, per Synergy Sports tracking.

Some executives feared that the Gonzaga product was a local reach at No. 10, but Collins has made himself into a useful NBA player. He still has a ways to go before locking in a big extension next summer. If he doesn’t take a big stride next season, the Blazers should be nervous about bailing on the 21-year-old so soon. That’s how Nurkic landed in their lap in the first place. 

3. Does Damian Lillard deserve the supermax?

When Lillard toed the free-throw line midway through the second quarter, the Moda Center gave him a hearty “M-V-P” chant. It was probably one of a dozen rallying cries this season. But this time, it felt more like a pick-me-up than a declaration. The star point guard had a woeful first three games of the series, shooting just 5-of-20 inside the arc and struggling mightily to pierce the Warriors’ onslaught of double-teams.

Lillard looked spent. And understandably so. Entering Game 4, he had played a league-leading 3,444 minutes this season including the playoffs, which was 153 minutes more than the next-highest player (James Harden). He played 44 minutes in Game 4, extending his lead to nearly 200 minutes. Throw in the fact that Lillard just wrapped up a seven-game series at Denver altitude that included a four-overtime game AND that he suffered a separated rib in Game 2 of the Western Conference finals, it’s a wonder the guy was able to be effective at all.

After the series concluded, Lillard sat hunched over on the podium and indicated that fatigue affected him more than the rib injury. He finished with 28 points and 12 assists in the game.

“I’ve played through worse things,” Lillard said. “I think just fatigue, just all the attention after 82 games, this being the deepest we’ve played … Teams are coming after you. That takes energy to deal with that.”

The Warriors treated Lillard like a superstar and he will likely be compensated as one soon. Lillard is expected to sign a supermax extension that could tack on an additional four years and about $190 million to his existing two years and $60 million remaining on his contract, according to a Yahoo! Sports report.

A quarter-billion for a player who’s never won a conference finals game, you might ask? 

Welcome to the new NBA. While polling some NBA general managers recently, the consensus among them was that Lillard will be offered the supermax by the Blazers -- and deservedly so.

“Compared to other supermaxes,” said one rival general manager, “he’s earned it.”

Lillard was a top-five player in the NBA this season by multiple advanced measuring sticks. After leading his team to the No. 3 seed out West, he will likely finish on one of the All-NBA teams this year, locking in his eligibility for the designated veteran extension that is reserved for only the best of the best. To date, Stephen Curry, John Wall, James Harden and Russell Westbrook are the only players to have netted the supermax. 

Lillard’s extension wouldn’t kick in until 2021-12 and would take him through his age-35 season, if they come to such an agreement. Lillard has been as consistent as they come, averaging between 25 and 27 points per game in each of the last four seasons and never missing more than nine games in any of his seven seasons in the league.

Lillard’s extension comes at a somewhat troubling time in Portland. Following Allen’s death in October, the Blazers are expected to be up for sale in the coming years. In February, the Portland City Commissioner Nick Fish indicated to The Oregonian that the expectation is that it will take five or six years for Allen’s estate to be settled.

“We expect the team will be on the market,” Fish told The Oregonian. 

A Lillard supermax extension won’t be a deterrent for bidders. In league circles, the feeling is that a Lillard commitment would only make the franchise more valuable.

“Have to preserve assets to maximize sale,” said one executive involved in an NBA franchise acquisition. 

Beyond Lillard’s presence, there’s plenty to excited about for potential bidders. For one, it’s an NBA franchise; there are only 30 of those. They fill their arena on a regular basis (my ears are still ringing from fans cheering during the highs of Game 4). The Blazers have reached the playoffs for six straight seasons. With Dwyane Wade retired, Stephen Curry and Russell Westbrook may be the only veterans as beloved by their home city as Lillard is in Rip City. 

Of course, the core comes at a steep cost. With Lillard, McCollum and Nurkic locked in for the long haul, this team has over $200 million of outlays on their cap sheet even before Lillard’s supermax kicks in. But take it from one former Blazer in Kerr: This is a team worth keeping together. And that includes Lillard.

“I have so much respect and admiration for Terry (Stotts) and his staff and the players,” Kerr said. “What Damian (Lillard) and CJ (McCollum) do as leaders and as a backcourt together, it’s amazing to watch. I know this city loves its team and they should love this version of this team, as much as any of them, because they are a great group.”

Follow me on Twitter (@TomHaberstroh) and bookmark NBCSports.com/Haberstroh for my latest stories, videos and podcasts.

Kobe Bryant leaves behind lasting, unbelievable legacy

kobe_obit_16x9.jpg
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

200123-zion-haberstroh.jpg
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.

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