Through titles and dark moments, Chris Bosh changed the NBA

Through titles and dark moments, Chris Bosh changed the NBA

Chris Bosh wanted to pick Kevin Garnett’s brain. 

It was the 2010 All-Star Game in Bosh’s hometown of Dallas. The East All-Star locker room was quiet and the superstars were lacing up. Garnett, the 33-year-old All-Star starter and NBA champion with the Boston Celtics, wasn’t in the heat of battle, spitting obscenities at Bosh. For the moment, Garnett and Bosh were anointed allies in the pregame locker room, a most-sacred place in sport.

“At the time, I wasn’t a threat,” Bosh tells me during an hour-long conversation, “so we could talk.”

This was the time and place, Bosh thought. Older veterans had turned down Bosh’s inquiries before -- “I won’t tell you who” -- but in that Dallas locker room, Garnett seemed open to talk, not smack, but life.

So Bosh went for it.

How did you know it was time to leave Minnesota?

Bosh knew the question might make him seem small and vulnerable, like he didn’t have all the answers. This was his fifth All-Star Game and the loud, dreadlocked big man was averaging 24.4 points and 11.4 rebounds for the Toronto Raptors. Didn’t he have it all figured out? Truth is, he didn’t. His mind was a mess. Free agency was coming up and he didn’t know what to do. 

The Raptors had one winning season in Bosh’s seven years. Garnett had won a title in his first year with Boston only 20 months prior and two of Bosh’s peers from the 2003 draft class -- LeBron James and Dwyane Wade -- had already reached the NBA Finals. Bosh felt isolated in Toronto and hungry for more, something bigger. 

“Everytime I come here [to All-Star], I am always looking at two or three guys from the top team in the East, or the top two or three teams in the East,” Bosh recalls. “Around that time, there was always this buzz and excitement, like, ‘Are you guys going to win it? Who’s gonna win it?’ And me … it was just like … I’m just here.”

Didn’t KG feel that in Minny? 

Garnett did not blast him for asking. Instead, he offered some sage advice that, months later, would seal the deal for Bosh to go to Miami.

“You want to play with people who can take pressure off you, that way you don’t have to worry about other things,” Bosh remembers Garnett telling him. “You can just play basketball.”

Bosh didn’t decide to leave Toronto right then and there. But the conversation with Garnett gave him strength in knowing that other stars too had felt this weight, this stress, this anxiety. He wasn’t alone.

Ahead of his jersey retirement ceremony with the Miami Heat on Tuesday, March 26, Bosh is sitting in the garage of his Miami home, reminiscing and thinking about how Miami’s Big Three -- he, James and Wade -- helped launch the era of player empowerment, where stars switching teams in free agency is commonplace. Kevin Durant, Kyrie Irving, Jimmy Butler and Kawhi Leonard have all engineered exits in recent years, making it known they’d like to take their talents -- and their careers -- elsewhere.

“It’s huge,” Bosh says of the trio’s pioneering role. “A lot of people don’t like it, that’s the funniest part.”

Don’t like what?

“An athlete with brains.”

When we talk about Bosh’s place in NBA history, this is where it should begin: Humanizing the star.

* * *

Everything changed after Bosh and James joined Wade in Miami.

NBA players controlling their own destiny in free agency was and is a worthy endeavor. But when they take matters into their own hands to pursue a championship, the scrutiny you’ll face will be magnified beyond anything you’ve experienced before.

As one third of one of the most famous trios in the history of professional sports, Bosh for the first time found himself in the fishbowl, surrounded by a storm of criticism and high expectations.

On ESPN, he was nicknamed “Bosh Spice” by Skip Bayless, a misogynistic barb that Bosh would later confront Bayless about on “First Take.” The Big Three were often called the Big Two-and-a-half. And when Bosh, in a

moment of candidness, said that Heat players wanted to “chill” on off days while coach Erik Spoelstra wanted to work, it became a national scandal. That particular controversy became the third installment in Bleacher Report’s running series headlined “Everybody Hates Chris.”

And all of that was before Bosh sobbed on national television.

It happened in the moments directly following Game 6 of the 2011 NBA Finals. As the Dallas Mavericks celebrated the franchise’s first NBA title on Miami’s homecourt, the Heat retreated to lick their wounds following a turbulent first season together. An exhausted Bosh was held up on the walk to the locker room by teammates Erick Dampier and Wade. Then, overcome by emotion, Bosh collapsed to the red carpet, sunken on his elbows and knees, and cried.

The intensely personal moment was broadcast to the millions watching. Bosh knew it would haunt him, but it was too late.

“I looked up and saw the camera right there,” Bosh remembers. “And I was like, awww, they’re going to kill me.”

Bosh changed again after that Finals defeat, after that moment of despair was shared around the world. The double standard for the pro athlete was laid bare to him. Sports are supposed to mean something to pro athletes, but not enough that it makes you weep. Do everything you can to win a championship, but only if it’s on management’s terms, not your own. Be authentic, but only if it fits neatly within the carved-out narrative.

“That’s one of the things I had to learn, was to just be myself,” Bosh says. “Just going through that process, just really seeing the different levels and different flavors of people’s reactions and their opinions. It gave me confidence just to say, ‘Alright, damned if you do, damned if you don’t. I’m just going to be myself. And that’s great enough.’ It’s about what you do on the court and it’s not about pleasing everybody.”

It’s a hard lesson to learn. Even now, Bosh says he wishes he had just kept his emotions in check for just for a few more steps until he let it all out in the privacy of the locker room. Instead, his emotion became something of a punchline.

No matter how hard he tried to block out the noise on social media and on TV, Bosh admits, that in his darkest moments he would slink back and listen to it all. In Game 1 of the 2012 Eastern Conference Semifinals against the Indiana Pacers, Bosh limped off the floor with an abductor muscle strain, sidelining him indefinitely in the middle of their redemption tour. The injury forced him to stay home when the team went on the road to Indiana. 

Bosh watched the series unravel just like the rest of the basketball world.

“We go in and we lose Game 3 in Indiana and I’m just watching,” Bosh says. “I’m supposed to be ready to play in two and a half weeks. I can’t walk. We go down 2-1 on the road. Oh, D-Wade was awful that game. We just had a stinker.”

During Game 3, cameras caught Wade and Spoelstra having to be separated on the sidelines during a heated exchange. Lance Stephenson infamously gave a choke sign to LeBron after the Heat star missed a technical free throw. The Heatles were crashing and Bosh felt helpless. In the throes of his funk, he flipped on ESPN and watched what they said about him and the Heat. It drove him deeper into despair, so much so that he just about wanted to quit. Until his wife, Adrienne, pulled him out of it.

“My mistake was listening to the TV,” Bosh says. “I was listening and it just got in here [pointing to his head] and I pretty much gave up. I pretty much gave up and my wife was like nuh-uh-uhh.”

In the regular season, he and his wife had watched DVDs of NBA Classics that told the story of champions overcoming adversity. Bosh told his wife to pay attention because there would be times of adversity. 

Don’t get too down, Adrienne. 

And of course, the tables turned in the playoffs. Adrienne delivered the pep talk, telling Chris, hey, the lows are part of the journey.
 
“I’m like, ‘Ah I did say that?’,” Bosh recalls telling her. “I guess I’m gonna have to pull myself together.”

Bosh and the Heat turned adversity into an opportunity. Rather than start two traditional bigs against Indiana’s formidable frontcourt of David West and Roy Hibbert, Spoelstra decided to go small and start Shane Battier at the power forward position. The switch was something Spoelstra had thought about doing in the series anyway, but Bosh’s injury forced his hand. With Battier and James alternating as the power forward, the Heat won the next three games to earn a spot in the East Finals.

The opponent? Garnett and the Boston Celtics. After three weeks of arduous rehab and emotional turmoil, Bosh returned to the lineup in Game 5, coming off the bench for just 14 minutes. The Heat lost, going down 3-2 in the series, as Garnett scored 26 points to Bosh’s nine. And it seemed like as good a time as any to give up.

Instead, with Bosh manning the center spot -- a position he never envisioned he’d play on a winning team -- the Heat went on to win six of the next seven games en route to a 2012 Finals win over Oklahoma City. After losing that Game 5 against Boston, Bosh averaged 14.1 points and 8.7 rebounds with a plus-48 in the plus-minus column.

Bosh’s presence changed everything. In Game 7 of the conference finals against Garnett, Bosh made 3-of-4 3-pointers, totaling 19 points and eight rebounds. In the Finals, Bosh sliding over to the five next to Shane Battier and James was a game-changer. Bosh discovered his 3-point shot and a new position. The NBA would never be the same.

* * * 

Bosh’s career went on to reach towering heights. The Heat defended their 2012 championship by winning 27 straight games during the 2012-13 regular season and later took down the San Antonio Spurs in one of the most memorable Finals in NBA history. Bosh was at the center of it all, grabbing perhaps the biggest rebound in franchise history and blocking the Spurs’ final attempt. No one was calling him Bosh Spice anymore.

But a rocky three-peat quest in 2013-14 ended all those good vibes. James left in the summer of 2014 after the Spurs took their revenge. Bosh re-upped with a five-year, $118 million max contract but hit the dark place once again. In 2015, doctors found a blood clot in Bosh’s lungs that ended his season at the All-Star break. A year later, blood clots returned, this time in his calf, ending his season prematurely once again. A year ago, Bosh was still trying desperately to return to an NBA that now appeared tailor-made in his image.

But after hearing so many no’s from doctors and spending days without teams returning phone calls, Bosh decided to hang it up for good in recent months. On his terms.

“You know, you have to deal with that stuff,” Bosh says. “Just a bunch of thoughts, a bunch of dark stuff, just comes in and pops in and then ‘Yo, where’s this coming from?’ You deal with it.”

It’s tough for Bosh not to think about what might have been. As pace-and-space (a term coined by Spoelstra) and the 3-point shot gained in popularity, and importance, more and more big men have followed the blueprint Bosh helped pioneer in Miami. By the end of his time in Miami, Bosh was averaging 4.2 3-point attempts per game, seventh most among big men. Now, 18 big men shoot that many in 2018-19, underscored by Bucks center Brook Lopez attempting more than six 3-pointers a night for the East’s best team.

“That was one of the things I used to really have trouble with last year watching the game,” Bosh says. “I had to bounce back from that. I was in a really dark place, trying to rebound from that, to be honest with you.”

It’s understandable. If Bosh’s blood clots hadn’t forced him out of the league, he could’ve entered this summer as a free agent, alongside the likes of Durant, Irving, Leonard and Butler -- the same players he unknowingly helped all those years ago. It’s a fact that has haunted him to this day.

It still hurts, but Bosh isn’t afraid to talk about that now. This is about being himself.

“I’m happy for the guys,” Bosh says. “I’m happy to look back and even if people don’t know, to say, hey, you know what, I had a little bit to do with changing the league.”

Bosh changed the game off the court, too. I ask him, does Durant leave OKC if Bosh and the Big Three don’t choose to team up in 2010?

“No,” Bosh says now. “That put pressure on him.” 

Earlier in March, Durant told NBC Sports Bay Area’s Kerith Burke that basketball “will never fulfill me.” It’s a sentiment that Bosh agrees with. Bosh thought he’d be fulfilled when he became an All-Star. That wasn’t enough. A championship? Not enough. Two championships? Still not fulfilled. 

“There’s more [to life],” Bosh says. “If you’re fulfilled, then pretty much just give up on life and die after that, right? If you’re fulfilled? That’s a great statement that he made. I think it’s telling people as well, this is just my interpretation, but it’s like, ‘Yo, chill’ because everybody puts the onus on that championship. It’s not going to fulfill you. And that’s one of the big secrets about it.”

For Bosh, dark places came after titles, too. You strive to get that high again, like another hit of a drug. But basketball can be cruel. 

“People on the outside looking in might say if you win a championship, it’s all good; it’s not,” Bosh says. “You still have a long life to live. When you win a championship, it just means a bigger X on your back.”

* * * 

Bosh heard commissioner Adam Silver’s comments to The Ringer’s Bill Simmons at the MIT Sloan Sports Analytics Conference in Boston. 

“We are living in a time of anxiety,” Silver said. “I think it’s a direct result of social media. A lot of players are unhappy.”

Bosh last played in 2016, but he’s stunned by how rare it is that young players consult him about navigating the fishbowl. Social media has connected just about every star, but they’re feeling as disconnected as ever.

“Nobody reaches out,” Bosh says. “Guys don’t want knowledge. Nobody has come to me, and said, ‘Hey, man how’d you do that thing?’ It’s cool. I’m not putting pressure on anybody. But me coming up as a player, one of the most important things was to seek knowledge, even if people turn you away. I got turned away, believe it or not.”

That curiosity and thirst for knowledge drove Bosh to seek Garnett’s counsel at the 2010 All-Star game and setting the wheels of multiple championships and a jersey retirement in motion.

“And I do get it, we do live in an age of anxiety,” Bosh says. “But that’s because everybody cares about what everybody thinks. I do not care. As long as it’s positive, I’m not going to be a jerk, but if you don’t have anything good to say, I’m really not going to listen to it.”

Bosh is the first to admit that blocking out the noise and criticism isn’t easy. He used to scroll Twitter and Instagram to seek validation, to hear people talking about him, to make him feel relevant, to make him feel alive. But he doesn’t go there anymore. In down times, he talks to his wife and family instead, his foundation. Social media and 24-7 media became a toxic place, a landmine for which Bosh learned to avoid.
     
“It took a while to get there,” Bosh says. “It’s exciting at first, but then after a while … it’s like what the Lakers are experiencing this year. I’m sure last year they were lovable because nobody really expected things from them. But then you get the expectations and it changes. These same talk shows you’re getting killed all of a sudden. Now you’re getting hate tweets. People on Instagram are leaving nasty comments.”

“But you can’t worry about that. It’s hard not to, but what’s your alternative? The fact that the commissioner was even talking about happiness was crazy. Adam [Silver], just the fact that he even felt compelled to say something about that, which is true. You see guys competing for championships and they’re not happy. It’s not a happy time to be honest with you. A huge part of it is knowing, first, sucking it up, and then knowing that a championship is not going to complete me as a person as an athlete or as a public figure.”

Now, ahead of his jersey retirement, Bosh is at peace with his career. Bosh is eligible to be in the Basketball Hall of Fame Class of 2021 along with Garnett, Tim Duncan and Kobe Bryant, making it likely the best class ever. According to a Basketball-Reference.com algorithm, Bosh’s Hall of Fame probability stands at 99.5 percent. Without his locker room talk that led to career autonomy and two championships, who knows whether Bosh would’ve reached these heights.

And when the Heat raise his jersey into the rafters on Tuesday, Bosh insists there will be no thought of dark places.

“All highs.”

Watch Haberstroh's full sitdown with Bosh here.

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

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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