NBA Insider Tom Haberstroh

Zion Williamson, Pelicans enter NBA restart as most compelling team

NBA Insider Tom Haberstroh

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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