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Don’t even start with the Rookie of the Year Award stuff.
Beginning with his scheduled return from injury Wednesday night against the San Antonio Spurs, Zion Williamson can, at most, play 38 games for the New Orleans Pelicans in his first N.B.A. campaign.
Not enough games, in other words, to erase the considerable lead Memphis’s Ja Morant has taken in the R.O.Y. race.
(Full disclaimer: I most certainly did support Philadelphia’s Joel Embiid in 2017’s R.O.Y. balloting even though Embiid played in just 31 games, but that was because there was no Morant — or anyone close to Embiid’s peak level — that season.)
The belief here, mind you, is that Williamson doesn’t really care much about his R.O.Y. chances at this point. Not after what he has been through already — forced to miss 13 weeks, rather than the initially projected six to eight — after needing surgery on his right knee just before the regular season.
Finding a new focus should be relatively easy, too, given that Williamson and the Pelicans will be chasing something more meaningful than rookie hardware over the next three months.
How does a first-round series against LeBron James, Anthony Davis and the Los Angeles Lakers sound?
It would have been laughable to even suggest that when the Pelicans were in the midst of a 13-game losing streak that dumped them into a 6-22 hole. But New Orleans awoke on Tuesday just three and a half games out of a playoff spot after the Pelicans beat Morant and Co. in Memphis on Martin Luther King Day — with Williamson in street clothes for hopefully the final time this season.
The mere notion of a LeBron vs. Zion duel in the opening round is possible, of course, only because the West is poised to house a sub-.500 playoff team for the first time since the 1996-97 season.
Yet the whispers emanating from the Big Easy suggest that the Pelicans believe they can beat out Memphis, San Antonio, Portland, Phoenix and the other contenders for the West’s last playoff berth. For two main reasons, so do I:
1. If Williamson comes anywhere close to the form he displayed in the preseason, when he averaged 23.3 points and 6.5 rebounds in 27.2 minutes per game while shooting 71.4 percent from the field, New Orleans is getting more of an impact player than anyone you’ll see switch teams before the Feb. 6 trade deadline.
2. Williamson is rejoining a Pelicans team that, to Coach Alvin Gentry’s credit, has fixed many things during its recent 11-5 run. Brandon Ingram has emerged as an All-Star contender by establishing himself as a legitimate No. 1 option offensively. Derrick Favors, who scarcely had a chance to play alongside Williamson in the preseason because of injury, may rank as the Pelicans’ most important player given his impact defensively and the team’s 9-5 record when he plays at least 24 minutes. And the much-maligned Lonzo Ball is playing the best, freest ball of his young career, which enables Jrue Holiday — who came back on Monday from an elbow injury that cost him seven games — to operate from his more natural position alongside a true point guard.
Be advised that the Pelicans will also benefit from the most favorable schedule in the West the rest of the season. That includes a finishing kick of 15 games in which only one opponent (Philadelphia on April 11) currently has a winning record.
I also can’t ignore the scouting report that the New Orleans veteran J.J. Redick gave me hours before the Pelicans’ season opener in Toronto, when the news of Williamson’s meniscus injury was still fresh after his dominant exhibition play.
“He’s phenomenal,” Redick said. “It’s hard to really put him in a box and say he’s like this guy or that guy, and that’s sort of the definition to me of a unicorn. There’s really no one like him.
“The sheer force that he plays with, speed, power — it’s unlike anything I’ve ever seen in person. On top of that, he’s just a fantastic kid.”
It has been a long wait for the Pelicans to get him back — twice as long, essentially, as the time Williamson was initially expected to miss. Yet for all the panic, dread and doomsday talk that Zion’s extended absence spawned, David Griffin, New Orleans’s executive vice president of basketball operations, said last week that he believed “very strongly” that Williamson was a “radically improved physical version of himself.”
“We feel like he will be a bigger, better version of himself,” Griffin said of the 6-foot-6, 284-pound forward. “A healthier version of himself going forward.”
Front office hyperbole? Perhaps. But what if it isn’t? What if it’s true?
Let’s be clear here about Morant: What the 20-year-old has achieved in a half-season in unfashionable Memphis has to be hugely celebrated, no matter what. The Grizzlies were widely billed as the one team in the West that had zero playoff hope coming into the season. Instead they’re still in the midst of a Cinderella surge: 14-7 since Morant’s return from a back injury on Dec. 9 to join the mix, without warning, for the West’s No. 8 seed.
Maybe the best way to describe it, assuming Williamson has indeed rebounded as well as Griffin maintains, is that 2019 may be remembered for a very rare N.B.A. draft in which two teams won the lottery.
On Wednesday night, at last, we can mercifully start making that evaluation with our eyes as opposed to our imaginations.
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You ask; I answer. Every week in this space, I’ll field three questions posed via email at firstname.lastname@example.org. (Please include your first and last name, as well as the city you’re writing in from, and make sure “Corner Three” is in the subject line.)
Q: Now that there’s a reasonable sample size, how would you assess the Markelle Fultz trade — particularly from the Orlando perspective? — Eric Snider (St. Petersburg, Fla.)
Stein: I always loved it from the Orlando perspective. Fultz is so skilled (and still so young) that someone was bound to gamble on him. The Magic are surely thrilled they won that race.
Fultz’s outside shot is a long way from being fixed, as we covered here in November, but all you had to do was watch the way he closed down the Lakers on Wednesday night to see that he has still has no shortage of gifts — speed, strength, agility, finishing ability at the rim — that are as tantalizing as they ever were.
If Fultz continues on this comeback track, of course, it won’t be long before the 76ers are hammered for giving up on him too soon. Yet it’s hardly a reach to suggest that this renaissance was unlikely to ever happen in Philadelphia.
The scrutiny and expectations were overwhelming in Philly after the brutal first season and a half of Fultz’s career. He badly needed a fresh start in a low-pressure environment.
The surprise is that he found one faster than most league insiders imagined.
Q: If the main barrier to a United States vs. Rest of the World format for the All-Star game is the fact that U.S.-born players outnumber international players by three to one, why not have four All-Star teams? They could have one team of foreign-born players competing against three teams of American players designated by geographic regions of their teams, their birthplace or some other benchmark. Maybe this format would help get the competitive juices flowing — something sadly missing from many All-Star games in recent years. — Stuart McKay (Vancouver, British Columbia)
Stein: Instinct tells me that a format which allowed 48 players to earn All-Star status every season, rather than 24, would be met with as much resistance as the United States/Rest of the World idea. Or maybe more.
All-Star berths, for prestige and legacy reasons, mean so much to the players that earn them. The United States/World format would make them too exclusive for 75 percent of the league, but your proposal is the opposite. It would dilute the value of them too much.
I don’t think we want to see more than 10 percent of a 450-player league wearing the label of All-Star. Even if the four teams included only 10 players rather than 12, that doesn’t sound sufficiently special for All-Star status.
Q: What is the state of Adam Silver’s in-season tournament and his other proposed changes to the schedule after the news last week that owners won’t be voting on these things in April? — Sam Chadwick
Stein: We will find out more when Silver holds his annual address at All-Star Weekend in Chicago next month, but based on everything I’ve heard he remains hopeful of implementing the bulk of the schedule changes in the 2021-22 season.
My sense is that the playoff play-in tournament right before the postseason begins, which would feature the four teams that place between No. 7 and No. 10 in each conference in the regular season, is the surest bet to be added. There is a good bit of momentum behind that idea.
But Silver has also made it clear that, for all the noise out there denigrating the soccer-style “cup” competition that the league is pushing, he believes that the N.B.A. can only truly know if the idea is feasible or not by trying it out.
The least likely of the three big changes on the table to win sufficient support is the proposal to reseed the four teams that reach the conference finals based on their regular-season records. The New York Times reported on Dec. 31 that the reseeding concept has been met with “strong concern” from a number of teams, stemming mostly from fears of significantly increased travel — but also the presumed reluctance of Eastern Conference teams to have to face a West power one round earlier than usual.
When teams were informed last Friday that the vote planned for April had been postponed, this was interpreted in some corners as a silent admission from Silver that he feared the proposals would be voted down at this time. Mark Cuban, owner of the Dallas Mavericks, has been the most outspoken critic of the in-season, soccer-style tournament from the ownership ranks, slamming it as “so dumb” in December after I tweeted some details.
Yet it should be noted that the new labor agreement in the W.N.B.A. includes the introduction of an in-season “Commissioner’s Cup” that gives teams another trophy to play for. The N.B.A., in theory, will be able to glean pros and cons from the W.N.B.A. version to share (and potentially appease) N.B.A. team owners before they do vote.
Only five teams could claim winning records against teams from the .500-and-over set entering Tuesday’s play: Milwaukee (10-5) and Miami (11-6) from the East and the Los Angeles Lakers (12-8), Denver Nuggets (9-6) and Los Angeles Clippers (10-8) in the West.
Golden State’s Stephen Curry (four) and New Orleans’ Zion Williamson (zero) have combined to play in only four games this season, but they ranked No. 3 and No. 15 on the league’s list of top jersey sellers released last week.
The Pelicans have eight national television dates (on ESPN, ABC and TNT) through the end of the regular season. The first of those is Wednesday night’s home game against San Antonio, when ESPN broadcasts the expected return of Zion Williamson at 9:30 p.m. Eastern time.
We were fairly tough on Philadelphia in Monday’s power rankings, slotting the 76ers in at No. 12. Yet it is worth pointing out that the Sixers, for all of their flaws, are a notable 3-0 this season against Boston.
The Memphis Grizzlies have held the eighth spot in the Western Conference for 11 days in a row — 11 more than pretty much anyone would have believed coming into the season.