22 Questions: How Screwed Are the Pelicans Without Zion Williamson?

Zion has the power to upend the Western Conference playoff picture — if he's actually able to play in Orlando

July 20, 2020 5:38 am
Zion Williamson
The New Orleans Pelicans' Zion Williamson is the NBA's most powerful force.
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Over the next three weeks, we’ll be preparing for the NBA’s long-awaited restart by attempting to answer the single most important question facing every franchise that will be present and accounted for in Orlando. This is 22 Questions.

A screaming comes across the sky. It’s probably Zion Williamson.

Since emerging as an internet sensation and Drake’s friend in 2017, Williamson has steadily become one of the most famous basketball players alive, evolving from Overtime curiosity to the scariest college basketball player of all time to perhaps the most promising young player the NBA has seen since LeBron James. More impressive than Williamson’s individual production, though, has been his ability to effect winning: when Williamson is on the court, the New Orleans Pelicans outscore their opponents by 9.56 points per 100 possessions, a rate similar to that of the league-best Milwaukee Bucks; when Williamson is on the bench, the Pelicans are outscored by 3.33 points per 100 possessions, a rate similar to that of the stinky Chicago Bulls.

In just 19 games, Williamson put to rest any doubts that he was nothing more than “Julius Randle with hops,” averaging 23.6 points per game almost entirely within the paint. Even if his perimeter game is still crude, Williamson is already the most singularly dominant interior force in the NBA, plowing through and past defenders with all the grace and subtlety of the Kool-Aid Man. For opponents, guarding Williamson seems like it should be an OSHA violation: there’s never been a player this thick, this strong, this dense, this determined to dunk a crater in your chest. And this was when Williamson was a certified load, showing up to games with visible mayonnaise stains on his sweatpants.

Although the Pelicans struggled prior to Williamson’s protracted arrival (he missed the first 44 games of his careers after knee surgery), this is still a deep and talented roster in the wake of Anthony Davis’s departure to La La Land. Jrue Holiday is a profoundly underrated guard; the only other guards in the NBA who can match his statistical prowess as a scorer, passer and ball-hawking defensive thief are James Harden, Russell Westbrook and De’Aaron Fox. Having finally moved on from the ridiculous comparison of Steph Curry with a 40-inch vertical, Lonzo Ball has settled in as an elite role player. At the risk of sounding like one of the Big Baller Brand’s FANBOYS, Ball is the NBA’s premier coordinating conjunction, linking all aspects of the Pelicans team with his court vision, defense, spot-up shooting and relentless tempo-pushing. Most promising  was the mega-leap that the 22-year-old Brandon Ingram made. Long and lean, Ingram was named to his first All-Star team, having learned to channel his arthropodal build and shooting touch into consistent production. While Ingram’s relative lack of burst off the dribble means he’ll never have a Williamson-level impact, his three-level scoring is a lethal complement. 

As talented as the team may be, however, they have a very limited ceiling without Williamson, not just because Williamson is super good at basketball, but because he snaps the team’s jigsawed pieces into place.  If the Pelicans roster is a Scrabble hand, Williamson is a blank tile that unlocks a world of possibilities from a selection of hard-to-use Xs and Zs. Namely, Williamson unlocks the team’s deadliest five-man lineup (Holiday, Ball, Ingram, Williamson and Derrick Favors), which has mashed the league to the tune of a 26.3 net rating, tops among lineups that have played more than 200 minutes. Without him, though, the Pelicans have limited options because of their reliance on Derrick Favors, a starting center who provides ace rim protection but a narrow offensive skill set. Earlier in the season, when the Pelicans struggled to find options to play next to Favors, they were forced to sacrifice either speed or size; Williamson provides strong doses of both. Ball has also become a totally different and better player since Williamson’s debut, thanks to their highly symbiotic skill sets: Williamson demands defensive attention and frees Ball for easier shots, while Ball has assisted on more than 25 percent of Williamson’s total points.

Before Williamson left the bubble to attend to an “urgent family medical matter,” the Pelicans seemed like a mortal lock to overtake the Memphis Grizzlies as the eighth seed in the Western Conference. They probably still are, depending on when — or perhaps if — Williamson returns.

But really, the most revealing thing about Williamson is that he’s a microcosm for everything good and bad about the NBA’s restart. Watching him hurtle down the floor is a simple, pure, mindless joy like knocking over a tower of blocks or playing your kid brother in Nerf basketball. Conversely, he stands for the relative meaninglessness of this whole enterprise: basketball ultimately doesn’t amount to much of anything when compared to a health crisis, whether it’s a personal or international one.

Still, all these moral concerns, valid as they are, will be quickly excised as soon as the NBA tips off because attention spans are short and basketball is fun. The real impact of the NBA’s bubble isn’t merely that it shuts out the real world, but that it refracts reality: the rest of the universe can now be distilled into the simple matter of how does this relate to the NBA. To be clear, this is all kind of gross — to look at news about Williamson leaving the bubble to be with a sick family member and then instantly wonder how his potential absence will ripple across the NBA’s playoff race. And yet, the question remains: How will it? If Williamson returns to the bubble by July 26th, he’ll be allowed to participate in the Pelicans’ first game against the Jazz on July 30th. The Pelicans currently sit 3.5 games behind the Grizzlies for the eighth and final Western Conference playoff spot; they have eight games to catch them.

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