Though we’ve only seen 565 minutes of Zion Williamson on an NBA court, he is already the sun around which the Pelicans — and to a lesser degree the NBA — orbits. No matter where you stand on the debate over whether the 22-team field for the NBA’s Orlando restart was only that big so that Williamson and the Pels could join, it’s clear New Orleans is one of the most intriguing teams in the league already.
They were also one of its most competitive heading into the hiatus. The Pelicans are 11-9 since Williamson’s return (he missed one victory) and had the league’s seventh-best net rating over that stretch. Their sugary schedule and obvious momentum made them one of the leading contenders to pass up the wounded Grizzlies back in March. They likely won’t be able to vault Memphis entirely now, but they are well set to meet the Grizzlies in a best-of-three play-in series in Orlando. But everything, as has been the case since Williamson descended upon the Big Easy, depends on the 2019 No. 1 overall pick, who is a gametime decision for their opener against Utah after being out of the bubble for eight days to attend to a family emergency.
Zylan Cheatham (two-way)
Josh Gray (two-way)
Thursday, July 30 — 6:30 p.m. ET — vs. Utah Jazz
Saturday, Aug. 1 — 6 p.m. ET — vs. Los Angeles Clippers
Monday, Aug. 3 — 6:30 p.m. ET — vs. Memphis Grizzlies
Thursday, Aug. 6 — 1:30 p.m. ET — vs. Sacramento Kings
Friday, Aug. 7 — 8 p.m. ET — vs. Washington Wizards
Sunday, Aug. 9 — 3 p.m. ET — vs. San Antonio Spurs
Tuesday, Aug. 11 — 9 p.m. ET — vs. Sacramento Kings
Thursday, Aug. 13 — Time TBD — vs. Orlando Magic
1. Los Angeles Lakers: 49-14
2. Los Angeles Clippers: 44-20 (5.5 GB)
3. Denver Nuggets: 43-22 (7)
4. Utah Jazz: 41-23 (8.5)
5. Oklahoma City Thunder: 40-24 (9.5)
6. Houston Rockets: 40-24 (9.5)
7. Dallas Mavericks: 40-27 (11)
8. Memphis Grizzlies: 32-33 (18)
9. Portland Trail Blazers: 29-37 (21.5)
10. New Orleans Pelicans: 28-36 (21.5)
10. Sacramento Kings: 28-36 (21.5)
11. San Antonio Spurs: 27-36 (22)
12. Phoenix Suns: 26-39 (24)
WHAT DOES SUCCESS LOOK LIKE?
It sounds crazy to say this about a team that had the top overall pick in the draft just a year ago, but the Pelicans want to make the playoffs pretty badly. It’s worth considering what has to happen for them to get there, for those not yet acquainted with the rules.
First off, in order to make up for the fact that the NBA could only fit eight seeding games into the schedule, the league created a system by which any team that came within four games of the eighth seed in the standings could get still into the playoffs (set off the Zion conspiracy alarms again). The ninth-seeded team then has to win two straight matchups against the eighth seed in order to take their spot. To determine who will get that ninth spot considering the jumble at the bottom of the West, the league decided to jump straight to winning percentage rather than the mess of tiebreakers it typically uses, since a team like Portland has played two more games than most of the rest of the conference. If teams are still tied, the NBA will default to its usual tiebreakers, with head-to-head record being chief among them. Because New Orleans swept Portland in four regular-season matchups, their main focus in this regard should be taking at least one of two seeding games from the Kings.
If this sounds like a web of confusion, that’s because it is, but you can just sit back and enjoy the Pelicans’ lightning fast, explosive offense rather than tabulating it all in a spreadsheet.
Brandon Ingram: The Pelicans’ three best lineups all had Ingram in them, but over the course of the season, Williamson was far more of a bellwether for New Orleans’ success than the All-Star. With both players on the court, the Pels outscored opponents by more than 12 points per 100 possessions. With Ingram and no Williamson, that dropped to minus-3. A lot of that had to do with Ingram himself. Despite improvements as a spot-up three-point shooter, Ingram’s true shooting percentage falls from an elite 60 percent mark with Williamson on the bench to 55.5 percent when Williamson is on the floor.
As Kevin O’Connor noted at The Ringer, Ingram took more pull-up shots when he shared the court with his fellow superstar. One solution O’Connor proposed is to actually deploy Williamson more often as a playmaker, which would remove him from the paint and open up the floor even more. And even with so many guards already on the roster, it’s clear these two need to be involved in half-court action together more than they are if the Pelicans want to get the version of Ingram who kept them from bottoming out in the winter. They will need both young stars at their peaks to make the playoffs and push the Lakers in the first round.
BIGGEST ON-COURT QUESTION
Can the defense improve, particularly with Zion on the floor? The good news on this front is that Williamson took daily tests while out of the bubble, allowing him a shorter, four-day quarantine period, which let him return to practice Tuesday night. He practiced again on Wednesday, but his status is a “game-time decision” for the opener per Alvin Gentry.
Once he does return and is back to his regular minutes load, his defense will be a major point of interest. Like many rookies, even those who were game-changing defenders in college, he’s had a sharp learning curve. The reads aren’t as easy, even if his athleticism is still elite on an NBA court. And the reality is many of the lineups New Orleans throws out just aren’t great defensive units, with guys like Redick, Melli and Hayes getting minutes. It’s not necessarily a problem for the near-term, as no one really expects a deep playoff run from New Orleans in 2020, but lost in the hype about Williamson’s return in the winter was that he struggled mightily on that end. Assuming he’s available, it would be nice to see some improvements to finish out his rookie season.