Zion Williamson‘s rookie season might have only five days left in it.
Even though they were 3.5 games back of the 8-seed in the West when the NBA season resumed last month, the New Orleans Pelicans were a popular choice to reach the postseason and set up a tantalizing first-round matchup between Williamson, this season’s No. 1 overall pick, and four-time MVP LeBron James. However, things haven’t gone as planned for the Pelicans and their young star, who saw his minutes limited in early campus action and has been an extreme liability on the defensive end.
With that in mind, we asked three of our experts to provide their insights into Williamson’s play in the bubble and what it means for the Pelicans’ future, both immediate and long term.
Zion in Orlando so far
Zion Williamson was supposed to be the main attraction inside Walt Disney World for the New Orleans Pelicans’ expected push toward a Western Conference playoff berth. On the opening night of NBA bubble action, the Pelicans were showcased on national television, as the bulk of their games have been.
And indeed, Williamson has been a hot topic — although not always for the reasons the Pelicans or the league hoped when the seeding games schedule was announced.
Williamson missed 13 days of basketball activity — July 16 to July 24 while out of the bubble for an excused absence and then another four days of quarantine. The Pelicans’ plan for him included limited minutes early — “short bursts” — and keeping him out of half of New Orleans’ only back-to-back in the bubble.
New Orleans executive vice president of basketball operations David Griffin said every player on the team has a plan laid out, and Williamson’s was affected by missing the three scrimmage games. When he did return, Williamson looked somewhat sluggish.
In his first game, against the Utah Jazz, Williamson had 13 points in 15 minutes but didn’t record a rebound for the first time in his career. He struggled to find his footing in his second game, against the LA Clippers, scoring a career-low seven points in 14 minutes.
Williamson started to look like himself in his third game, against Memphis, when he had 23 points, seven rebounds and five assists in a victory. He continued his offensive surge with 24 points on 10-of-12 shooting in just under 22 minutes against the Sacramento Kings.
Pelicans forward Brandon Ingram said having Williamson back in the fold helps to ease things for the team on the offensive end.
“Well, we know what to expect when he’s in the lineup,” Ingram said on Aug. 3. “When he’s in the lineup he’s going to make an immediate impact. He’s gonna cause so much attention that we have to be shot-ready on the wing, or ready to make a cut or whatever, because he’s such a willing passer.”
Williamson had seven assists in his past two games, the most he’s had in a two-game span in his short career. His passing helps to unlock another level of the Pelicans’ offense, and the team’s offensive rating has been 110.7 when he’s been on the court the past two games.
The defensive end, where Williamson has yet to register a block or a steal, has been another story completely. — Andrew Lopez
Zion’s defense dropping off
Williamson might be the brightest young star in the NBA, and coming into the bubble, it was clear that the 19-year-old phenom was good enough already to make the Pelicans a legit playoff contender. Want proof? No five-man lineup in the entire league had a better net rating than Williamson and his four starting teammates. None.
Before the season resumed, the Pelicans’ starting group had posted a bonkers net rating of plus-26.3 (points per 100 possessions), best of the 34 NBA lineups that shared at least 200 minutes of playing time.
The Pelicans’ starters looked terrific from the time Zion made his debut in January, especially on defense, allowing a ridiculously low 91.6 points per 100 possessions.
But in the bubble, as noted, it’s been a different story. In the relatively few minutes Williamson is playing, he looks slower and less engaged on defense, and the Pelicans are flailing whenever he’s in the game.
Here are the receipts:
Before the bubble, with Zion on the floor, the Pelicans had a net rating of plus-10.4, which is outstanding. (That included lineups when Williamson was teamed with Pelicans reserves.) But when he was off the court, they had a net rating of minus-3.5.
Now the whole deal has reversed itself. In the bubble, the Pelicans are struggling with Zion on the floor, with an atrocious minus-22.8 net rating. It gets stranger: When Zion is off the floor, the Pelicans have a net rating of plus-6.8.
The effect is especially obvious on defense. The biggest issue has been on the perimeter, where Williamson’s lack of awareness and inconsistent effort have been costly. Pels opponents are hitting 45% of their triples when Zion is in the game in Orlando, in part because Williamson has been an easy target on the edges.
Just look at these examples.
Again, the stats support what we can see. With Zion in the game in Orlando, New Orleans hasn’t stopped anyone, giving up an incredible 128.4 points per 100 possessions. But the Pelicans have been stingy when Zion is out, allowing 102.5 points per 100.
Williamson remains one of the best prospects this league has seen in years, of course. But to get his team to the playoffs this season, he needs to start playing better defense right away. — Kirk Goldsberry
How the Pelicans keep building around Zion
The Zion Williamson seven-year clock started last year when the New Orleans Pelicans agreed to trade Anthony Davis to the Los Angeles Lakers and selected Williamson with the first pick in the 2019 draft.
From the Lakers, they received Brandon Ingram, Lonzo Ball, Josh Hart and future draft picks, creating the foundation for success that never seemed to come together after the Pelicans drafted Davis in 2012.
Seven years is the amount of time between 2019 and when Williamson can leave as an unrestricted free agent, if he follows the usual path of signing an extension. For instance, LeBron James was drafted by Cleveland in 2003 and left for Miami in 2010. Likewise, Davis was in New Orleans for seven years, although under slightly different circumstances.
As we saw with both James and Davis, making the playoffs is not enough for some superstars. They want to go where they can team up and compete for championships. It’s the Pelicans’ job to make that happen in New Orleans.
This offseason will involve several key steps: The first step will be bringing back Ingram when he hits restricted free agency on Oct. 18. Whether they want to pay him the full max or not, the 22-year-old All-Star is very likely to get that kind of deal — presumably in New Orleans.
Step 2 will be to make a decision about the future of Jrue Holiday. The Pelicans could discuss an extension with him, or they could trade him a year or two before he hits free agency (Holiday has a player option in 2021). Aside from the young players on rookie contracts, the 30-year-old guard is the Pelicans’ best trade asset, and they shouldn’t risk letting him walk for nothing.
The third decision involves rookie extensions for Ball and Hart. If the Pelicans can sign both to team-friendly deals that provide salary cap flexibility for 2021-22 and future years, they should. If not, they can wait and let things play out for another year.
Fourth, they need to determine the value of their copious draft assets and how to deploy them. Including their own and two from the Lakers, the Pelicans have nine first-round draft picks (and a potential pick swap) in the next seven years — not to mention 10 second-round draft picks in the next four years.
How patient will they be? Will they decide to draft and develop most of those picks? Or will they combine some of them in a blockbuster trade or series of trades?
Remember that four-year rookie contracts are below market value and will allow the Pelicans to keep the payroll in check as their young stars get more expensive.
That would reverse the Pelicans’ role, putting them on the opposite side of the table from when Anthony Davis forced his way out of New Orleans.
Regardless, the Pelicans have a lot of good options and plenty at stake this offseason and the next few years as they try to keep Williamson healthy and happy. — Bobby Marks