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Indiana Pacers 2017-18 Season Preview

Basketball Insiders previews the Indiana Pacers as they begin life without Paul George.

Basketball Insiders

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And so begins life after Paul George. What had been a year or two in the making finally occurred over the summer, as George was sent to Oklahoma City Thunder for the uninspiring return of Victor Oladipo and Domantas Sabonis. Now, the Pacers look to recover, somehow avoiding a complete rebuild in the process. This probably isn’t going to be a fun year, but Indiana’s rebuild isn’t the most depressing in the Eastern Conference by a long shot. There are some things to like here, and this will be the season when they cultivate the beginning of the organization’s next chapter.

FIVE GUYS THINK…

Let’s start by admitting right out in the open that the Oklahoma City Thunder won the Paul George trade by a wide, wide margin, and then let’s use that as fodder to predict that the Pacers probably are due for a step back this season. Bringing Victor Oladipo back to Indiana is a fun narrative, and Myles Turner has the look of an All-Star, but outside of that it’s hard to know who the real players are on this team. I love Lance Stephenson, but it’s horrifying that he’ll be asked to play a leadership role on the team this year, and the rest of the roster is filled mostly with replacement-level guys. They will be worse than last year but perhaps better than many people expect. At least the new uniforms are fire, right?

4th Place — Central Division

— Joel Brigham

Everything for Indiana starts with the Paul George trade. Simply put, the Oklahoma City Thunder won that trade – regardless of the fact that George could walk away for nothing after this season. The Pacers took on Victor Oladipo’s bloated contract, did not get any draft picks and actually take on money in the deal. It’s one thing if the rest of the league made no offers on George. However, we know that there were other bids for George’s services, which makes this deal so puzzling. With a roster featuring Oladipo, young stud Myles Turner and a list of mostly replacement level players, it’s hard to see this team making much noise even in the weak Eastern Conference. There’s more that can be said about Indiana, but it’s hard to get much further than the lopsided deal that sent George to Oklahoma City.

4th Place — Central Division

— Jesse Blancarte

Much like their in-conference contemporary in Chicago, the Indiana Pacers lost most of their firepower from last season as well.

Heading into this year, the Pacers will be without Paul George and Jeff Teague, as both players made their trek into the Western Conference. As a result, Indiana has been left to switch immediately from postseason appearance to rebuild mode.

By securing Victor Oladipo, an Indiana State legend from his college time with the Hoosiers, in the George trade, the Pacers at least have some type of marketing ploy at their disposal. But past that and the continued emergence of young big man Myles Turner, next season looks pretty bleak for Indiana.

At least from the looks of it, the Pacers will have a decent draft pick in what projects to be a deep lottery crop next June.

4th place — Central Division

— Dennis Chambers

Life in the post-Paul George era certainly won’t be quite as exciting for the Pacers, at least not to get started. This team won’t be good enough to challenge for anything real in the East, and that’s put them in a slightly tough position: Their best team-building avenue might be to simply bottom out completely and shoot for a high draft pick, but they might have just enough talent on the roster to make this difficult. Guys like Victor Oladipo, Darren Collison, Cory Joseph and Thaddeus Young aren’t anyone’s idea of a contender, but they’re good enough to get you some wins in this awful conference. Combine that with some possible improvement from youngsters Myles Turner and Domantas Sabonis, and securing a high lottery slot might not be so easy. Turner remains key here – his development should take priority over virtually any standings-related questions this year. Beyond that, we’ll see whether this Pacers team is taking a shot at the eight seed come trade deadline time, or whether they’re considering a fire sale and a full tank.

4th place — Central Division

— Ben Dowsett

Now begins life without Paul George.

On paper, the Pacers are a team that is full of complementary pieces, but one that’s devoid of one that’s capable of leading the pack. I count eight players on the roster that I like as individual contributors, but aside from Myles Turner, I’m not sure who (if anyone) has the potential to be a truly impactful player on his own. Through the early years of his career, Victor Oladipo has had some high moments, but he’s already been traded twice. To me, that means he failed to convince two separate franchises that he has “it.”

In the end, I expect this coming season to be a very long one in Indianapolis. You simply don’t trade a superstar like Paul George and get any better for it, and you especially don’t become any better for it by trading him for Oladipo and Domantas Sabonis. The Pacers simply become another example of life coming at you fast in the league, especially for small market teams. If you stumble across a superstar, you have a short window to build his team into a perennial contender. If you fail and he skates town, you start all over. Unfortunately, the Pacers ran into Miami’s dynasty and saw the clock strike midnight.

4th place — Central Division

— Moke Hamilton

TOP OF THE LIST

Top Offensive Player: Victor Oladipo

Let’s start by just pointing out the obvious here; Indiana lost a ton of scoring in their offseason overhaul. Between Paul George, Jeff Teague, Monta Ellis and C.J. Miles, Indiana is suddenly missing over 58 points per game which have not been replaced by the players they’ve brought in. Myles Turner, who averaged 14.5 points per game last season, should be a focus for the team offensively this year, but Oladipo is the player with best opportunity to average 20 points per game. He’s never done that, of course, but he’s come reasonably close. With years of experience and a bigger offensive role than he’s ever had, Oladipo appears to have the best opportunity to shine.

Top Defensive Player: Myles Turner

After averaging 2.1 blocks per game in just 31.4 minutes last year, Turner seems likely to be among the league leaders in that category this upcoming season as those minutes ultimately rise. Manning the middle last year, Turner allowed just 0.867 points per possession, which is a testament to just how effective he was as just a second-year player on a middling team. He’s quick for a guy his size, and his height, length and athleticism make him a nightmare for opposing players trying to score. In fact, opponents shot 8.4 percent below their season averages when he was the closest defender within six feet of the basket. He’s elite defensively, and should be even better (and stronger) this season.

Top Playmaker: Darren Collison

Collison has never averaged fewer than 10 points per game in his entire career, and only has failed to average four assists per game just once, making him the model of consistency on the offensive end in what will be his second stint with the Indiana Pacers this year. As the Jeff Teague replacement, he will be asked to do a lot of the same things (but for a lot less money), which will include splitting open defenses and finding open shooters. Even with fewer three-point marksmen on the roster this season, Indiana’s new starting point guard should still end up in the neighborhood of four to six assists per contest, easily the best of anybody on this Pacers team.

Top Clutch Player: Victor Oladipo

In April of last season, when Russell Westbrook had finally broken the triple-double record and took a night off ahead of the playoffs, the Thunder found themselves entrenched in a tight game with the Minnesota Timberwolves. With Westbrook out of the game, Oladipo took the go-ahead shot with just a few seconds left in the game, and he sank it to seal the victory for OKC. After the game, Billy Donovan said, “I think Victor’s proven in his time being a young player that he’s a guy who’s not afraid of taking a big shot,” and while he’s playing for a new coach, if any big shots come up this year, expect Oladipo to be the one who takes them.

The Unheralded Player: Glenn Robinson III

Last year’s Dunk Contest champ is a lot more than just a leaper, as he proved in inconsistent minutes last year, despite 27 starts. He was incredibly up-and-down offensively all season, but flashed some really interesting moments late in the season, including a game-winning shot and a 20-point outing. Defensively, he’s quite good at forcing turnovers and is a good rebounder at the three spot on the floor, and all of this should come into light as he contends for the starting small forward spot this season. Bojan Bogdanovic is a shiny new toy that flashed bigger stats in Brooklyn and Washington last season, but Robinson is quietly a slightly better all-around player. Hopefully he gets the consistent minutes to prove it this year.

Best New Addition: Victor Oladipo

He better be, anyway. He was the reason Indiana felt better about Oklahoma City’s trade offer than any offer that might have included a draft pick, so for better or worse, Oladipo is the future in Indiana, along with Myles Turner. If he ends up falling flat in this opportunity to get huge usage, the George trade will look worse than it already does.

— Joel Brigham

WHO WE LIKE

1. Lance Stephenson:

Something about Indianapolis brings out the best in Stephenson, who got his groove back to a certain extent after rejoining the team last season. The fans have embraced him—there’s even going to be a “Born Ready Crew” fan zone at the Fieldhouse this year, named after Stephenson’s rap moniker—and he’s talking like a leader already this summer. Indy will need some measure of leadership from him this season, so hopefully he’s got it in him. If nothing else, Stephenson is far and away the team’s most entertaining personality.

2. Bojan Bogdanovic:

It seemed like in every EuroBasket game Bogdanovic played this summer, he’d be Croatia’s top scorer with somewhere between 20-25 points per game. He’s not going to pour in numbers like that with the Pacers, but considering how much offensive firepower departed this roster in the offseason, he’ll get plenty of opportunities to be among the team’s leading scorers. Indiana lost a lot of three-point shooting over the summer, too, and that’s another area where Bogdanovic will be useful. In short, the Pacers needed someone exactly like him to fill out this roster, and it’s hard to imagine him not squeezing into the role set out for him.

3. Cory Joseph:

An ideal fit in Kevin Pritchard’s pseudo-rebuild, Joseph is coming off a strong year in Toronto in which he averaged 9.3 points and 3.3 assists, meaning he should slot nicely right behind Collison in the point guard rotation. He’s only 25 years old, so there could be even better years ahead. Between his time in San Antonio and Toronto, he’s got quite a bit of playoff experience for a kid his age, which should be a welcome addition to a team that doesn’t have a whole lot of that in its clubhouse.

4. Domantas Sabonis:

As the other piece in the Paul George trade, Sabonis’ development as a second-year player will speak volumes about how Pritchard did in moving his former team cornerstone. Last season Sabonis shot 46 percent from three, but his bread and butter typically comes in closer to the basket, where his post moves are slippery enough to get the better of bigger, bulkier fives. He should back up Turner and get more of an opportunity to succeed playing on the receiving end of pick-and-roll plays that don’t involve Russell Westbrook. His defense and fouling need to come down to earth, but offensively he’s got a bright future.

— Joel Brigham

SALARY CAP 101

The Pacers are under the NBA’s $99.1 million salary cap by as much as $7.6 million, even after signing Bojan Bogdanovic and Darren Collison (not to mention their blockbuster trade of Paul George to bring in Victor Oladipo and Domantas Sabonis). Indiana also has their $4.3 million Room Exception.

Assuming the team picks up Sabonis’ team option for the 2018-19 season before November, the Pacers could have roughly $36 million in space next summer under a $102 million cap. That partially relies on Thaddeus Young ($13.8 million) and Cory Joseph ($7.9 million) opting out. Also, Al Jefferson, Bogdanovic and Collison each have partially-guaranteed deals for 2018-19; Lance Stephenson has a team option. The Pacers have valuable contract flexibility as the work through a rebuild in the post-George era.

— Eric Pincus

STRENGTHS

Nothing stands out. The team was top-ten defensively last year, but not only did they lose an elite perimeter defender in Paul George, they also added two brutal defensive players in Domantas Sabonis and Darren Collison. Turner anchoring the defense will help, but chances are pretty good that this team will be in the middle of the road pretty much across the board this year. They are relatively young and athletic, which is a good thing, but statistically it’s hard to envision them overachieving.

— Joel Brigham

WEAKNESSES

Scoring is going to be the biggest problem this season. The Pacers were smack-dab in the middle of the league last season in terms of points scored per game, but that’s likely to take a hit with so many of the team’s top scorers gone in favor of lesser-scoring counterparts. It’s asking a lot for the offense to improve with worse offensive player, which places them squarely in the bottom half of the league in terms of scoring. Unless the defense is great, Indiana is going to get outscored a lot this season.

— Joel Brigham

THE BURNING QUESTION

What does life after Paul George look like, exactly?

From an aesthetic standpoint, we know it looks really, really different, thanks in large part to Nike’s radical redesign of the uniform sets. On the court, though, it’s hard to know how well (or perhaps how poorly) the team pops back up after the Paul George fiasco this summer. We expect a huge jump from Myles Turner, but we don’t yet know if he’s capable of shouldering a franchise. We expect Oladipo to make a leap, too, and if both players can do it, the playoffs are more than just a pipe dream for Indiana. If the Pacers underperform, though, they’ll wish they had gotten some draft picks in that George trade.

— Joel Brigham

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The X-Factors: Brooklyn

Drew Maresca continues Basketball Insiders’ “X-Factor” series by identifying potential difference-makers for the Brooklyn Nets when the NBA returns this July.

Drew Maresca

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The NBA season appears ready to resume. It looks set to do so in Walt Disney World (Orlando, Florida), and it may or may not consist of all 30 teams.

While the details aren’t entirely ironed out, it seems to no longer be the question of if, but when for the 2019-20 season’s return. With that in mind, Basketball Insiders has set out to identify the x-factors of each team in their respective quests to qualify for and advance in the 2020 NBA Playoffs. We’ve already covered the New Orleans Pelicans and Portland Trail Blazers. Next up, we turn out attention to the most controversial of the whole bunch – the Brooklyn Nets.

The Nets are currently 30-34 – a significant step back from the winning season they posted in the previous season (42-40). But injuries and acclimating to new star players cost them dearly. Fortunately for the Nets, they are still either the seventh seed in the Eastern Conference or 15th in the league overall, depending on how the playoffs are to be seeded – but either way they’ll pick up where they left off or qualify for the postseason, facing off against either the Toronto Raptors or the Los Angeles Lakers.

The Nets have as much to gain from the two-month-long, COVID-19-related interruption as anyone. But they also have plenty of unanswered questions – and big ones at that. Questions include, “How effectively will Jacque Vaughn take over in Kenny Atkinson’s place?” and “Will Jarrett Allen’s relegation to the bench continue? If so, will it adversely affect team chemistry?” But somehow, those aren’t even the team’s biggest x-factors.

Their first x-factor is their biggest – almost literally. It’s also, figuratively, the NBA’s biggest x-factor—and it’s not even close. It’s Kevin Durant. When healthy, Durant is one of the three best players on the planet – even with LeBron James, Kawhi Leonard and Giannis Antetokounmpo. But just how good is he? Well, he’s good for 27 points and 7 rebounds per game across his entire 12-year career. He also dealt 5.9 assists per game in 2018-19 on average – a career-high. He’s long, scores in every way imaginable, defends and plays better in the clutch – to which his two-NBA Finals MVP awards speak.

But enough about Durant’s abilities, will he be ready to play?  Unfortunately for Brooklyn, it’s unclear if its newest and shiniest toy is ready to be unboxed. Durant tragically ruptured his Achilles tendon in Game 5 of last year’s NBA Finals, and he hasn’t played since. Durant’s representatives did an excellent job of managing expectations, clearly stating that — regardless of circumstance — Durant was unlikely to return at all in 2019-20.

And all was well in Brooklyn. The Nets still had to work Kyrie Irving into their rotation, and they were clearly on board with Durant’s rehab plan. The media’s expectations have been tempered, leading to a more seamless rehabilitation schedule, and it was widely known that Durant would not return before the start of 2020-21.

But expectations change quickly in New York. First, we saw leaked videos featuring Durant working out painlessly on the basketball court, in which he was running and jumping. And then, COVID-19 turned our worlds upside down. It put the entire NBA season and just about everything else on hold. As we approached the light at the end of the tunnel that is the NBA season, the NBA universe began considering what finishing the season would mean to players and staff. Paramount in that series of questions is one that greatly affects the Nets – does the late-July start date for the return of the NBA season give Durant enough extra time rehabbing his Achilles to come back this season?

Unfortunately for Brooklyn – as well as the broader basketball community – the answer is probably “no.” The risk is too great. As unique and talented as Durant is, he’s also bound to be out of basketball shape. The speed of the game would be a challenging adjustment, even if he is fully healed. After all, healthy and ready are worlds apart. But nothing’s been decided yet, and that means there’s still a chance. And it’s ultimately, entirely up to Durant – who’s been unsurprisingly tight-lipped.

If Durant does return, he would headline a pretty deep and very talented roster. But Durant along doesn’t make the 30-34 Nets a contender all by himself. He needs at least one other piece to do so, which leads us to Brooklyn’s other major x-factor – Kyrie Irving.

Like Durant, Irving alone doesn’t make the Nets a contender – we actually have more evidence of this given that the Nets were only 4-7 through Irving’s first 11 games before he suffered an injury. But Irving played incredibly in that time, averaging 28.5 points, 7.2 assists and 5.4 rebounds. Maybe the problem was less Irving and more the team’s ability to fit around him? Then again, maybe not. Either way, Irving is an obviously special player who can steal away an opponent’s momentum in the blink of an eye. And like Durant, Irving thrives on clutch situations, sporting a few highlight-worthy crunch-time moments and one legendary game-winner in the 2016 NBA Finals.

So how is Irving an x-factor? After starting out the season on fire, Irving missed 26 consecutive games with a shoulder injury. He returned to play in nine games in early 2020 before opting for surgery to repair his injured shoulder on March 3. The New York Daily News reported in April that Irving would be sidelined for approximately six months, which means Irving shouldn’t be ready to return until September.

Still, it’s within the realm of possibilities that Irving opts to speed up his rehab schedule. After all, allowing an entire season to go to waste with the core and role players that Brooklyn has under contract is unwise. Championship windows aren’t open forever. Granted, this season was always seen as a throwaway for Brooklyn. But making a run this season is kind of like betting with house money. Ultimately, if one of Durant and Irving want to return, expect the other to follow.

So assuming they’re healthy enough to do so,  what would the Nets chances be with them both back in the fold? The less-likely scenario is unfortunately the more interesting one. And it’s against the Lakers.

The Lakers are clearly the favorites – even with Durant and Irving dressing for the other side. They have the league’s best player and its most dominant big man, respectively. And while Irving and Durant would be healthy, the time off would have likely aided James more than anyone.  So if the NBA decides to re-seed all 16 playoff teams and Durant and Irving can return, the Nets face a very tough decision.

But the other possibility is more likely, and it provides an easier first-round matchup with the Raptors. This writer was down on the Raptors all season, and they made sure to prove me wrong at just about every possible juncture to do so. But the fact remains – they’re not as good as their record indicates. They’re 46-18 this season, good for the second-best record in the East and third-best in the entire league. They’re quite good – but they just don’t have the horsepower to play with the elite teams in the league (e.g., Lakers, Clippers, Bucks, against whom they are a collect 1-4). When Leonard left, so too did any hopes of winning another championship with this particular unit. The thought of facing off against Durant and Irving has probably haunted Masai Ujiri and Nick Nurse since the idea first entered their brains a month or so ago.

This isn’t predicting an upset, but let’s put it like this: if Durant returns, I would advise bettors to steer clear of this matchup. And if Durant and Irving lead a first-round upset, they’ll enter the Eastern Conference semifinals (or the equivalent of them) with serious momentum and nothing to lose – and that’s a dangerous combination.

One way or the other, the NBA season will be back this summer. As much as this season will always carry an asterisk, it will still end with an NBA champion being crowned.

And that matters to the players — asterisk or not.

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The X-Factors: Portland

Spencer Davies continues Basketball Insiders’ “X-Factor” series by looking at potential game-changers for the Portland Trail Blazers when the NBA returns.

Spencer Davies

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Where there’s smoke, there’s fire.

That’s probably an appropriate way to characterize the steam that’s been picking up over the last week regarding the eventual return of the NBA. What the plan exactly will be is yet to be determined, but there are potential scenarios surfacing left and right. And with the NHL officially having a resumption blueprint set in stone, we’re probably not too far away from learning The Association’s fate.

In an effort to prepare ourselves for that day, Basketball Insiders has begun an x-factor series for each team around the current playoff picture. Basically, “if this happens…” or “what if this player is healthy?” type of scenarios are what we’re looking at. Ben Nadeau kicked us off Tuesday with Zion Williamson and the New Orleans Pelicans. Today, we’re going to look at the Portland Trail Blazers, who are in a similar situation out in the Western Conference.

Scratching and clawing for that final seed to make the postseason for the seventh straight season, the Blazers have work to do at 29-37. They’re going to need help in the standings race with several other squads surrounding them chasing after the same thing. Along with the Pelicans and Sacramento Kings, Portland is 3.5 games back of the West’s eighth-seeded Memphis Grizzlies. Even the San Antonio Spurs are hanging by a thread with their playoff streak in jeopardy with a four-game hole in the standings.

We can technically call this our first dependent situation. There is going to be a ton of schedule watching around these five teams. It’s all contingent on the NBA’s decision about how to go about a return — a 72-game benchmark, a play-in tournament, straight to the postseason, etc. Who’s going to have an easier schedule? Who’s going to have more games to play and increase their chances?

For example, the Blazers could have six games left to play to make up that gap on the Grizzlies, a team that was next up on their list in a pivotal head-to-head scenario. The Spurs, however, would have nine games to try and right the ship — by far the highest amount of contests in comparison to the four others they’re fighting against. None of this is concrete because we don’t know what solution the league is going to agree upon; that doesn’t mean it shouldn’t come to mind as a hypothetical.

Then, there’s that Damian Lillard guy. You know, the dude that is Portland’s franchise. The man that went on a mid-January to early February eight-game run where he absurdly averaged over 45 points, 9.6 assists and 5.5 rebounds, while nailing 53 percent of both his field goals and three-balls. He averaged 40 minutes in this stretch, quite literally putting the team on his back to keep pace with the surging Grizzlies.

Lillard’s publicly come out and said flat-out that if the league elects to go with the benchmark idea, he wouldn’t participate. He’d gladly support his teammates and join them, just not on the court for games. Speaking with Chris Haynes of Yahoo Sports, the All-Star point guard expressed his desire for a tournament-style setup where there are playoff implications on the line. Suiting up to satisfy certain criteria with no incentive isn’t his preferred method of return. He wants to compete and, considering the effect of rustiness and other unknowns that could play a factor in these hypothetical matchups, Lillard would love for Portland to be the group that knocks others out unexpectedly.

Let’s not forget that the Blazers could have two starting-caliber players back that would’ve made their return from injury at some point this past March, either. Jusuf Nurkic and Zach Collins have their own specific capabilities that can dramatically improve what the team’s been missing since the beginning of the year.

Nurkic is an outstanding interior presence that brings physicality and finishing ability, as well as a big body to secure rebounds and dare opponents to come into the paint. This is no knock on Hassan Whiteside, who has arguably had the best season of his career as a blocking and boarding machine. It’s more about the lack of depth behind him, which is where Nurkic can step right in without Portland losing its reliability at the five. It’s been a revolving door at backup center for the Blazers, which has allowed the opposition to attack at will and get easy buckets. Nurkic’s return will shut that right off, as well as give the second unit a reliable scoring option.

Collins, his frontcourt partner, was supposed to have a breakout campaign in store for the league. Instead, the athletic third-year big man suffered a dislocated left shoulder just three games into the season. While it has sidelined him since then, he was targeting March as a return target. Obviously, with the league suspending operations, that didn’t happen as planned. But with the calendar turning to June in less than a week, and with his optimism shining through his rehab, it’s probably OK to assume Collins is close to being in the clear for a comeback.

Collins brings things to the table that neither Nurkic nor Whiteside does — an ability to stretch the floor being the most obvious skill that stands out. He can knock down triples at a decent rate and, more importantly, create space for Lillard and CJ McCollum to operate. The 6-foot-11 power forward has quicker foot speed than the other bigs Portland has, too.

Though the Blazers should be plenty excited about Nurkic and Collins’ impending return, they also have to be realistic about how much those two will play. We already mentioned Collins’ shoulder dislocation, but Nurkic hasn’t been on the floor since Mar. 25 of last year. Terry Stotts and his coaching staff will have to pay close attention to each of their minutes. How that whole situation is handled will be crucial to ensure there’s no long-term damage done for any party.

Just like the rest of their competition, the Blazers will have to also monitor how their older veterans handle ramping things back up again. Carmelo Anthony and Trevor Ariza are both in their mid-30s and have taken on a heavy minute load. They are starters who average over 30 minutes per game that just abruptly stopped playing for months. It isn’t going to be easy on anybody, but the younger players can probably recover and restart easier than those seasoned vets.

Gary Trent Jr. and Anfernee Simons are likely to come out of this hiatus with the most energy out of anybody simply because they’re the youngest guys on the team. We all know how hungry the dynamic duo of Lillard and McCollum is going to be. It’s exciting to think about.

All we can do now is wait to find out what the next steps are toward a restart.

Luckily for us, that news might not be too far away.

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The X-Factors: New Orleans

Ben Nadeau kicks off a new Basketball Insiders series by examining potential game-changers for when the NBA resumes play.

Ben Nadeau

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Basketball is back, baby.

Well, sorta. OK, actually, not really. But they’re talking about it. Finally.

Beyond that, they’re apparently making true, meaningful progress. And although the NBA is circling through potential scenarios — bubble games, re-seeding, ignoring conferences, etc. — there’s a very real chance that this shindig gets underway by mid-July.

To celebrate the re-arrival of actual talk and analysis, Basketball Insiders is kicking off its newest series — this time, one that focuses on a real-life hypothetical. The idea of an x-factor is inherently goofy, typically leading to sentences like: “Well, if Player Z hits 43 percent of his three-pointers, they’ll be tough to beat.” And, yeah, duh.

Given the sport-wide break, there are some perfectly valid questions to be asked. For example, with an extra two months off, where does Victor Oladipo’s health stand? If he’s fully healthy, the Indiana Pacers are going to be a whirlwind of a problem for their higher-seeded first-round matchup. Could the return of Jonathan Isaac to the Orlando Magic ensure their postseason place? And, finally, Kevin Durant – a decision that looms large over every other potential proceeding.

But that’s not why we’ve gathered at this particular URL right now – that would be to discuss the New Orleans Pelicans, a franchise that currently finds itself 3.5 games out of the final playoff spot. Naturally, any chance for success depends on the NBA ratifying a plan that behooves the Pelicans’ hopes. Whether that’s a return to the regular season or a totally-invented play-in series, it doesn’t matter as New Orleans needs some help outside of their own good fortunes.

Should they get the opportunity to control their own fate, there’d be plenty to research and anoint as a Holier Than Thou X-Factor. We could talk about J.J. Redick’s 45.2 percent mark from three-point range or how his 110 postseason games are 28 more than the rest of the roster combined.

Maybe there’d be a paragraph or two on Brandon Ingram’s steady ascent to stardom. Ingram’s post-Los Angeles quest to become a sure-fire No. 1 option has been a compelling narrative, but can he do it when the games matter most? Lonzo Ball, the playmaking point guard, knocked down 21 of his 36 attempts from deep over the final four Pelicans games — if that were a permanent level of consistency for the pass-first general, then that would change everything, too.

And Jrue Holiday, the remaining cornerstone following the departure of Anthony Davis, would get his first chance to anoint himself as a hero in the football-heavy city. Surely, if the Pelicans are to sneak into the altered postseason — and, dare we say it, make some noise — those would be important conditions to quantify.

Still, for all the positives, negatives and worthy storylines out there for New Orleans, not a single one matters as much as Zion Williamson does.

Since the 19-year-old phenom debuted on Jan. 22, the Pelicans went 11-9. It’s not a spectacular showing, but one dragged down by losses to the Denver Nuggets, Houston Rockets, Milwaukee Bucks, Oklahoma City Thunder, Dallas Mavericks and Los Angeles Lakers twice. Generally speaking, however, Williamson wasted no time acclimating to the NBA and the numbers speak for themselves: 23.6 points and 6.8 rebounds on 56.9 percent shooting.

The highlights include the 35 points he hung on the Lakers and six other occasions of 25 or more in just 19 games. Moreover, Williamson has only scored under 20 points on three occasions and shot worse than 50 percent twice — once 8-for-18 (44) in the other showing versus Los Angeles and a tough 5-for-19 effort (26.3) against the league-leading Bucks. Of course, if they hobbled into the postseason, they’d have to play those very same Lakers over and over again.

Alas, the so-called chosen one will have his fair share of questions when the season resumes. Remember that 4-for-4 explosion against the San Antonio Spurs in his career debut? Well, he’s just 2-for-9 otherwise, often going entire games without even hoisting from long range. Williamson wasn’t supposed to enter professional basketball as a three-point marksman, but that epic – and believe us, we don’t use that word lightly – introduction might have skewed the outlook.

At Duke, Williamson went just 24-for-71 (33.8 percent) from deep and it’ll be a weak link that follows him – just as it does Ben Simmons – for the time being. Free throws weren’t expected to be a major, glaring issue either as he hit on 64 percent in college and, well, he’s right around the same mark currently. If you ignore 1-for-6 and 3-for-8 showings during a couple of double-digit victories versus the Boston Celtics and Golden State Warriors, that number looks even better too.

But enough about the few cons – of which Williamson has certainly made a focus during his quarantine workouts – what’s the ceiling? And how much should we be pulling for a postseason debut here? In a crazy campaign like this, the added bonus of Williamson-made magic might be a thread worth pulling for – even at the rejection of a Ja Morant-led foray instead.

Needless to say, if the resumed regular scenario arrives and the Pelicans have just five or so attempts to make up a 3.5 game deficit in the standings, Williamson probably wouldn’t play at all. It’s also certainly possible that the rookie was just shaking off the rust before — just ask the aforementioned Oladipo. After taking an entire year to recover from a brutal ruptured tendon, the former All-Star only averaged 13.8 points, 3.2 rebounds and 3.1 assists on 39.1 percent shooting, all would-be career-lows.

Bet your bottom dollar, however, that with an extra 60 days of training at full speed under his belt, Oladipo will be closer to 100 percent than ever – a much-needed boost to an already well-rounded Pacers side. Could a trained-up Williamson provide the same type of edge? Upon his debut, one of the few worries that lingered – aside from re-injury – was about his perceived stamina and fatigue. Getting dropped into high-intensity workouts against adults twice your age is no joke, but try it after three months of rehab following a preseason meniscus tear.

With that context, the fact that Williams averaged 20-plus points on nearly 30 minutes per game is a superhero-level accomplishment.

At 37.2 percent, the Pelicans are the NBA’s fourth-best three-point shooting franchise – so even if Williamson doesn’t come back ready to unleash from deep, his team will be. On top of that, New Orleans’ 116.2 points per game are tied for fourth-best, too. Between Williamson, Holiday, Ball, Ingram and Redick, scoring appears to be the least of their issues headed into a restarted season.

But the defensive rating of 111.6 is a cause for concern, the second-worst standing of any team still within arm’s reach of the postseason (Portland, 113.6). Williamson has posted an encouraging mark of 103.1 on that end through 19 games, which also happens to be the highest mark of anybody employed by New Orleans right now.

In fact, Williamson’s multi-position defense and overall athleticism have already left quite the footprint. Since his debut in January, the Pelicans have posted a defensive rating of 109.2 – good enough for the No. 8 spot across the entire league. The Williamson Effect is here to stay and it’ll only improve as the roster meshes and the rookie acclimates even further – that seems to be a foregone conclusion.

If you thought Williamson was impressive coming off a serious injury with no stamina, his elevated play – whether in assumed individual efficiencies or overall team impact – could push the Pelicans into new territory. Elsewhere, there are aspects of New Orleans that deserve attention but none are as postseason-transforming as the second return of Williamson – let us just hope that the NBA provides a stage for the show.

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