Blow It Up? OK Then What?
The LA Clippers again faced an early exit in the postseason, making it five straight years of 50-plus win regular season basketball, only to be home in early May. Injuries have played a huge factor in the Clippers’ woeful playoff runs over the last five years, however, the popular narrative coming out of this season is that this group has run its course. This may be true. The question facing the Clippers is what other choices do that have?
Re-Signing Chris Paul
Some have suggested that it’s time to move on from the Clippers core, which starts with point guard Chris Paul. Paul has until June 29 to decide on his final year—a $24.268 million contract option. The prevailing thought is Paul will opt out of the deal and seek a new maximum deal from the Clippers that would clock in at five years and just about $205 million.
Some have argued the cap money would be better used elsewhere, but the truth of the matter is the Clippers have $59.748 million in cap commitments for next season. They also face a $36.4 million cap hold on Paul, a $32.06 million hold on forward Blake Griffin and a $14.17 million hold on guard J.J. Redick. Between the cap commits and the cap holds, the Clippers won’t have any meaningful cap space.
So, let’s say the Clippers decide to pass on Paul and Redick, but keep Griffin. That leaves roughly $10 million in cap space to find a replacement starting point guard in free agency? None of the elite guards are coming for that kind of salary.
If the Clippers opt to retain Paul, but not Griffin or Redick, their cap picture changes to roughly $5.8 million in space.
There is no scenario in which re-signing Chris Paul doesn’t make the most sense for the Clippers, if only to get him under a contract and potentially trade him at some point the future, assuming he does not demand a no-trade clause, which is likely.
Some have suggested Paul should move on to a playoff team closer to competing, such as the San Antonio Spurs.
If Paul leaves the Clippers, he is eligible for a new four-year deal worth $152 million, A full $53 million less than a Clippers deal. The Spurs, as they sit today, have $73.476 million in cap commits, leaving them with roughly $28.5 million in cap space. That also assumes that Pau Gasol opts out of his $16.19 million deal. That’s tough math for the Spurs and even more so for Paul, would not be able to get a maximum deal.
Monetarily, leaving $53 million on the table would be foolish for Paul, who turns 32 years old on Saturday. Signing a four-year deal at 32 puts him at 36 years old at contract’s end and extremely unlikely to command another maximum deal. Fans love to talk about leaving money on the table, but $53 million is a small fortune, not smaller annual raises.
Re-Signing Blake Griffin
Much of what was just said about Paul is true of Griffin. He too has until June 29 to decide on his $21.3 million player option, an option he will not likely exercise. Griffin becomes eligible for a five-year deal worth almost $175 million if he remains with the Clippers. If he leaves, he’d only net a four-year $130 million deal elsewhere.
As much as Griffin has struggled with injuries, when healthy, he is still one of the more potent players in the NBA. Some point to durability, but some of Griffin’s injuries have been fluky in nature. It’s not as if the same problems are recurring over and over, he has had new issues that come with the game.
The problem with not re-signing Griffin is the Clippers couldn’t use the money elsewhere. It really is a case of signing him or losing him for nothing, and given that losing him wouldn’t open any meaningful cap money, is there any scenario in which you don’t keep the player?
Beyond the spite of getting a guy off the roster, there is nothing practical in not keeping him. After all, the Clippers have won 50-plus games over the last five years. Losing Griffin for nothing makes that even harder to accomplish, especially considering there is no one on the roster that can come close to what Griffin produces when he’s healthy.
Re-Signing J.J. Redick
So, if the Clippers have to re-sign Paul and Griffin, then why not re-sign Redick? Like with Paul and Griffin, if Redick walks, the Clippers don’t open cap space. They would have to replace the roster spot with a cap exception.
So, this is a pure economics question. Do you simply eat the cost to fill the roster spot with a quality player versus a replacement that may not be as effective?
The Clippers had this issue last summer when it was time to re-sign Jamal Crawford, who netted a three-year $42 million deal. They can either pay the expense, which had no meaningful cap consequence or try to replace the roster spot with a cap exception.
Beyond the need for some kind of change in the roster, it’s simply a cost to the Clippers at the point they’ll be at after re-signing Paul and Griffin. Unless Redick gets insane with his asking price, re-signing Redick is simply money, something Clippers owner Steve Ballmer has said he’d be happy to spend.
Parting Ways With Doc Rivers
So, let’s address the elephant in the room—can the Clippers go anywhere with Doc Rivers as the head coach? That’s a real and debatable question.
The problem with Rivers is that he carries the reputation of a championship coach, the problem is he’s won just one championship and he did it with three Hall-of-Famers on the roster at a time when the East wasn’t ruled exclusively by LeBron James.
Out west, Rivers isn’t Gregg Popovich, but he’s far better than most coaches. What gets overlooked about Rivers in L.A. is that he’s won 217 regular season games in four years and did it with a ton of injuries to major players.
So, let’s play the same game with Rivers as Griffin and Paul, let’s say the Clippers move on and pretend that losing him would have zero impact on whether Paul or Griffin would re-sign. Who replaces him?
Would the next guy fare any better with the durability issues? Rivers isn’t a great X’s and O’s coach, but he won 62.2 percent of his games this year. Sure, guys like Tom Thibodeau, Lionel Hollins, and Scotty Brooks were fired after similar regular seasons, but in those cases, the front office lost faith in the coach. Rivers is the front office in L.A.
The Rivers conundrum is like many of the other decisions facing the Clippers. They could replace Rivers and retool the entire front office, as well as the coaching staff. That might make some frustrated fans feel a little better, but it would not guarantee the team would be any better, and Ballmer would add $22 million in additional expense to the pile to make the change.
So, if the above holds true and Paul, Griffin, and Redick are back because it makes the most sense to keep them, then the Clippers face their annual problem of how to fill in the bench.
This is where the Clippers have routinely struggled, outside of the constant that is Jamal Crawford, the Clips have not been very good at fielding a bench, and it’s because they never have money to spend. Paul Pierce is retiring, so he’s gone. Marreese Speights is believed to be opting out for a bigger payday. Luc Mbah a Moute is likely opting out, and one of the guys the Clippers would be smart to try and retain.
The good news is the salary cap exceptions go up as part of the new labor deal, so there will, in theory, be more money to spread around. With the Clippers likely getting up over the NBA’s luxury tax line, they will need to be creative to fill in the bench and this is where the Clippers need to hit on something.
A Big Trade
The last piece to the puzzle is a trade. While fans would love to see Griffin signed-and-traded to get something for him, there is no value in that for Griffin other than being able to land on an over-the-cap team, and there is no leverage to force that.
However, there is some leverage with Knicks forward Carmelo Anthony. The Knicks and Anthony are headed for a messy divorce this summer, and while the Knicks will ultimately decide to trigger a trade, Anthony can control where with the no-trade clause in his contract.
The Clippers and the Knicks discussed an Anthony trade in January and were unable to get a third team involved to make the math and the players work. This scenario likely gets revisited.
The problem for the Clippers is the players they could move – Austin Rivers, Crawford, Wes and Brice Johnson are not attractive pieces at all, especially not to the Knicks.
The question is whether the Clippers can find a third team this summer that would take future picks in exchange for playing middleman on a deal? It’s far easier to find such a trade partner in the offseason given the roster flexibility and cap room teams will have in July.
If Anthony gives the Clippers a gift and says the Clippers are the only team he’d agree to a trade with, things get better for the Clippers. They’d still have a depth issue on the bench, but would have a core of Paul, Griffin, Jordan, Redick and Anthony, and that’s as solid a roster on paper as anyone else in the West—if they fit and stay healthy.
As much as the Clippers runs have been frustrating, in context, winning 50-plus games every year with the injuries the Clippers have endured is pretty impressive. When you factor in that the Clippers are actually a national draw (they not only sell tickets, but often land on national TV), there are worse situations in the NBA. While the goal of every team should be to compete for a championship, having the base layer the Clippers have to work with is better than most in the NBA. While it’s frustrating to watch a team fail in the postseason like the Clippers have, they are not that far away from being an upper-tier team.
What would the Clippers have looked like if Blake Griffin stayed healthy? While that is an annual question these days, some teams in the NBA would love to have the Clippers’ problems, and while blowing it up sounds great, it’s easy to forget that rebuilding a team is a brutally slow process. Just ask the Magic, Suns, Sixers and Kings.
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NBA Daily: Hield, Kings Both Have Room To Bargain
Buddy Hield understandably feels as if he’s worth more than the Kings have offered him, but that doesn’t mean he’s worth more than that to Sacramento, specifically. Douglas Farmer writes.
The emotion in Buddy Hield’s voice Wednesday night made it clear his words were not a negotiating ploy. When the fourth-year shooting guard said he would find someplace else to play if the Sacramento Kings did not properly respect him in contract negotiations, he was sincere.
“We’ll see if they’ll have me here,” Hield said. “Feels home to be here. I love Sacramento, but if they don’t feel I’m part of the core … if they don’t want to do it, then after that, I’ll look for somewhere else to go.”
Kings guard Buddy Hield is taking these contract talks very personally. In an emotional postgame interview, he talked about “finding another home” if the team doesn’t get a deal done by Monday’s deadline. pic.twitter.com/sEkJEZfNkS
— Jason Anderson (@JandersonSacBee) October 17, 2019
The Kings have until Monday to reach an agreement on a rookie-scale extension with Hield, who is eligible for a four-year deal north of $130 million or a designated-player extension of five years and $170 million.
But Hield may not be looking for those outlandish numbers. Per Chris Haynes of Yahoo Sports, Hield is looking for a contract of about $110 million, while Sacramento has offered only $90 million across four years.
“It’s not always about less than the max, it’s just something that’s reasonable and is not an insult,” Hield said. “If we respect each other on that level, we’ll come to that agreement.”
Hield shot 42.7 percent from deep last season on 7.9 attempts per game while averaging 20.7 points. He may not necessarily be worthy of a max contract, but his is a valued skill set in the modern NBA. Combine that with the weak 2020 free agent class, and Hield has some ground to dig in upon at the bargaining table. If an extension is not agreed to, Hield would not be free to go wherever he wishes next summer, but he would be free to pursue that which might force the Kings’ hand as a restricted free agent.
Of wings expected to hit the market next summer, Hield would be joined by Otto Porter, Joe Harris and, possibly, Hield’s current teammate, Bogdan Bogdanović (also restricted). It really could be that shallow of a shooting pool. Gordon Hayward is likely to pick up his $31.2 million player option with the Boston Celtics, while DeMar DeRozan and the San Antonio Spurs are reportedly in discussions. Meanwhile, Caris LeVert has already signed a new deal with the Nets.
That market vacuum could drive up Hield’s summertime price, though Sacramento could still match any offer. If the Kings would match ties into the exact reasons they are risking alienating a core player in the first place. Sacramento has returned to respectability — both in the standings and in perceived approach — by building through the draft. But their bill is almost due.
Hield, Bogdanović, point guard De’Aaron Fox and forward Marvin Bagley are all approaching paydays in the next few seasons. The Kings are almost certainly going to make massive offers to Fox and Bagley in 2021 and 2022, respectively, and those contracts will tie up Sacramento’s books for much of the 2020s. The additional $5 million per year sought by Hield could preclude other moves when combined with Fox’s and Bagley’s deals.
The Kings’ ground is strengthened by holding Bogdanović’s restricted rights, as well. If they lose Hield, they will still have a starting-quality shooting guard to play alongside Fox in Bogdanović. He may not have hit 602 threes in his first three seasons in the league as Hield has, but Bogdanović is currently at 263 through two years, hardly anything to readily dismiss.
Even though Bogdanović will not cost as much as Hield — pondering a $51.4 million, four-year extension — keeping both pieces of the shooting duo may prove too costly for Sacramento owner Vivek Ranadivé. At which point, Hield’s raw emotions Wednesday night may foreshadow Ranadivé’s decision.
Where could Hield go, if for no other reason than to drive up his price?
Any discussion of 2020 free agents must include the Atlanta Hawks, who could have as much as $79.1 million in cap space. Hield would fit both their roster timeline and its general construction, though they did just snag both De’Andre Hunter and Cam Reddish in the 2019 draft. Hield’s minutes would come from the same pool as theirs, making this pairing a bit redundant.
There would be no such conflict with the Dallas Mavericks, whose centerpieces currently miss a wing with range from deep. The Mavericks would lack the space to sign Hield if Tim Hardaway Jr. opts into his $19 million player option, but that could simply precede a sign-and-trade with the Kings. There are certainly ways to make the space necessary should Dallas owner Mark Cuban want to.
If Hield wanted to be a part of another group that is “getting the team back to where it needs to be,” the Memphis Grizzlies would be a situation very similar to Sacramento’s. Forward Jaren Jackson Jr. will see his first big contract begin in 2022 and this year’s No. 2 overall pick Ja Morant should follow that trend a year later. The Grizzlies, however, do not have an exceptional shooter to pair with their young duo. If nothing else, Memphis could drive up the price on Hield to compromise the Kings’ cap space moving forward.
Those possibilities, among others, give Hield practical reason to stand his ground for what he feels he’s worth, while Sacramento’s long view may make it think twice. As emotional and blunt as he was, Hield understands these realities.
“Some people will get the max and some people won’t get the max,” he said. “That’s how it works.”
The Divide On Analytics
The disconnect in the understanding and use of analytics is widespread in today’s basketball landscape. Unearthing the reasoning behind these numbers will not only change how we talk about them, but also revolutionize how we look at the game in the future. Drew Mays writes.
Once upon a time, during a routine, regular season game, a well-regarded shooter was left alone for a corner three. Iman Shumpert, then with Cleveland, rushed to a hard closeout. Seeing Shumpert off balance, the shooter blew by him.
After the play, LeBron James criticized Shumpert for his overaggression. Shump, understandably, was confused – he’s a shooter! Shooters need to get run off the line!
LeBron responded that from that particular corner, the shooter only shot 35 percent – much worse than his overall three-point percentage that garnered his reputation. Accordingly, LeBron would have rather Shumpert closed under control, baiting the shooter into hoisting from a spot he doesn’t like, rather than letting him drive towards the rim with a full head of steam.
This simple knowledge of percentages has merged into the greater conversation of advanced statistics and analytics. Before these numbers were readily available, a respected jump shooter would never be left alone.
Now, the word “analytics” has transformed from a description into a clustered and contentious field. Even though – especially for those of us without data-processing backgrounds and math degrees – the above illustrates what analytics are and what they provide at their core: Information to make decisions on the micro-level and a tool to inform philosophies on the macro-level.
Dean Oliver and John Hollinger are the founding fathers of the basketball analytics movement. Both statisticians, they eventually parlayed their statistical methods and models into NBA front office jobs. These two paved the way for more recent data savants, such as Seth Partnow and Ben Falk, and their positions with professional basketball teams.
In August, Oliver was hired by the Washington Wizards to be a full-time assistant coach. Falk left the NBA a few years ago and has since started his website, Cleaning the Glass. Partnow and Hollinger both departed from their NBA jobs this year, returning to the media as staff writers for The Athletic.
Selfishly, the advantage of having Falk, Partnow and Hollinger back in the public sphere is the access we have to their brains. Partnow’s latest work is particularly geared towards analytics, and Falk and Hollinger’s are always rooted in them. Reading their work will increase your understanding of how basketball works in its current form and help develop your ideas about where it’s going.
The issue is this: Smart guys talking about numbers seems inaccessible…no matter how accessible it actually is.
Despite the talent of these three – and of all the other mathematicians writing in today’s media – there’s still a misunderstanding between those who wield statistics and those who don’t. Many times, even the players are part of the separation.
On Tuesday, Bulls guard Zach LaVine said this to the Chicago Sun-Times:
“I grew up being a Michael Jordan, Kobe [Bryant] fan… I think the mid-range is a lost art now because everyone is moving towards the threes and the analytics. I understand that because how it looks and how it sounds like it makes sense, but sometimes there’s nothing better than putting the ball in your best playmaker’s hands and letting him get the shot he needs rather than the one you want.”
This led to a revival of the discussion on ESPN’s The Jump. Rachel Nichols seemed to agree with LaVine in part, saying, “two is greater than zero.” Kevin Arnovitz followed with points important for our purpose, calling the death of the mid-range a “false dichotomy.”
“No one is saying, if a guy is wide-open at 19-feet, dribble backwards and take a shot… for Zach LaVine, it’s all about impulse control,” Arnovitz continued.
Impulse control in the sense that deciding when to take a mid-range shot is almost all of the battle. Context matters.
Matt Moore of The Action Network used The Jump’s clip to chime in. Moore tweeted, and then Kevin Durant responded.
The abbreviated version of the Moore-Durant thread is this: Durant, a historically great mid-range jump shooter, argues the side of, well, a historically great jump shooter. He talks about taking open shots regardless of where they come and a player’s confidence and feel.
Moore counters using the math. The refreshing conversation ends when another Twitter user points out that, since the analytics movement, James Harden’s mid-range attempts have dipped drastically. Durant admits he didn’t realize this.
The most telling part of the misunderstandings surrounding analytics came from Durant. He said, “I don’t view the game as math…I get what you’re saying but we just have 2 different views of the game. Analytics is a good way to simplify things.”
And that, folks, is the rub. That is the separation between fans, players and the John Hollingers of the world – the assumption that statisticians use advanced metrics and therefore see basketball as a math problem, while everyone else analyzes by merely watching the game (because of course, watching the games inherently equals reliable analysis).
But analytics isn’t a high-concept way to digitize the game and ignore the “eye test” Twitter fingers love to cite; they’re mathematical truths used to assess basketball success. Often, the air surrounding analytics is that it’s like me, an English major, taking freshman-year Calculus – impossible to understand. Because again, smart people explaining numbers can be daunting, even when they do it perfectly.
Truthfully, analytics are just more precise ways of discerning what happened in a basketball game. As Ben Taylor explains in one of his breakdowns, Chauncey Billups shooting 43 percent is more effective than Ben Wallace shooting 51 percent for a season. Billups is providing threes and making more free throws at a better rate, so even with Wallace’s higher raw field goal percentage, he’d need to be more accurate from two-point range to match Billups’ efficiency.
You don’t need to even study actual numbers to see why these statistical categories make the game easier to understand.
But, and this is another oft-forgotten point, these calculations are useless without context. In 2015-16, a Kawhi Leonard mid-range – when contextualized with qualifiers like time left on the shot clock – was a good shot. He right around 50 percent from 10-16 feet, so the advantage of taking a three over a two would be offset by Leonard’s 50 percent accuracy. During the same season, Kobe Bryant shot 41 percent from 10-16 feet. A Kobe baseline fadeaway with 14 seconds on the shot clock and a help defender coming from the high side is a bad mid-range shot.
Kevin Durant shot 58 percent from two last season. He shot 54 percent from 3-10 feet, 51 percent from 10-16 feet and 53.5 percent from 16 feet out to the three-point line.
Meanwhile, from those same distances, Zach LaVine shot 26 percent, 30 percent and 38 percent.
A mid-range jumper from Kevin Durant is usually a good shot. A mid-range jumper from Zach LaVine probably isn’t.
So, is the mid-range dead? Not completely. The last few champions rostered mid-range experts (Kawhi, Durant, Kyrie Irving), and some of the last remaining teams last season had one as well (Jimmy Butler, CJ McCollum).
Does a correlation then exist between mid-range proficiency and winning titles? Again, that’s doubtful. There’s a correlation between great players and titles, and great players usually have the mid-range game in their arsenal. That’s part of what makes them great players: the lack of holes in their games.
The discrepancies in Durant and LaVine’s two-point numbers can be found in talent level and the quality of looks. Both affect the percentages. Again, context matters.
To Durant’s point on Twitter: It is, on some level, a matter of practice. If LaVine keeps putting in the work, he can become a better mid-range shooter, making those looks more efficient.
But as a starting base, we’d say it’s better for LaVine and players like him to not settle for mid-range twos. We’re not too upset if Durant does it.
Even in the age of analytics, basketball will always in part be a matter of feel. It will always be scrutinized by the eyes. And that’s okay – because advanced statistics give context to the effectiveness of those feelings being acted on.
Maybe the point is this: If the shot clock is winding down and you have the ball out top with a defender locked in front of you and have to hoist a shot…don’t take the long two. Please shoot the three.
It’s more effective. The math says so.
NBA Daily: Already, Zion Williamson Has Importance
The preseason has made clear that Zion Williamson will be an abject positive throughout his rookie campaign. But the extent of his success remains to be seen and Williamson could drastically alter a loaded Western Conference playoff race.
Zion Williamson will be the best rookie in basketball this season, and it won’t be particularly close. The New Orleans Pelicans star is considered a generational prospect for a reason: The league has literally never before seen a player with his combination of size, strength and explosive athleticism.
But just because Williamson is a truly unparalleled physical specimen doesn’t mean his acclimation to basketball at its highest level is poised to be seamless. His lack of a reliable jumper was occasionally exploited at Duke and will allow far superior NBA defenders to lay off him, guarding against forays to the paint. He’s not ready to function as anything close to a primary ball-handler, further cramping the floor for a Pelicans team short on shooting. He should be a plus defender at the very least in time but is bound to go through the same struggles of schematic understanding and real-time recognition that plagues all first-year players.
But through four preseason games, Williamson has been so utterly dominant as to render those relative concerns almost completely moot. He’s averaging 23.3 points, 6.5 rebounds, 2.3 assists and 1.5 steals in exhibition play so far, shooting a mind-bending 71.4 percent from the floor and attempting 8.0 free throws despite playing just 27.2 minutes per game. Williamson has a 34.2 PER, and his plus-28.8 net rating leads New Orleans by a wide margin, according to RealGM.
The normal caveats apply, of course. Preseason competition is barely a reasonable facsimile of what Williamson will face during the regular season, when opponents will employ their best players and lineups, play with consistent energy and engagement and, maybe most importantly, gear their strategy around limiting his effectiveness. He certainly wouldn’t be the first rookie whose stellar exhibition performance failed to carry over to the 82-game grind.
But Williamson has nevertheless shown enough during these glorified scrimmages to expect him to be a true impact player from the jump. Alvin Gentry has used him most as a dependent offensive weapon thus far, taking advantage of Williamson’s inherent physical trump cards by getting him the ball in space via rolls to the rim and letting him attack from the corner with a live dribble. He’s been especially unstoppable in the open floor and semi-transition, sprinting the wing for highlight-reel finishes and catching the defense on its heels with quick-hitting dribble hand-offs.
These aren’t especially innovative offensive concepts and teams will know they’re coming throughout the regular season. Williamson is just so much more athletically gifted than his defenders that, more often than not, they’ll be left helpless to stop him regardless.
Williamson won’t maintain his incredible blend of production and efficiency during the regular season. Only four players in league history have ever scored at least 20 points per game while shooting 60 percent or better from the field, per Basketball Reference. Williamson may very well eventually join that exclusive list of all-time greats, but counting on him to do so in 2019-20 only goes to compound outlandish expectations that could lead to an unfair appraisal of his debut campaign.
Unless, naturally, Williamson proves so good that he leads the rebuilt Pelicans to the playoffs in perhaps the most stacked Western Conference ever.
The Western Conference’s top six of the Los Angeles Clippers, Los Angeles Lakers, Denver Nuggets, Utah Jazz and Houston Rockets, in some order, seems clear. The Portland Trail Blazers, despite some quiet churn in the middle of the roster, deserve the same benefit of the doubt the San Antonio Spurs earned years ago.
That’s eight teams vying for eight slots, before accounting for the intrigue and unknown of the Dallas Mavericks. The Sacramento Kings and Minnesota Timberwolves have internal hopes of competing for the postseason, too.
Needless to say, the odds aren’t good for New Orleans, a team that underwent as much turnover as any in basketball during an extremely active offseason. Continuity of personnel and playing style is often the difference between a few extra wins and losses, but the Pelicans have neither in a season where they’ll try to force themselves into the postseason conversation.
The presence of a singular player like Williamson allows for the possibility that it might not matter.
Luka Doncic is coming off one of the most impressive rookie seasons of the decade, and Kristaps Porzingis, even 20 months removed from his last time taking the floor, is the living embodiment of game-changing two-way potential. De’Aaron Fox might be the most underrated player in basketball at 21, while the Kings mitigated the need for Marvin Bagley to pop this season by rounding out the roster with solid veterans. Karl-Anthony Towns will put up monster numbers for a Timberwolves team that’s finally and whole-heartedly embracing tenets of the modern game under Ryan Saunders and Gersson Rosas.
For the most part, though, we know the variance between those ceilings and floors this season and, by proxy, how high they could potentially lift their teams. Williamson is a different dynamic altogether. The preseason has laid bare that he’ll immediately be a positive player on offense, but there are many degrees to the extent of his possible effectiveness.
Will Williamson serve as a less-efficient, lower-usage version of the highlight-reel player he’s been in the preseason? Might this current level of play be his basic norm, with nights of inconsistency sprinkled in between? Or could he grow significantly as the season goes on, shouldering more ball-handling responsibilities and increasing his defensive awareness – unlocking small-ball lineups in which Gentry plays him at center – as the calendar flips to the new year and winter turns to spring?
It would be foolish to put a cap on Williamson’s success this season, just like it would be foolish to expect him to be an All-Star. But that gulf between wildly positive outcomes of his rookie season puts the Pelicans in a better position to pounce when an incumbent inevitably falls from the pack than any other team entering the season with long-shot playoff hopes.
Williamson definitely won’t be the best player in the Western Conference in 2019-20, maybe not even the best player on his team. But in terms of an effect on the playoff race, though, not a single player’s performance stands to loom larger.