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NBA Daily: Could Be A Tough Restricted Market

Steve Kyler takes a look at the impact restricted free agents who might be in store for a tough summer.

Steve Kyler

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Could Be A Tough Restricted Market

Last summer was a little brutal to some of the guys that bet on themselves and for teams that rolled the dice on restricted free agency. Most early cap projections have the 2018-19 NBA Salary cap increasing slightly from the $99.093 million it landed at this season to just around $101 million.

While the NBA is doing better than it ever has in the revenue department, the salary cap system is simply a mechanism to ensure the players, as a group, receive the agreed 49-51 percent of total Basketball Related Income. Part of the calculation to reach the cap figure is based on what’s already owed to players in salaries and benefits. Because NBA teams spent like drunken sailors when the salary cap exploded two seasons ago, the cap isn’t jumping up nearly as much as some expected when all the new television rights revenue started to pour in.

The end result is after two years of aggressive spending, most teams will be either over the cap or in some cases way over the luxury tax line before free agency even opens.

This will have an impact on the marketplace, especially for players hoping for a whopper of an offer sheet in restricted free agency.

Current cap projections peg the Atlanta Hawks, Brooklyn Nets, Chicago Bulls, Dallas Mavericks, LA Lakers, Philadelphia 76ers, Phoenix Suns and possibly the Indiana Pacers as having meaningful cap space.

While they say it only takes one team to set a market, having so few teams with meaningful cap space could make for a tough summer.

It is important to point out that restricted free agency is a multi-step process which starts with the issuance of a qualifying offer. A player does not have to accept the offer, and the team can, at any point, pull that offer making the player unrestricted.

All pending restricted free agent players have two values to keep in mind – the qualifying offer value and a cap hold value. Cap holds are in essence cap placeholders which take up a fixed and defined amount of cap space. While teams can exceed the cap to re-sign their own players, there is always a placeholder on the cap until a new deal is reached or the team renounces that player.

Here are some of the notable pending restricted free agents and what we know today:

Jabari Parker – Milwaukee Bucks

[$8.85m Qualifying Offer – $20.3m Cap Hold]

The Milwaukee Bucks entertained a number of offers on Parker at the trade deadline and at least seriously considering moving him. This is actually really common for teams that may be struggling to understand a player’s worth on the market.

Given Parker’s knee issues the balance of the season will be important for setting a real price on Parker.

Most NBA insiders believe the Bucks are not only going to pay Parker, but they may not force him to play out of the Offer Sheet game.

The Bucks are going to be way over the salary cap, so there is zero reason not to retain Parker on a new deal, simply because they won’t get below the salary cap line with or without a new Parker deal, so in essence any money paid to Parker is money that’s only available to Parker and no one else.

There are Luxury Tax concerns, and that would be meaningful for a smaller revenue market like Milwaukee, but with a brand-new area ready to come online, the word is Bucks ownership isn’t worried about the cost of the roster.

Aaron Gordon – Orlando Magic

[$7.26m Qualifying Offer – $16.51m Cap Hold]

Like Parker, the odds that Aaron Gordon is not re-signed in Orlando is pretty small; however, unlike Parker, the Magic may let the market drive the value of the next deal.

That’s not a reflection on how management views Gordon, simply that they are trying to shed cap dollars and get themselves right sided on a number of fronts and overpaying for Gordon is a concern.

The Magic are a team in transition, and there has been a growing sense that if Gordon did not want to come back, they might be open to a sign and trade, especially if the NBA draft yields a better fitting cornerstone player.

Like Parker, the Magic are going to be over the cap in a significant way, so money paid to Gordon is only available to him, and he would become tradable in January.

There is a scenario in which someone tries to poach Gordon with a max. level offer, but even then, the Magic would be smarter to match a deal unless it’s loaded with unfavorable terms to the Magic’s rebuild plan.

Dante Exum – Utah Jazz

[$6.61m Qualifying Offer – $14.97m Cap Hold]

Injuries have derailed Dante Exum’s NBA career, but there is a window this season for him to establish something of a market value in Utah with the team’s push toward the playoffs.

Unfortunately for Exum, he hasn’t done enough to live up to his draft hype, and he may be a player that takes the qualifying offer. In his case, one more year in Utah at $6.61 million, and the ability to veto any trades might be smarter than trying to find a deal that doesn’t tie him into a lower dollar deal.

The prevailing thought is the Exum will be back in Utah, but it would take something pretty spectacular to think its on a new long-term deal.

Marcus Smart – Boston Celtics

[$6.05m Qualifying Offer – $13.61m Cap Hold]

The Boston Celtics had numerous offers for Smart at the trade deadline and opted to hang on to him. That bodes well for him staying in Boston beyond this season; the question becomes does another team test Boston’s taste for luxury tax?

Smart seems to be a player that will get offers; the question is will anyone offer more than the $13.6 million cap hold?

It is going to be hard to pry Smart out of Boston at value—it’s going to take an offer sheet that’s more than Boston will match, which means something in the $12-$14 million per year range on a multi-year deal.

With Celtics guard Kyrie Irving’s future a little uncertain (Irving is eligible for a contract extension this summer) would the Celtics be wise to let Smart leave before getting an answer from Irving?

If there is a player on the list that reasonably could be elsewhere next season, it might be Smart, but that seems far from certain.

Julius Randle – Los Angeles Lakers

[$5.56m Qualifying Offer – $12.44m Cap Hold]

Randle’s future is squarely tied to the Lakers pursuit of marquee free agents. While there is little doubt Randle has emerged as a promising young star, the Lakers are going to have a hard time clearing the necessary cap space to pursue two max-level free agents and hang onto Randle’s Bird Rights.

While Randle’s $5.56m qualifying offer is an easy number for the Lakers, it’s his $12.44 million cap hold that handicaps things. Unless the Lakers can find a way to jettison the lingering contract of forward Luol Deng without taking anything meaningful back against the cap, it’s going to be nearly impossible to get to two max slots and retain Randle.

There are scenarios where it becomes possible to add players and retain Randle; it would simply require the added player to not receive max level money.

The danger for the Lakers is that there appear to be two early suitors for Randle that may force the Lakers’ hand. The Dallas Mavericks have had an eye on Randle for some time and is the team most expect to be on Randle’s doorstep at 12:01 am on July 1.

Another team to watch is the Sacramento Kings. After dumping George Hill’s contract off on the Cavaliers, the Kings could have some cap money, and Randle is a name linked to them as well.

The easy answer for the Lakers is to simply lock Randle up early, which means the front office will have to ask for quick decisions from would-be free agents before another team puts an offer in front of Randle he is willing to sign and start the clock on the matching rights of restricted free agency.

Elfrid Payton – Phoenix Suns

[$4.53m Qualifying Offer – $9.99m Cap Hold]

The Orlando Magic dealt Payton to the Suns at the trade deadline after finding very little interest from other teams. The Suns, according to sources, were high on Payton and wanted to the opportunity to try out the fit before committing.

So far, Payton has been productive enough to think the Suns may hang on to him.

The wrinkle to watch in all of this is what could be as many as three first-round draft picks (most insiders believe one of those later first round picks is going to be traded), and a boatload of free agent money.

Assuming the Suns don’t find a better option in the draft, there is a good chance Payton is back in Phoenix on a new deal, but its unlikely the Suns are going to break the bank for Payton – meaning he might be poachable.

Zach LaVine – Chicago Bulls

[$4.42m Qualifying Offer – $9.60m Cap Hold]

There has been a lot of talk in Chicago about how much Zach LaVine is really going to command. Given the lack of cap money around the NBA and the Bulls ability to match anything reasonable, LaVine may be in a tough spot if he is expecting the marketplace to boost his deal.

Sources close to the situation said it would take a whopper of an offer for the Bulls not to match. The NBA has cautioned teams about declaring their willingness to match offers publicly, but Bulls sources that would comment on the subject found it laughable that LaVine wouldn’t be back in Chicago on a new contract, the question remaining is what’s the amount that gets it done?

Jusuf Nurkić – Portland Trail Blazers

[$4.14m Qualifying Offer – $8.84m Cap Hold]

It seems for some time that maybe the Blazers had cooled on Nurkić, as they explored trades for other centers for several weeks leading up to the trade deadline. In the end, the Blazers held firm and have gone a crazy run—enough to suggest that Nurkić might actually get a new deal in Portland.

The big issue facing both the Blazers and Nurkić is their proximity to the luxury tax. It’s possible the Blazers look to shed some contract money this offseason to clear up their cap, but with both Nurkić and fellow potential restricted free agent Shabazz Napier looking for new deals, the long-term may impact the short-term.

Blazers ownership has never had a problem spending money, but once a team rolls over the luxury tax line, it becomes harder and more expensive to make trades.

Given how well Nurkić has played (especially recently) it seems unlikely that Portland doesn’t retain him, especially considering how low both his qualifying offer and his cap hold are, the Blazers are in the driver seat on a new deal.

Rodney Hood – Cleveland Cavaliers

[$3.47m Qualifying Offer – $7.16m Cap Hold]

The prevailing thought around the Cavaliers is that Hood is not a rental. The Cavs made the deal to acquire Hood not only for the short term, but to re-sign him this summer.

While the future of LeBron James is going to weigh on every decision the Cavs make, the belief if even if James leaves,Hood is a good future piece to build around making his next deal something of a formality.

There is a window in which another team could try to poach Hood with a hefty offer, but given where the Cavs are cap wise, there is zero reason not to match, even a crazy offer.

As some on this list, the money paid to Hood is really only available to him, as the Cavs won’t get anywhere near cap space in the next couple of years.

Clint Capela – Houston Rockets

[$3.42m Qualifying Offer – $7.0m Cap Hold]

The cap hold on Capela makes it nearly impossible that he won’t be back in Houston. While the Rockets do have big dreams of what could be possible this summer, they can make all of their moves and still exceed the cap to re-sign Capela.

There is always the chance a team tries to force the Rockets hand and timing, but at the end of the day, just because a team makes an offer doesn’t mean Capela has to accept it.

It’s pretty safe to say the only uncertainty on Capela is how many years and how many dollars.

There are other players who could be restricted free agents based on being a second-round pick, being undrafted or simply signing shorter-term deals. As we get closer and closer to free agency, we’ll look at these in more depth.

Until then you can check out all the 2018-29 Free Agents here.

More Twitter: Make sure you are following all of our guys on Twitter to ensure you are getting the very latest from our team: @stevekylerNBA, @LangGreene, @EricPincus, @joelbrigham, @TommyBeer, @MokeHamilton , @jblancartenba, @Ben_Dowsett, @SpinDavies, @BuddyGrizzard, @JamesB_NBA, @DennisChambers_, @mike_yaffe, @MattJohnNBA, and @Ben__Nadeau .

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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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