Former NBA center Larry Sanders is one of the most misunderstood athletes in professional sports.
When he decided to leave the NBA at 26 years old, agreeing to a buyout that left the bulk of his recently-signed $44 million contract with the Milwaukee Bucks on the table, most people couldn’t comprehend his decision. Yes, he took a personal leave of absence after being suspended twice for violating the NBA’s anti-drug program, but why would a very talented player walk away from the NBA and all of the perks that come with that lifestyle? Fans were equally confused and disappointed, as Sanders had become an exciting, up-and-coming center in Milwaukee.
Sanders had averaged 7.3 points, 6.1 rebounds, 1.4 blocks with a 7.1 block percentage over the course of his five-year career. His breakout campaign was the 2012-13 season, when he averaged 9.8 points, 9.5 rebounds and 2.8 blocks in 27.3 minutes while shooting 50.9 percent from field. That season, his averages per-100-possessios were 18.2 points, 17.6 rebounds and 5.3 blocks. At one point, he led the league in limiting opponents’ shooting percentage at the rim, so it was a no-brainer for Milwaukee to invest in him in August of 2013.
Then, he surprised everyone and decided he needed a break from the NBA lifestyle.
Well, Basketball Insiders recently caught up with the 27-year-old Sanders to discuss why he decided to leave the Bucks, why an NBA comeback isn’t out of the question, what off-court endeavors he’s been pursuing and much more in this wide-ranging, exclusive interview.
Basketball Insiders: Making the decision to walk away from the NBA couldn’t have been easy. You left a lot of money on the table and that was your career at that point. I know you’ve always had other interests, but how hard was that decision to make and how long did you grapple with it?
Larry Sanders: “Because I started playing basketball late, I had other interests before that. I love basketball and the competition and the comradery and all of that. But, at the same time, I feel like basketball took a lot away from me too. It limited me in a lot of ways. And I’ve been an artist my whole life. I loved drawing. I wanted to be an oceanographer. I’ve skateboarded for the majority of my life. I always had this artistic and rebellious way about me, and it clashed with the NBA culture. It really did. I got to the point where I realized that the NBA is a machine. It’s going to keep running, with or without you. If it can keep running without Allen Iverson – Allen Iverson! – then it’s definitely not worried about me. I knew that, and I also knew they really didn’t have the time to get to know me, to understand me and who I am. And look, I totally understand that. I get that. But I just felt like I had to put myself in a better position in life, to feel more fulfilled. At the end of the day, I’m left with myself, my loved ones and the life I made. I wanted to be someone who was proud of their story. It was always about staying true to myself. I didn’t want to lose myself and who I was for anything. No amount of money. Nothing.”
Basketball Insiders: How much do you miss basketball? You mentioned that you love the game and once you’re in that culture, it’s hard to just completely remove yourself from it. Do you watch games and still play at all?
Larry Sanders: “Oh, I do miss it. I have season tickets for the Los Angeles Lakers and I love watching and dissecting the game. I mean, I love this game. I really do. I love to play it, and I do still play a lot here in L.A. But there were some things about it, some situations, that I didn’t love. But I feel like I’m in a much better place right now and I’m equipped to be able to put myself in that situation again.”
Basketball Insiders: That’s great to hear, because your well-being was my biggest concern. When you walked away, you made comments about working on yourself as a person and needing time to sort things out since you were dealing with anxiety and depression. How are you doing?
Larry Sanders: “It’s been going great, man. I think that’s just the process of life. I had to take that time for my development, to develop into the type of man that I need to be. That time [to work on yourself] isn’t really given to us, but there’s a lot of value in making some time for yourself and I hope other people can find the time to do that too. Some people never do that or can’t do that, and that just saddens me. Stepping out of the NBA schedule and doing that was good for me, I’m very happy now.
“And I’m happy for everyone still in the NBA having success. I see what’s about to happen with the salary cap rising, and I’m so happy because those guys deserve it. For what they do out there, risking their bodies, they deserve it. I risked my body; I got my orbital [bones] blown out and temporarily lost my eyesight. Because those guys are taking a risk every time they step on the court, I’m glad they’re going to get some more money for what they’re doing.”
Basketball Insiders: You mentioned you’re in a better place, which leads to the big question that everyone is asking. Do you see yourself making an NBA comeback anytime soon?
Larry Sanders: “I could see myself coming back to the NBA and… I mean, I’ll just leave it at that. I can’t say too much. (laughs) I can see myself coming back there.”
Basketball Insiders: Your name gets mentioned in rumors whenever a team needs a big man or is looking to make a free agency signing. Have teams been calling you or your camp to express interest?
Larry Sanders: “I’ll say this: I understand who I am as a player and I know what I can bring to any team. Now that I’ve gotten the chance to watch a lot of basketball, I just know what I would do on that court. Even from an effort standpoint, I know I can [play harder than a lot of players]. With the kind of player that I am, I just don’t see a team that couldn’t use my services. But I will say, I think it would have to be a very good fit for the both of us. And I think it goes outside of what’s happening on the court – there has to be a connection there. Maybe I’m asking for too much. (laughs) But I just won’t go back to the situation I was in before.” Editors Note: Larry agreed to play with VCU’s alumni team in The Basketball Tournament, which has a $2 million prize and will be broadcast on ESPN.
Basketball Insiders: In the meantime, you’ve started an art management company where you work with a variety of artists and put out some of your own work (including a rap track called Black Mercedes). What made you decide to start that and how is it going?
Larry Sanders: “It’s been going well. It started because when I was an artist, I didn’t have much creative freedom or creative nourishment. I felt kind of trapped and I wanted to create a place where I could give other artists the resources they need and where they don’t have to feel trapped. I didn’t want them to feel limited by anything. And there are artists who don’t even own their art, and I felt like that was a huge problem. I wanted our artists to own their art, be able to display it freely and choose exactly what they wanted to do with their work. It was a shift [away from basketball], but it was just a calling for me, honestly. It’s been going great. I’ve been working with some artists for the last eight months, developing them, shooting videos for them and providing space for them. This is my first time doing this, so it’s been a great learning experience. I have the right intentions, and now I’m learning about the structure and all of that. Now, we’re at the point with the company where we have a photographer, business partners, artists and me. We’ve had artists come through our system and end up in a better situation, which is great. That’s what we want. That’s all I want for them. A lot of these people are starving artists – some are living out of their cars – and we’re not asking anything from them. We just want to use our resources to help them and I want to put my name by them to co-sign them. It’s just awesome and it’s a great, great feeling to see these guys flourish. It’s like I’m freeing myself doing this.”
Basketball Insiders: Speaking of freedom, I’ve always said that the life of an NBA player is more difficult than outsiders see. There are a lot of sacrifices – from the rigorous schedule, to the loneliness since you’re away from your loved ones, to all of the rules, to the physical and mental exhaustion. Yes, NBA players make a ton of money, but there are a lot of difficult things to deal with too. Do you think there are misconceptions about the NBA lifestyle and that people don’t fully understand what it’s like?
Larry Sanders: “Yeah, but as long as those people are seeing it from the outside looking in, there will always be misconceptions. It’s like filtering something through a net, you’re never going to get the real thing, the raw thing. It’s hard to understand unless you’re there actually experiencing it. But life is life. A great friend of mine told me a great phrase: ‘The top isn’t that bright and the bottom isn’t that dark.’ I do think that people are starting to understand that NBA players are people too. They can step back and say, ‘Oh, that’s just a normal guy.’ People forget that because of certain depictions. And a lot of them are choices that we didn’t get to make. I don’t think humans get to make many choices in society. I was born only 27 years ago so I’m still developing and trying to grow, but it seems like people don’t have too many choices when it comes to the world around them. I think I directly experienced that. I was everything that everyone thought I was, but I was also none of it at the same time. Everyone tries to put you in categories and label you and, honestly, dumb you down.
“I stepped into the basketball culture later than most people. I started playing organized basketball when I was 15 or 16 years old. That’s when I really started to experience the whole culture of basketball, and I fell in love with it. I loved playing the game and having a team, but it was also such a shock. AAU was a huge shock. I only played one year of AAU, but it was a huge shock seeing the manipulation and what players had become accustomed to because those things had just become the norm. They allowed these crazy things into their lives, but me, who was almost stepping into adulthood, was like, ‘No, this doesn’t feel good.’ That was a challenge.
“Then everything happened so fast. I had no aspirations of playing in college, but in that one year in AAU I broke out, so suddenly a bunch of mid-major schools are looking at me. I chose VCU because it was an arts school – they were like 16th in the nation at the time when it came to their arts program and engineering and what not. Then, from there, I started to make leaps and bounds because I had a great coach in Anthony Grant, who was excellent for my development. Then things kept moving fast. I was seventh or eighth in the nation in blocks in my freshman year. Then, in my sophomore year, I had Eric Maynor with me and he’s one of the best teammates that I ever had. I always viewed him as a teammate and basically a coach too. I think anyone who has ever played with him can say that about Eric. He was there in Oklahoma City in the beginning when it was Kevin Durant, Russell Westbrook, James Harden and if you talk to those guys right now, they’ll tell you how significant he was to that team. Man, I love Eric. He kept us in the gym, he kept us working hard and he’s just a different kind of person. So he pushed me and made me better. Then I was drafted by Milwaukee and had Scott Skiles in my life, and everyone knows he’s a hard-nosed coach, but he got me so disciplined on defense. He turned me into a defensive animal! And it was because he didn’t let me make mistakes, because I got screamed at for every mistake I made! (laughs) I may not have responded well to all of the personal stuff, but if you had a system and a certain way of doing things, I was all about it. ‘Let’s do it!’ And if I’m doing something wrong, I want to know! He would let me know, so I was blessed to have him. Then I had Larry Drew, and then I had Jason Kidd.
“I always had great people around me throughout my basketball career. I was truly blessed because they were all so significant and each one helped me take the next step up and get better. Every year, there was a such a significant person that would become part of my life and help me so much. I still talk to Anthony Grant, who is now in Oklahoma City as an assistant. I still talk to Shaka Smart. These are my friends and have helped me in life just as much as basketball. It’s just awesome to have those people around me and I’m very thankful for that.”
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.