The explosion in NBA media over the past 15 years has certainly been a good thing (when something results in me having a job, I tend to like it). The increased coverage and analysis has largely led to more NBA fans becoming much more informed, but has its downsides as well. One of these is the need to react nearly instantly to any good performance. This year, analysts and fans have repeatedly broken out their jump to conclusions mats to proclaim a great upheaval in the hierarchy of NBA players based on a good month of games.
Whether it’s Kevin Durant sewing up the MVP in January or Paul George as an MVP candidate in November, these judgments have largely proved to be premature. This trend has reached its zenith in the last week as Joakim Noah has been anointed a top-five MVP candidate.
I am from Chicago and love Noah’s game, but I do not think he is even a top-10 player, much less top-five. I decried this development on Twitter, and in response was asked who I would rank above him in the top 10.
Context can make such a ranking very difficult. However, I will interpret it using the following question: Which player would I pick if I were starting a team and needed to win a game tomorrow with average NBA talent around him? A guiding philosophy in this ranking is that efficiently creating shots for oneself and others is the premium skill in the NBA. Defense certainly matters, especially at the big positions, but the difference between the best and worst offensive players is far greater than on the defensive end. Finally, I will rank the players in tiers to represent points in the list where there is a big drop off.
1. LeBron James
James’ recent explosion has confirmed that he is still the league’s best player. Taking his outstanding shooting, playmaking and finishing as a given, what most sets him apart is defense. James has proved capable of supporting small-ball units defensively with his crazy off-ball activity, which allows Miami to surround him with far more offense than other wings. In a winner take all game with him playing at full intensity on defense, he would still be my first pick.
2. Kevin Durant
Durant has at least made it a legitimate debate over who is the better player this season. He is now fairly obviously the best scorer in the league, while improving his playmaking, efficiency and off-the-dribble game. His defense has also improved in lockstep with the Thunder’s overall improvement, but he is still nowhere near the all-encompassing force on that end that James can be. Nevertheless, he is far above the third player on this list.
3. Chris Paul
That is it for players who have no weaknesses, which means this just got really hard. A year ago, Paul was a fairly clear number three on this list, and statistically he has put up almost identical numbers to last year. He ranks fourth in PER and fourth in Kevin Pelton’s per minute win percentage, trailing James, Durant and Kevin Love in both categories. He also ranks third in Regularized Adjusted Plus Minus* (RAPM), per Stats for the NBA. RAPM is a plus/minus metric that purports to adjust for the quality of a player’s teammates and the opposition while he is on or off the floor to help remove external factors such as a poor backup or teammates from the plus/minus equation.
But subjectively, Paul has slipped, exhibiting less facility for getting into the paint while missing more games. While these numbers are not the be-all end-all, Paul ranks 52nd in drives per game and 52nd in team points per game scored off drives. He simply seems less capable of imposing his will on the game this year, and the team’s drop-off was not as large as would be expected when he missed time with a shoulder injury. Paul also is pretty much an average defender at point guard, with his quick hands counterbalanced by his short arms closing out on shooters. On the other hand, he also does not actually hurt the team’s defense, especially since he does not play a key position on that end.
So Paul seems ripe for replacement, but the problem is the candidates below him are equally flawed, great players though they are. Paul also deserves extra credit for the excellent clutch scoring of his teams over the years. As a perimeter player, he is more able to affect the game at crucial moments than his competition for this spot. It remains his for now.
4. Kevin Love
By traditional box score-based metrics, Love should be third on this list. He is a solid third in PER and first in win percentage. He also ranks fourth in RAPM. Love is a fantastic offensive player, posing a very unique problem for defenses with his abilities to post up and shoot 35 percent of his field goals from beyond the three-point arc while maintaining a 28 percent usage percentage.
So why isn’t he the clear number three? Defense. Love does lead the league in defensive rebound percentage, and helps the Wolves to the number six defensive rebound rate, but he is at best an average defender and D is much more important at the big positions. He is a poor rim-protector, and is a major reason teams shoot a ridiculous percentage inside against the Wolves. To truly optimize a team, he must be paired with a great shot-blocking center.
Another demerit for Love is Minnesota’s awful clutch performances this year, a major reason they are out of the playoff race. It is hard to say how much of that is bad luck, but it does matter that Love has yet to show the ability to push his team to great clutch performances the way Paul and James consistently have the last few years. That said, his statistical resume is far enough ahead of the competition that he cannot be dropped any lower than fourth on this list.
5. Stephen Curry
Tier three was just as hard to rank. Curry’s case boils down to the fact that having him in the game essentially creates a top-five NBA offense. The Warriors score at basically a league-best rate with him on the floor, and crater to well below league-worst without him. While some of that is due to the Warriors’ backup point guard woes, the team has one other clearly above-average offensive player: David Lee. Curry’s three-point shooting bends the entire defense to him and requires constant attention at all times, whether on pick-and-rolls or off the ball. Meanwhile, he has improved into one of the game’s best playmakers as well. On defense he has below average quickness, but very quick hands and decent size for the position to the point he is not an enormous liability. His individual statistics are not quite worthy of this fifth position (ninth in PER among realistic contenders and sixth in win percentage) but I believe the effect he appears to have on his team’s offense overshadows his slight deficit in the individual metrics.
6. Blake Griffin
Griffin ascends to this spot on the strength of his torrid play since Paul suffered his shoulder injury. He has improved nearly every aspect offensively, whether it is postups, midrange jumpers, free throws or pushing the ball in transition. With Paul out, Griffin showed the ability to carry the Clippers’ offense while maintaining excellent efficiency and upping his usage. Griffin’s strides have been equally impressive on defense, where he has shown the ability to play big minutes as a key cog on a unit that has been one of the league’s top ten since the early going. He is not a stopper, but at least he has shown the ability to avoid being a detriment. The stats support Griffin’s case as well, as he ranks eighth among realistic contenders* for this list in PER and eighth in RAPM, though in the 20s in win percentage. Those numbers are depressed by how he did in the early season–based on how he is playing now he belongs in this spot.
*This excludes players like Andre Iguodala (RAPM) and Brook Lopez (PER) who rank ahead of Griffin but obviously should not be considered anywhere near top-10 players.
7. Anthony Davis
Based solely on his individual statistics, the 20-year-old Davis belongs higher on this list. He is fourth in PER, and fifth in win percentage. His midrange jumper became automatic almost overnight, and he is a terror in the pick-and-roll and on the offensive glass. The problem is his team’s performance. I am not one to harp on such matters unnecessarily–a player should not be punished for having poor teammates. But the Pelicans have disappointed this year, especially on defense despite Davis’ astronomical block and steal numbers. RAPM hates Davis, rating him below average on both ends, in similar fashion to how Kevin Durant initially struggled in plus/minus metrics. Durant eventually figured things out to become one of the league’s best, and I fully expect Davis to as well. But there is something to be said for being only 20. While Davis stuffs the box score, his inexperience manifests itself in his inability to improve his team’s performance, especially on the defensive end where execution of the scheme is paramount.
8. Chris Bosh
This may be the most controversial choice, but Bosh belongs here because of his versatility and the fact that he still has the skill to take on a much larger share of the offense than he does in Miami. His ability to play center on defense, blitz the pick-and-roll and shoot the lights out on offense is an essential part of the HEAT’s system. He has also returned to the four at times lately and proved an excellent choice as a stretch power forward. Bosh also retains the ability to post up and score, which would prove very useful on an average team with less threats than Miami. He possesses just about every big man skill, allowing one to build nearly any kind of team around him.
9. Russell Westbrook
Remember him? A guy many considered a top-five player in the NBA last year? Westbrook has had three surgeries since then, but on a per minute basis has been similar to the player he was a season ago. He ranks eighth in win percentage and 12th in PER among realistic contenders. He has shown the ability to play even better than that in previous years. After a few more weeks to get back into it, this may appear too low for the UCLA product.
10. Dwight Howard
The Houston center just is not quite the force he was in Orlando on either end, although he continues to improve as he approaches two years removed from back surgery. He still no longer constitutes a top-five defense by himself, but he still has anchored a top-10 unit with only one other above-average defender in the starting five. Offensively, Howard has improved his free throw shooting from horrendous to really bad by utilizing a new routine, and his postup efficiency has improved as the year has gone on. The Rockets outscore teams by 7.7 points/100 with Howard on the floor, and only 0.4 when he sits. Despite his personal foibles, Howard is in a near-dead heat with Bosh for the status of best center in the game.
Honorable Mentions In No Particular Order
All of these players belong in Tier Four as well, as there is little to separate them from Bosh, Westbrook and Howard.
Paul George started the season playing like a top-five player, but his offense has regressed significantly toward last year’s levels. He is obviously a great defender, but he is not playing anywhere near a top-10 level on offense right now. That torrid start to the year, driven by unsustainable jump-shooting, looks like an aberration at this point.
Dirk Nowitzki ranks very highly on a per minute basis, but he only plays 32 minutes per game now and is a big part of the problem with Dallas’ near-awful defense.
James Harden has slightly regressed offensively this year, and he may be the second-worst defender on this list after Nowitzki.
Carmelo Anthony is having nearly his best year, but his poor defense and isolation-heavy game prevent him from cracking the top 10.
What about Joakim Noah?
So why isn’t Joakim Noah a top-10 player? Offense. Noah is kind of the center version of Rajon Rondo. His passing is very flashy, and he’s a great offensive rebounder, but those are his only two above-average offensive skills aside from screen-setting.* He shoots a poor percentage for a center and struggles to finish at the rim, especially off two feet. He also turns the ball over on a high 17.2 percent of his possessions, and his usage rate is below the league average. And Noah’s passing, while useful, is featured on this Bulls team more out of necessity. On a team with more shooters and creators, having the ball in his hands constantly would not be as favored an option.
* This shows in his offensive RAPM, which is negative. The Bulls do score much better on offense with Noah on the floor than off, but that is due in large part to his execrable backup Nazr Mohammed. RAPM adjusts for that fact.
Noah remains among the league’s best defenders and rebounders, but he is a middle-of-the-pack offensive center who kills a lot of possessions with turnovers and missed shots. That prevents him from being a top-10 player.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.