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NBA Daily: Ranking The Shooting Guards

Ben Nadeau kicks off a set of April rankings by tackling the shooting guards. Can anybody take James Harden down?

Ben Nadeau

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It’s April and, let’s face it, the world is starved for basketball-related content.

Less than a week ago, this space included the admittance of imaginary one-on-one rules and a wholehearted recommendation for a video game tournament. Literally, seriously, honestly: Anything to scratch that itch. And speaking of the aforementioned itches, it must be poison ivy season because the content rash is calling out once more – this time in the form of rankings lists. Generally speaking, these are often relegated into calendars during the sweaty days of August – perhaps even September should the mood feel right – but in April? That’s borderline unheard of.

On this list of shooting guards, there is an MVP, many All-Stars, some freakishly-good scorers and, in all likelihood, a fair share of future Hall-of-Famers. Putting them in order after 60-plus games of basketball feels a tad bit underwhelming – and you’ve probably got your own unshakable opinions at this point of the year – so we’re ranking them with three extra criteria in mind:

A. The best fun fact on their Wikipedia page
B. By facial hair
C. Is their coolest nickname objectively cool?

With that said, and on a 1-to-10 scale, it’s time to dive in and chat about the NBA’s very best shooting guards, their top achievements and whether or not they’ve known Nelly for 20 years.

1. James Harden, Houston Rockets

In any true-to-the-genre ranking, James Harden would be the undisputed champion because of his other-worldly scoring ability, playmaking chops and influence on the game of basketball as a whole. Back in 2017-18, Harden took home a well-deserved MVP award by notching 30.4 points per game and somehow followed that up with 36.1 during the next season and didn’t win – thus launching a widely-casted net on narratives and whether or not the NBA media succumbs to them.

Aside from leading the league in points per game for three consecutive seasons, Harden has also done so in assists once as well (11.2, 2016-17) and hasn’t missed an All-Star Game in almost a decade.

Before the season began, ESPN’s Kirk Goldsberry reported that Harden, 30, is already the NBA’s all-time leader in unassisted three-pointers, a downright insane footnote, and, of course, there’s the 30-plus points streak over 32 consecutive games in 2018-19. By Harden’s standards – which, in case you’re living under a rock, are now firmly in the best-shooting-guard-of-all-time territory – this shortened campaign fell on the slightly disappointing side but no Western Conference team wanted to face him in the postseason.

On the fun fact front, Harden became the first player in NBA history to score 30 or more points against all 29 teams in a single season – a list that topped out with two 60-point efforts for good measure. Without much discussion either, Harden’s facial hair is marketable, recognizable and the face, literally, of a candy spin-off – the beard is untouchable magic.

WFF: 8 | FH: 10 | COOL: 7
TOTAL: 25

2. Bradley Beal, Washington Wizards

Bradley Beal is a bad dude… but if an All-Star shooting guard averages 30 points per game in Washington, does anybody hear it? Snubbed from the big midseason exhibition, Beal has toiled away with the Wizards and continued to grow exponentially in each passing season. At 30.5 points per game, Beal only trails Harden in that category and, of note, doesn’t have a Hall of Fame-worthy partner in Russell Westbrook to pry away the constant defensive pressure either. Cooler, the 26-year-old sharpshooter was coming in hot toward the top 50 for most made three-pointers in NBA history (60 away) and has shown zero signs of slowing down.

Thanks to Beal’s daily heroics, Washington found themselves in 9th place for the Eastern Conference – 24-40, sure, but 9th nonetheless – a consideration made even more notable by noting the Wizards’ fourth and fifth-highest scoring leaders on the year: Jordan McRae, who was moved at the trade deadline, and Isaiah Thomas, who was moved at the trade deadline. If not for Harden, a historic, one-of-a-kind player, Beal would lay serious claim to the league’s best shooting guard title. And although his facial hair is nothing to write home about, Beal’s Wikipedia Factoid is.

Nelly – yes, that Nelly – used to walk Beal to school. Of the nicknames listed for Beal on Basketball Reference, it’s quite the smattering: Real Deal, Big Panda, Blue Magic, Brad. While the latter bunch doesn’t bring much to the table, Real Deal, then often followed by Beal, is a quality nickname. Who doesn’t love a good rhyme? Real Deal Beal, nearly nickname bliss.

WFF: 10 | FH: 4 | COOL: 8
TOTAL: 22

3. Paul George, Los Angeles Clippers

Year after year, Paul George continues to be one of the NBA’s most consistently underrated. Despite top-three finishes in both MVP and DPotY in 2018-19, George is hardly ever mentioned in the same breath as LeBron James, Kawhi Leonard or Giannis Antetokounmpo. Still, that hasn’t stopped George from crushing opponents on either side of the ball – a reliable, healthy leader since he began to ascend the league-wide rankings in 2013. Teamed up with Leonard, George and the Clippers were poised for big things and a potential LA-LA conference finals looked tastier than almost any other playoff series out there.

George has averaged over 20 points in six consecutive seasons – barring the year that must-not-be-named – and led the league in steals (2.2) last year. Back in 2013, George recorded his first-ever career playoff triple-double – 23 points, 11 rebounds and 12 assists – and it was Indiana’s first since Mark Jackson notched one during the 1998 postseason. It’s not exactly the Most Fun of all Fun Facts – yet, being the first to do something since an NBA legend did it is undeniably cool.

The PG-13 moniker may sell jerseys and tickets, but not my heart. Clever, sure, but inspirational? Deadly? Fear-inspiring? That’s a question better suited for every underwhelming PG-13 horror movie out there – but for a future Hall-of-Famer, however, it could be better.

WFF: 7 | FH: 7 | COOL: 7
TOTAL: 21

4. Jrue Holiday, New Orleans Pelicans

Like George, Holiday remains in the running for the basketball’s most underappreciated title. Dependable and heady, New Orleans’ long-term leader has reached back-to-back All-NBA Defensive Teams, opted to stay post-Anthony Davis and, at the age of 29, is having another career-year. At 21.2 points, 5.1 rebounds, 7.7 assists and 1.6 steals per game, the stat-stuffing Holiday is an on-ball menace, while pairing excellently with Lonzo Ball thus far. Although the addition of Zion Williamson, complete with a late-season surge, may not ultimately find its own conclusion, Holiday’s veteran presence and timely contributions steered the ship until the generational talent could make his debut.

One might mistakenly believe that Holiday’s fun fact would involve his brothers – Justin and Aaron – and that the trio shared the court in late December, the first time in NBA history, but that’d be incorrect. Instead, Holiday is married to the USWNT’s Lauren Holiday, formerly Cheney, and the two met at a UCLA game in 2013 – when Lauren accidentally mistook him for Darren Collison. The rest, eventually, was history. Since Holiday broke into the team in 2007, the USWNT has won two Olympic gold medals, took silver in the 2011 Women’s World Cup and then, of course, got revenge with a first-place finish four years later.

Their daughter, Jrue as well, has some seriously-tight shoes to fill down the road.

WFF: 10 | FH: 4 | COOL: 5
TOTAL: 19

5. Devin Booker, Phoenix Suns

Booker is part of the generation’s new school: Icy cool from the arc, but even cooler off-the-court. The Suns’ franchise cornerstone appears to only be scratching the surface of his true potential lately, but the 23-year-old finally reached his first-ever All-Star Game before the shutdown. His elite scoring ability makes Booker a nightmare for opposing defenses and it’s legitimately exciting to imagine a playoff-ready roster around the playmaker. Three years earlier, Booker hung 70 points on the Boston Celtics on the road, becoming the youngest player ever to score 60-plus, and quickly smashed many other age-related records in his path as well.

To wit, Booker is already signed up on a maximum contract worth $158 million with Phoenix and was on course to repeat his incredible 2018-19 – 26 points, 4.1 rebounds, 6.6 assists per game – but on even better efficiencies.

Admittedly, Book is not the greatest nickname, nor does his facial hair strike fear into the opponent’s heart… but his icebreaker contribution certainly would. Back on Jan. 2, 2016, when Booker was just 19 years old, he scored 21 points in a loss to the Sacramento Kings. For a superstar that now regularly drops 40, half that as a rookie seems skippable at first sight. But the only people to score more than that at his age: Kobe Bryant, Tracy McGrady, Dwight Howard, LeBron James and Kevin Durant – all bonafide locks for the Hall of Fame.

Not bad company, not at all.

WFF: 9 | FH: 3 | COOL: 5
TOTAL: 17

6. Donovan Mitchell, Utah Jazz

After going at No. 13 overall three years ago, Mitchell continues to take the NBA scene by storm. Mitchell, a cool, calm and collected rim-rattler, was the franchise cornerstone that Utah so desperately needed to fall into their laps. Although their campaign hadn’t gone exactly to plan so far in 2019-20, Mitchell was having a career-year with 24.2 points, 4.4 rebounds and 4.2 assists per game. A fierce competitor, the 23-year-old is often ready to tear down the hoop with every electric dunk or go-ahead bucket. Always ready to attack the paint, Mitchell’s rapid-fire footwork and above-average jump shot keep defenders guessing – and generally to no avail.

Best of all, Mitchell may be young, but he, without a doubt, sports the best nickname of the shooting guard bunch – Spida – and these days, the first-time All-Star seems destined for greatness. Likewise, in 2018, Mitchell revealed that he was at LeBron James’ famous Boys and Girls Club ceremony. Mitchell, he says, wanted James to head to Miami and get his first championship ring. A decade later, he’s not only competing on the same level as James – but Mitchell is absolutely holding his own.

WFF: 5 | FH: 2 | COOL: 10 
TOTAL: 17

7. CJ McCollum, Portland Trail Blazers

Every superhero needs a sidekick.

And sure, maybe McCollum isn’t as prolific as Damian Lillard, but this is a deadeye marksman that puts the shooting in shooting guard. At 22.5 points per game, McCollum was nearing a career-high in that category, playing his part to keep the Trail Blazers in a tight postseason picture in spite of vast roster injuries. In fact, the 28-year-old had knocked down three or more three-pointers in 34 of Portland’s 62 games thus far, providing half the firepower in one of the NBA’s most dynamic backcourt partnerships.

Via Lehigh, McCollum took the road less traveled to the NBA, even opting to return to college for his senior year – even though he already ranked high on most draft boards. Noting his passion for Journalism and Sports Broadcasting, two facets of McCollum’s off-the-court persona today, the three-point destroyer stayed in school when 99 percent of the world would’ve taken the money. Oh, if that wasn’t enough, dropping 50 points – joining Brandon Roy, Andre Miller, Clyde Drexler, Damon Stoudamire, Geoff Petrie and Lillard in Blazers’ franchise history to do so – isn’t a minor accomplishment either. While McCollum is docked for having no remarkable nickname but makes up for it with an often fantastic mustache and goatee combo and his love for learning – both on and off the court.

WFF: 9 | FH: 5 | COOL: 1
TOTAL: 15

8. Victor Oladipo, Indiana Pacers

Although the campaign was halted before Oladipo could truly shake off the rust, the warning signs were certainly there: The All-Star guard was back, baby.

After a gruesome injury ended Oladipo’s rise into stardom over a year ago, questions of his eventual return – and if he’d even be the same player again – remained and lingered ominously on the surface. Thankfully, the 6-foot-4 bucket-scoring machine had the Pacers looking like a fearful postseason matchup as the calendar turned to March. During Indiana’s final game pre-quarantine, he dropped 27 points on 5-for-7 from three-point range – Boston, Philadelphia, Toronto, it doesn’t matter: Nobody wants to go toe-to-toe with a hungry (and healthy) Oladipo.

To round out our foray into fun facts, unsurprisingly, Oladipo has already managed to reach mainstream recognition as a singer, his passionate side hustle. In 2018, the 27-year-old released his first-ever album, V.O., and has been featured at the NBA All-Star Game and on The Masked Singer – so if this whole basketball thing doesn’t work out, Dipo will be juuuuuuuuust fine.

WFF: 7 | FH: 1 | COOL: 6
TOTAL: 14

Honorable Mentions: Caris LeVert, Jaylen Brown, Gary Harris, Buddy Hield

In the end, the new-fangled criteria didn’t change too much on the sliding scale, but Harden’s greatness was too powerful to ignore. While Beal, George and others may lay claim to the throne, the shooting guard position brings a ton of confidence and consistency to the sport – top to bottom, it’s a list of absolute competitors and tide-changing athletes. It remains to be seen if this season will resume safely and effectively at some point, but, if it does, these eight sharpshooters can pull their weight (and then some) in a big way.

For more quarantine-ready content, stay tuned to Basketball Insiders’ feed, we’ve got you covered.

Ben Nadeau is a Seattle-based writer in his third year with Basketball Insiders. For five seasons, he covered the Brooklyn Nets for The Brooklyn Game.

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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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