At the end of Zion Williamson's initial 6-to-8-week injury timeline, plummeting Pelicans near a crisis point
New Orleans is on the worst losing streak in franchise history, and it is a team to watch at the deadline
It is exactly eight weeks since Zion Williamson had knee surgery, which came with a timetable of six-to-eight weeks. The No. 1 pick in the 2019 NBA Draft is "dying to be back on the floor," New Orleans Pelicans coach Alvin Gentry said last Friday, via Christian Clark of nola.com, but the team is going to be "extra cautious and make sure he's fine before we stick him out here."
Even as far as top picks go, Williamson brings with him an enormous amount of attention. Regardless of how the Pelicans played without him, he was always going to be under pressure to perform like a star, particularly after the way he dominated in the preseason. Given how dreadful they've been, though, there will be an even more unusual question asked of him: Can a rookie transform a 6-21 team into a competent one?
The Pelicans have lost a franchise-record 12 straight games. Only the Golden State Warriors have a lower winning percentage. Only the Washington Wizards have a worse defensive rating. Brandon Ingram appears to have made a significant leap, which will likely earn him a maximum contract next summer, but outside of that it is difficult to identify a positive storyline.
JJ Redick is already having to address trade rumors, and coach Alvin Gentry is once again having to address his job security. On Sunday, they allowed the Orlando Magic, who have the league's 25th-best offense, to score 130 points per 100 possessions. (The Dallas Mavericks' league-best offense averages 116.7 points per 100 possessions.) Gentry recently called New Orleans "the quietest group I've ever been around," lamenting that the players do not communicate enough on the court, on the plane and "even in the meal room."
Conventional wisdom dictates the front office should have a fire sale. In Williamson's absence, the Pelicans certainly haven't made a strong case that the roster should be kept intact. If you zoom out far enough, you could even argue that this is a good thing. Maybe the "best," most rational way to go is to trade all the veterans, even the one VP David Griffin declared an MVP candidate in the summer, to ensure they keep losing and increase their chances of adding another difference-maker in next year's draft.
This plan does not, however, jibe with what Griffin has said he wants to do. "Culturally, I've always wanted to raise a family as a team," he told Jake Fischer, then of Sports Illustrated, in the offseason, adding that he wanted to put a "cocoon" around the young players, so they can "grow in an environment where winning matters, with the types of human beings I would want them to model." Holiday, Redick and Derrick Favors were supposed to set New Orleans' culture. Griffin said he was open to making the Pelicans buyers at the trade deadline if they had a chance to make the playoffs.
The funny thing is that you can argue New Orleans still has somewhat of a chance in the shallow Western Conference, even after losing 12 straight games. The seventh-place Sacramento Kings are 12-14, just ahead of the Oklahoma City Thunder and Phoenix Suns, who are both 11-14. The likelihood of the Pelicans getting out of a hole this deep is low, but the looming return of Williamson at least justifies holding off on making a major change for now. Playing like a playoff team after his return would represent progress, even if it does not result in an actual postseason berth.
The moment New Orleans won the lottery, the entire vibe of the franchise changed. Soon, the Pelicans will find out if their cornerstone can rejuvenate the team in a much more immediate sense. This team needs a jolt, and perhaps Williamson is talented enough on both ends to rumble onto the court and knock everybody else into a comfortable role.
Every day that Williamson remains out, though, the more damage can be done to New Orleans' morale. If the Pelicans can't beat the Brooklyn Nets, the Minnesota Timberwolves or the lowly Warriors this week, this will feel like a full-on crisis. It is unfair to ask any rookie to fix that.
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