The NBA has been dreaming of a matchup between the current GOAT of the league and his presumptive heir. The 2019-20 season was slated to open with the New Orleans Pelicans facing the Toronto Raptors, last year’s NBA Champions. The idea of having one of the most anticipated NBA debuts in memory on a night where the Raptors would receive their rings was just too much for the NBA to not pass up.
That game happened, but without Zion Williamson.
Williamson, the New Orleans Pelicans #1 pick in the 2019 NBA draft, went under the knife ahead of the 2019-20 season. The 19-year old power forward had a torn meniscus repaired in his right knee, keeping him out of the lineup for 6-8 weeks. This fly in the ointment dashed the NBA’s hopes and delayed the inevitable celebrations on Bourbon Street.
Questions began to swirl around Zion’s future. This is his third knee injury in his short career and, given his size and the pressure he puts on his knees, he needs to tread lightly through his recovery. “Zion could be something very special,” our own Kevin Morin wrote back in the Fall. “It would be awful to see him have a career perpetually stunted by injuries.”
But when Zion came back to full health and took the floor for the first time, the man was as advuertized. The NBA’s eyes widened, dreaming of the insane ratings a matchup between LeBron James and Williamson would produce.
But that dream might have to wait another season.
The Pelicans have now dropped their second game in a row, falling to the Los Angeles Clippers by 23 points. This defeat, preceded by a hard-fought defeat at the hands of the Utah Jazz, stings the most, as it pushes the Pelicans playoff hopes into a corner.
And now they have to essentially win out to get a spot in the West’s play-in game, which is far more difficult than it sounds. According to FiveThirtyEight, the Pelicans have a 25% chance of making the playoffs. The Grizzlies (35%) and the Trailblazers (30%) still sit ahead of them in the standings.
The Pelicans final six games feature meetings with the Grizzlies, Spurs, Magic, Wizards, and two games against the Kings. Memphis and their rookie phenom Ja Morant, are currently sitting in the 8th-seed with a two game lead over the Portland Trailblazers. The Grizzlies are playing good basketball as of late, and Ja Morant is piecing together a solid and unignorable campaign for Rookie of the Year. The Grizzlies are for real, and that surprised a lot of people.
The Trailblazers, who have plenty of playoff experience, are trying to re-establish themselves as a contender after a tough regular season. After fighting their way to last year’s Western Conference Finals, the Blazers got swept by the Warriors. This year, they’re fighting for their lives. Once again, Damian Lillard doing his damnedest to keep them in the playoff picture.
The real tricky part of this win-out to play-in plan for the Pelicans will be the Spurs and the Kings.
The Spurs are a pesky and smart basketball team coached by two legends of the game in Greg Popovich and Becky Hammon. The Spurs have always been a tough beat. And this year is no different, as they are also fighting to get to the play-in game. Can they play spoiler to the Pelicans? Absolutely.
The Kings offer a more direct wild card approach. The Kings are the Frank Reynolds of the NBA. You never know what they’re up to or how they’ll show up. Sometimes they show up and “just start blasting,” while other times they just flail around while things happen around them.
Beating the Kings twice will be tough, considering they can throw a wrench into everything at anytime. It’s a high risk/high reward kind of game plan.
With the Lakers pushing for the 1-seed in the West, and the Pelicans struggling to get to the play-in game, the NBA’s dreams might be dashed. But then again… this season is unlike any other. Perhaps counting the Pelicans out is the exact kind of motivation they need to get it done.
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