The New Orleans Pelicans were rocked by two seismic events this season. One was the knee injury suffered by rookie Zion Williamson in his first game of Summer League, followed by an actual earthquake that shut down the game. The second was Zion's earth-shattering debut in January, when he exploded for 17 straight points in a comeback effort against the Spurs that was only derailed when he was pulled because of a minutes restriction.
Since that loss to San Antonio, New Orleans (25-33) has gone 8-5 and vaulted to 10th in the West, 3.5 games behind the eighth-place Grizzlies for the final playoff spot. It won’t be easy, but the Pels could slip into the postseason, and if they do, no team wants to face them in Round 1 -- even the Lakers.
New Orleans -- which lost at the Lakers, 118-109, on Tuesday night -- is dramatically better with Zion, and it's not just because of his 23.2 points and seven rebounds a game. Williamson, who scored 29 points against the Lakers, allows Brandon Ingram to play his natural position of small forward, and minimizes the time New Orleans must play Jaxson Hayes and Jahlil Okafor. Hayes is a fine prospect, but 19-year-old big men not named Zion Williamson usually don't contribute positive minutes.
Before Zion’s debut, the Pelicans scored 114.4 points per game and gave up 117.6. Entering Tuesday night's game against the Lakers in L.A., New Orleans has outscored opponents by 6.4 points per game (121.2 to 114.8) with Williamson, an elite point differential despite the small sample size.
Zion’s 4-for-4 shooting from three in his debut game looks like a fluke, as he didn’t make another three until this week against the Warriors. But why would he shoot from long distance when he’s making 60% of his two-pointers? He’s nearly impossible to guard one-on-one, and all the attention paid to Zion lets his teammates feast from three-point range -- especially Lonzo Ball (40% from three since Zion’s return) and Brandon Ingram (41.3%). And it’s not just Williamson helping with his return from injury, it’s center Derrick Favors, without whom the Pelicans went 6-13.
Why should the Lakers fear New Orleans? The Pels play the second-fastest pace in the league, not something the Lakers, who have the NBA's oldest roster, want to deal with. Los Angeles also would not be thrilled playing a team full of former Lakers they dealt to get Anthony Davis. No one has more motivation to beat L.A. than Ingram, Ball and Josh Hart, whom Lakers GM Rob Pelinka and Klutch Sports decided weren’t good enough for LeBron James.
If anything could reverse the NBA ratings decline and make up for the lost revenue from alienating China, it would be a Pelicans-Lakers playoff matchup. (Provided, of course, that Ball doesn’t tweet anything about Taiwanese sovereignty.) The matchup is the equivalent of Captain America: Civil War.
The Lakers are the rare team with the personnel to guard Zion straight up, but they can’t be thrilled about Rajon Rondo chasing J.J. Redick around screens or Alex Caruso dealing with Jrue Holiday’s ball pressure. The Lakers are going to be big favorites against anyone except the Bucks or Clippers this spring, but playing the Pelicans instead of the Grizzlies or Blazers is more dangerous, and far more exhausting.
To qualify for the playoffs, the Pelicans must hold off San Antonio and leapfrog Memphis and Portland. They are going to get some help from the schedule, because the combined winning percentage of the Grizzlies’ future opponents is .554, the most difficult in the league. The Pelicans' slate is the third easiest. New Orleans also controls its own destiny, with three games left against the Spurs and two huge games against Memphis in four nights in late March. The Pelicans pummeled Portland twice last week.
As for Memphis (28-29), it doesn't seem to be making a huge playoff push. Some teams make win-now moves at the deadline; the Grizzlies went for the win-later approach. They added a future cornerstone in Justise Winslow, but he’s out indefinitely with a back injury. They lost a rotation player in Jae Crowder in that deal and acquired Dion Waiters, whom they immediately released. Their three-point shooting has dried up, with only 54 three-pointers this month, only 10 more than league leader Duncan Robinson has all by himself. That’s unlikely to improve with Jaren Jackson Jr, their best distance shooter (2.5 per game, 39.7%), out for at least two weeks.
Portland is still a threat, because it’s never a good idea to bet against Damian Lillard, who’s having a career season (29.5 points, 7.9 assists). But it’s also never a good idea to bet on a groin strain, the injury that kept Lillard out of the All-Star Game. He may be back in a week, but a similar injury derailed LeBron’s entire 2018-19 season.
Without Lillard, the injury-ravaged Blazers (Jusuf Nurkic and Zach Collins are out another two weeks at least) lost to Memphis and New Orleans, and barely beat the tanking Pistons, even with C.J. McCollum delivering a 41-point double-double. The Spurs are also a threat, because Gregg Popovich never misses the playoffs, and they may just sneak in relying on mid-range jumpers and defensive rebounding, like a playoff team from 25 years ago.
But if New Orleans can keep up its Zion pace (winning at a 61.5% clip), it will finish 40-42, probably good enough for the eighth seed. There’s no margin for error, so it may come down to the health of Zion’s knees, the wetness of Redick’s jumper, and Lonzo blocking his father’s phone number.
New Orleans plays the Lakers twice this week, and if Los Angeles is smart, it will treat those matchups like playoff games. Because while they’ve essentially locked up the top seed in the West, the Lakers really, really don’t want the eighth seed going to Zion.