Since the NBA’s bubble began, I’ve struggled to comprehend the New Orleans Pelican’s rationale. Yes, Zion Williamson is their pride and joy, but if you’re trying to make the playoffs—the Pelicans are currently 11th place in the West—the Duke product has to be on the floor.
Instead, the Pelicans shoved a pacifier in his mouth and babied him in the first two games of the NBA restart—both miserable losses. On Thursday, during an inexcusable loss to the Utah Jazz, Zion put up 13 points in only 15 minutes before watching the Pelicans blow a 16-point lead from the bench and lose 106-104. So why did Zion check out of the game with seven minutes left in the fourth quarter and never see the floor again? A minutes restriction.
“Of course we wish we could have played him down the stretch,” Pelicans coach Alvin Gentry said after the game. “But he’d used the minutes that was given to us, so that’s the way it is. We weren’t going to stick him back out there.”
Then on Saturday, the Pelicans got clobbered 126-103—the Clippers drowned the Pelicans with a franchise-record 25 treys—and guess how many minutes Zion played in that game? 14.
“We have a lot of things we have to start doing better and we have to start doing them better immediately,” Gentry told reporters. “We don’t have a month or two weeks to go.”
You sure as hell don’t.
I don’t knock the Pelicans for being cautious with Zion. Before the coronavirus put the world in a rear-naked choke, the 20-year-old missed his first three months of action with a meniscus tear before putting jaws on the floor in his NBA debut.
But the best ability is availability, and if the Pelicans are going to play the long game and protect the eventual heir to LeBron James’ throne, then bench his ass and go for the gusto next season. But if they’re serious about making the playoffs this year—again, they’re currently 11th in the West—they gotta cut the bullshit and let the guy do what they pay him to do: play.
Apparently the Pelicans had an epiphany and came to this same conclusion prior to Monday night’s game, because not only did Zion play 25 minutes—his most since the NBA restart—but the Pelicans ended their two-game losing streak too.
Coincidence? I think not.
“My competitive spirit was there and I’m glad Coach and the whole team trusted me to finish the game out,” Williamson said after the game.
The Pelicans beat the Memphis Grizzlies 109-99, and when he wasn’t preoccupied with losing his shoe—sneaker mishaps are a reoccurring theme in his short career—he chipped in 23 points, seven boards and a career-high five assists.
“It gives us a start, knowing that we have something to build on,” Williamson said. “Those two losses were bad but they’re both a learning experience. So this win gives us a start.”
Not only does it give the Pelicans a start, but it moves them to within 2 1/2 games of the Grizzlies for the 8th seed in the West. Yes, the Pelicans must still move past the Portland Trail Blazers and San Antonio Spurs to lock in the 9th seed, but as long as they stay within four games of the Grizzlies after doing so, they’ll qualify for the play-in.
But none of the above happens if the Pelicans continue to babysit Zion. So if they’re serious about a playoff run, get rid of the binkies and diapers and let that man cook.