The New Orleans Pelicans entered the season with high hopes. Their offseason moves were widely praised, they put a season of locker room dysfunction behind them, and best of all, they landed a potential superstar. But just more than a month in, their sunny outlook has turned bleak. The Pelicans sit second-to-last in the Western Conference, they’re off to their worst start since the 2015-16 season, and the top pick of the 2019 NBA draft, Zion Williamson, has yet to suit up. Worse still, it doesn’t seem like that will change any time soon.
On Tuesday, TNT’s Kristen Ledlow reported that Pelicans staff believed Williamson’s regular-season debut following knee surgery in October would “definitely come outside” the original six-to-eight week timetable. This followed statements made by New Orleans head coach Alvin Gentry reiterating the team’s “overly cautious” attitude toward Williamson’s injury. Gentry said he didn’t have a date when he expected the Duke product to return. Later on Tuesday, ESPN reported Williamson had begun some on-court work, including “light walkthroughs with the team as well as spot shooting.”
TNT's @KristenLedlow says she was told before tonight's game by the Pelicans staff that it'll "definitely be outside of the originally projected 6-to-8 week window" for Zion Williamson. https://t.co/75b9Zl7rJH— Ben DuBose (@BenDuBose) December 4, 2019
“I don’t think it’s anything that can be rushed,” Gentry said Monday. “When the time comes for him to start on court and do things like that, he will … It’s a matter of taking the time to make sure he’s fine.”
Monday marked six weeks since Williamson underwent surgery to repair a torn lateral meniscus in his right knee. The initial six-to-eight week timeline had optimists thinking he might miss around 20 games in his rookie season, and pessimists suggesting the number might be closer to 30. Last month, Pelicans executive vice president of basketball operations David Griffin told ESPN NOLA he expected Williamson to return around eight weeks after his procedure, and expressed optimism about the rehabilitation process.
“If it’s nine weeks, that’s fine,” Griffin said. “If it’s 10 weeks, that’s fine. If it’s seven weeks, that’s fine. But he’s in a really good space with his rehab.”
The Pelicans entered the season projected to win 38 games—what would be just the 10th time a New Orleans team had ever hit that mark—and finish 10th in the Western Conference, a marked improvement over last season’s 33-49 finish. After Tuesday’s loss to the Mavericks, the Pelicans are now 6-15 and lead only the Warriors (what a phrase) in the West.
The franchise has made positive strives after an unceremonious split with the last superstar sent from the draft gods. Brandon Ingram looks reborn in New Orleans, has a legitimate case for the league’s Most Improved Player award, and is averaging more than 25 points and seven rebounds per game. Jrue Holiday has yet to look like the All-Star many predicted he’d be this season, but seems to have put his slow start behind him. JJ Redick is near the top of the leaderboard in 3-point percentage, and when healthy, youngsters Josh Hart and Lonzo Ball have contributed to varying degrees. And though each of these developments is promising in a vacuum, the fact remains that each of these players is a supporting piece for a missing giant.
Even beyond Williamson, the Pelicans have been plagued by injury. As ESPN’s Andrew Lopez noted, no player on the team has played in all of their 21 contests, and only four players—Jaxson Hayes, E’Twaun Moore, Nicolò Melli, and Nickeil Alexander-Walker—have made it this far without injury. It was a similar story the last time the Pelicans started this poorly, when they tied the decade record for most starting lineup variations (41) en route to a 30-52 finish in 2015-16.
Williamson’s absence isn’t just affecting the Pelicans’ on-court product, either. In preparation for Zionpalooza, New Orleans was given prime billing on national broadcasts. ESPN scheduled the Pelicans to play on Christmas Day, and TNT gave them center stage on the season’s opening night (going so far as hyping “Zion Williamson’s debut” in their announcement) and Halloween. In all, the Pelicans are scheduled to play a franchise-record 30 national television games this season, and the most generous potential return for Zion suggests he’ll miss almost half of them.
That’s a tough pill for the league and its broadcast partners to swallow. On Monday, John Ourand of Sports Business Journal reported TNT’s NBA viewership was down 23 percent so far this season, and ESPN’s was down 20 percent. The Pelicans played their fourth TNT game on Tuesday and have appeared on ESPN twice. The networks signed up for the Zion show, and instead are getting four other former Duke players and a few more Lakers washouts. Even in New Orleans, Williamson’s absence is being felt, with season ticket holders unable to give their tickets away.
This was the No. 1 thing the Pels sales staff thought Zion would eliminate this year. https://t.co/Rgw4n4Zq1L— Scott Kushner (@ScottDKushner) December 4, 2019
With Zion, the Pelicans’ roster is intriguing. Without him, they’re damn-near unwatchable. Coming into Tuesday, the Pelicans were 24th in the league in net rating (minus-4.3) and 26th in defensive rating (113.4). Their offensive numbers were a tick better, slotting in at 14th leaguewide (109), but their high rate of points scored per 100 possessions can likely be traced to their 3-point shooting and their fast pace, which allows them to score in transition.
There may not be a better way to build around a superstar big man than with a cabal of gunslingers, and New Orleans has five players taking at least five 3s per game, and the worst among them is hitting deep balls 35.7 percent of the time. Now all they need is to fill the Zion-shaped hole in the middle of the lineup.
A healthy Williamson is the difference between the Pelicans competing night in and night out, and stringing together losing streak after losing streak. But with each announcement delaying his possible return, the former seems like more of a pipe dream. Each loss pushes the Pelicans further from their preseason goal of sniffing the postseason. The silver lining may be that despite being better than contemporaries like Golden State, Cleveland, and Atlanta, flattened lottery odds give the Pelicans a good shot of climbing back up the draft board to give Zion a running mate.