It seems like a lifetime ago in a galaxy far, far away but it was less than three months ago when the NBA decided to suspend play due to the pandemic. It was obviously the right call but the league always had its eye on returning. First, isn’t it odd when a league makes the right call? Second, league play begins in less than seven weeks in Orlando and the New Orleans Pelicans are back in the race to make the NBA playoffs.
It would be a great achievement for the Pelicans to make the playoffs in their first year with rookie (are they still rookies after a three-month layoff) Zion Williamson and the revamped Pels. This team was dead in the water last year under Anthony Davis with nothing to look forward to. Thankfully, in retrospect, Davis quitting on the team gave this team new life and their new de facto leader David Griffin injected that renewed lease with some hot sauce.
As you remember, the year began with Zion on the bench nursing an injury that would keep him out the first 44 games of the season, a stretch that would see the Pelicans go 17-27 and on the outside looking in at the playoffs.
Zion’s return was nothing short of remarkable as the rookie immediately starting filling up stat sheets and setting records. It was never boffo Michael Jordan stats but always rock solid. In Williamson’s first 19 games he has averaged 23.6 points and 6.8 rebounds a game. Better yet, he’s hit over 58 percent of his shots. Sure, a lot of those shots come from two feet away as he’s muscling his way past grown men but that’s just how the job gets done, folks.
It’s more than individual stats. Williamson is blending well with the team and the team has responded by going 10-9 in his 19 games. Sure, that’s not setting the world on fire but if Zion had the played the entire season, and the team won at that rate, they would have the eighth seed right now.
The New Playoff System
Here’s where this year’s playoffs will be different than any previous season. When the league comes back it will essentially conclude its regular season with an 8-game stretch. In the Western Conference, the top seven seeds are locked in. All of those teams have already made the playoffs. However, the eighth seed (Memphis Grizzlies) is not locked.
After the eight games are played, whoever is the ninth seed (if they are within four games of the eighth seed) will then have to beat the Grizzlies two games in a row to make the playoffs. To note, the Pelicans beat Memphis 126-116 without Zion and then thumped Memphis 139-111 with Zion this season.
It all starts to get a little goofy looking if you look at it too much so here is the simple math of how the Pelicans get to the playoffs. They probably have to go 6-2 in their last eight games and hope the Portland Trailblazers finish 5-3 or worse. If that happens they will advance to the two-game play in against the Grizzlies because Memphis definitely is not going 8-0 in their last eight games.
After that? Beat the Grizzlies in two games straight.
After that? Round one of the NBA Playoffs most likely against the L.A. Lakers.
Now how beautiful would that be?
So Many Questions
It’s a wacky year so obviously there are plenty of questions on and off the court. There’s going to be a lot of testing involved, of course, to keep everyone safe. What happens when someone comes in with a high fever? What happens if the virus wipes out an entire team during the playoffs?
Strictly basketball questions are aplenty. The first and foremost is: Who will the Pelicans have to play in their last eight games? It’s important because the Pelicans were heading into the tail end of the season, which featured a lot of lesser teams. The road was getting easy, but now what?
The delay has made a lot of teams healthier which is great but it’s hard to just turn it on while having to immediately win when you’ve been down for so long. Having only eight games doesn’t allow for any off nights. A win is a big and a loss is massive.
Can Zion and Brandon Ingram become the perfect one-two punch that the Pelicans need? Ingram led the team when Williamson was injured but took a metaphorical step back upon Zion’s return. Can the two mix perfectly to become a feared combo? And can they do it in eight games? I actually think they can as Ingram is also an all-world talent and the team was moving in that direction when play stopped.
It’s going to be great to see this club back on the court. They have a “team on a mission” vibe to them that a lot of professional clubs don’t have and that’s exactly what you want at tournament time. It’ll be fun to watch.
And like a fine wine with a steak dinner, every game should be accompanied by a beverage and song.
Beer Pairing: Cajun Fire Brewing’s Honey Ale
Playlist Recommendation: “Eh, Là-bas” – Kid Ory
Around the Way
I have to send a shout out to the greatest receiver in the NFL, Michael Thomas. Not for shattering records and being unstoppable on the field but spearheading the Black Lives Matter video project that he debuted on his social media channels.
It’s a powerful message that every single one of us should watch. Listen. Learn. Love.