5 NBA Questions: Can We Find a Good Zion Williamson Comp?

This is a fun time of year if your franchise is in the thick of it, as “all the games matter” for seeding or even a spot in the postseason itself.

If your favorite group has already dropped out of that race, you at least get the intrigue of watching rookies, G-League callups, 10-day contract guys and other prospects get their shot to make the team (or even just stay in the league) next year. The basketball might not be great during some of these stretches, but there’s often a diamond-in-the-rough player who shines through and becomes a contributor to future successes. 

I’m grabbing the “NBA Questions” baton from Editor In Chief Joel Cordes for a bit, (he says he’s busy or something, I guess), and while we’re going to do this Sid-Style, we’re also adhering to the previously instituted guidelines of keeping this a breezy, top-down semi-weekly snapshot of the league rather than getting too far into the weeds.

Here’s what you missed last time:

10 NBA Questions: How Obnoxious is the ‘Giannis Leaving Milwaukee’ Chatter?

And here are some evolving of the storylines I’m keeping my eyes on over the next few weeks:

Who does Zion remind you of?

It’s young Shaq for me as well as Jonathan Tjarks, at The Ringer. Though the height difference is pretty vast (more on that later), it’s the sheer size and strength mixed with dominating skills and surprisingly nimble lower body mobility that are drawing comparisons.

Like Shaq, there is no way to play Zion straight-up and survive for very long. He’s also a terror in the open court and routinely busts out moves and facets of his game you didn’t know he had. The comparison isn’t perfect, but that’s largely due to how unique Zion is.

That we’re already searching in Shaq’s company is a testament to both:

Zion’s New Orleans Pelicans have been on a roll of late, securing a stellar 7-3 record over their last 10 games. This has included wins over the Memphis Grizzlies (January 31; 139-111), Pacers (February 8; 124-117) and Portland Trail Blazers (twice; 138-117 and 128-115).   

At the center (literally) of this sensational run is the rookie big man who is finally rounding into better game conditioning after missing the first half of the season due to a knee injury. He scored 29 points and put up plenty of highlights in a 119-108 loss to the Lakers on Tuesday night:

The wide-bodied, strong and agile forward is listed at only 6’6” but has led his team in scoring during six of the last 11 contests. His uncanny ability to muscle through contact and box out defenders has helped create plenty of interior gravity on the floor. That he already has an off-the-dribble game and the semblance of a jump shot threat have created enough space and made the Pelicans a dangerous team from deep.

They are shooting a red-hot 44.1 percent from the 3-point line over the last three games prior to Tuesday, good for tops in the league. 

Should the Pelicans somehow make the playoffs this year⁠ after a horrendously slow start—they’re 6-4 in their last 10 and sitting 3.5 games out of eighth place⁠—this team has the size, length and athleticism to match up well against most as a tough first-round opponent.

That they have a healthy Zion on their team means just about anything is possible. 

What is Wrong With the Indiana Pacers?  

Feb 25, 2020; Indianapolis, Indiana, USA; Indiana Pacers starting five waits for the game to resume against the Charlotte Hornets during the third quarter at Bankers Life Fieldhouse. Mandatory Credit: Brian Spurlock-USA TODAY Sports

As in, they’re suddenly stinking it up.

After a fantastic start to this year’s campaign, (the Pacers boasted a 31-16 record over their first 47 games), the team has lost eight of their last 10 games, including, a 127-81 beatdown at the hands of the Toronto Raptors on February 23. 

The reasons are plenty of reasons to begin showing concern, including their perpetually slow start to games, lack of a bona fide go-to guy down the stretch, and visibly forcing the issue with former all-star guard Victor Oladipo, who is working his way back from last year’s season-ending injury. Over the last eight games, Oladipo is averaging just 10.8 pts at a dismal 33.3 percent field goal rate but continues to average a usage rate of 26.3 percent.  

Will the Pacers find a way out of this quagmire and do so in time for the playoffs, or was the first half of their season an overachievement while the real Eastern Conference powers simply got their bearings? 

Is Marcus Morris Sr. the Clippers’ Missing Piece?

Forward Marcus Morris Sr. can do it all on offense. He can strong-arm you in the post, hit the deep ball consistently and tear you apart late in games with his mid-range prowess. Oh, and he can defend too. 

Expectations are big for the forward after being moved by the New York Knicks to the Los Angeles Clippers at the trade deadline. 

The key question is how quickly will he be able to adapt within an offensive scheme that does not afford him the touches he typically uses to get into a rhythm? 

And what will it take of him to make the Clippers an even more dangerous team?

In five games with the Clippers, Morris is averaging just 10.4 pts on 42.3 percent shooting (30.4 percent 3-point shooting). To contrast, in 43 games played for the Knicks, Morris averaged 19.6 pts on 44.2 percent shooting (43.9 percent 3-point shooting). 

Then again, that’s all a fool’s errand argument, as Morris has typically been a more complementary piece during his career rather than the lead role he was cast in on a floundering Knicks team.

Still, he’s shown he has big performances in him, and the Clippers are going to need some of that every now and then. Most importantly, Morris is a guy who just fills the gaps anywhere you need.

The Clippers have a roster full of those players, and that’s why they’re a title favorite.

Has ‘Dame-time’ expired? 

Despite a tumultuous, injury-riddled season, the Portland Trailblazers showed some fire and desire heading into the month. 6’2” superstar guard Damian Lillard went on a tear, leading the Blazers to consecutive victories over the Pacers, Los Angeles Lakers, Houston Rockets and Utah Jazz during a key stretch in early February.

Though they also picked up wins against the Miami Heat and San Antonio Spurs, they essentially hit the skids again after that 4-game winning streak, going 2-4 into the All-Star Break while still sitting 25-31 and in the morass of Western Conference teams stuck in the 9-12 seeds.  

‘Dame-Time’ seems to be ticking out slowly, as Lillard found his way to the sideline with a groin injury and the Blazers try to weather yet another storm. 

With the Memhphis Grizzlies above them, the Pelicans hot on their heels⁠—and the Spurs, Sacramento Kings and Phoenix Suns all still in the mix⁠—for the last playoff spot in the West, will guard CJ McCollum’s best Lillard impression be enough to keep their playoff hopes alive? 

And what can we expect from Portland’s feelgood story of the year: forward, Carmelo Anthony and 7’0” shot-blocking big, Hassan Whiteside down the stretch? 

Normally, I shouldn’t end on an open-ended question like that, but Portland’s 26-33 record (mostly with Dame and all of the aforementioned guys) kinda says it all. This team just doesn’t have enough of the previous years’ chemistry to overcome their lack of usable depth.

There are better teams likely to crowd out last year’s Western Conference Finals runner-up from even making the postseason.

Are we facing the future of the NBA?

Finally, I can’t end this article without making a reference to the Rockets and their new ‘small ball’ brand of basketball. With a lineup featuring nobody taller than 6’7”, you wonder whether you are watching the real thing or an older, arcade version of an 1990s NBA video game. 

Rockets coach Mike D’Antoni is not new to trying something novel: He is credited as the pioneer of the current fast-paced style of play when he led the ‘Seven Seconds or Less’ Phoenix Suns to a 62-20 record during the 2004-05 regular season. 

Houston is 8-2 in its last 10 and seemingly doing all the right things so far to make this work:

Of course, common doubt arguments include the fact that guards Russell Westbrook and James Harden are already leading the league in minutes played per game (36.0 and 36.9 respectively), so you have to wonder when their bodies will slow down. Also intriguing, is how the team’s small lineup will match up against big and talented teams like the Los Angeles Lakers and Milwaukee Bucks, who slow most opponents down with their length but also have the ability to play with some pace.

Colleague Kelly Scaletta worked through a lot of this as soon as the roster was being reconstructed around the deadline, and he’s been pretty spot-on so far:

Will Going All-Small Ball be Houston Rockets’ Downfall?

Joel Cordes and Arky Shea also talked about why this crazy experiment is happening right now in Houston and why it even has a chance to work. Listen at the 12:18 mark of Basketball by Association’s recent debut to hear their Rockets convo:

BbA: NBA All-Star Improvements, Western Conference Elite & How to Last in Sports Media

If the Rockets do prove this sustainable⁠—defined as winning at least winning one playoff round while causing maximum chaos in at least another⁠—you may indeed be looking at a prototype for the future of the league.  

 

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As always, I’m open to your questions and feedback, so hit me up in the Comments section or @bballwriters on Twitter and you just might make the next edition! – SID

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