Does the NBA need rookie sensation Zion Williamson in the playoff picture?
One of the biggest storylines of the 2019-2020 NBA season has been the arrival of several young stars among the NBA’s elite.
Trae Young, Luka Doncic, Jayson Tatum, and Donovan Mitchell were all named to the All-Star game for the first time, each making their presence felt as franchise cornerstones.
But there’s an argument that the NBA’s brightest young star is New Orleans Pelicans rookie forward Zion Williamson.
— NBA (@NBA) May 24, 2020
After missing the first three months of the season due to a torn meniscus, Williamson, the No. 1 pick in the 2019 NBA Draft, has been nothing short of a revelation on the court for the Pelicans.
In his NBA debut, he scored 17 straight points in the fourth quarter en route to a 22-point performance, and he’s been electric ever since.
For the season, Williamson is averaging 23.6 points and 6.8 rebounds.
In fact, he’s been so dominant that ESPN’s Tim Legler believes Zion should be the leader for the Rookie of the Year Award, despite only appearing in 19 games this season.
“I don’t buy into that argument that you have to play a certain number of games. If he averages 24 and 8 or 9 rebounds a night for a team that’s winning at a high rate, are you really going to tell me that [he’s] not the most dominant rookie?”
However, his individual brilliance hasn’t quite translated into wins for New Orleans. In the 19 games Williamson has played, the Pelicans record is 11-8.
The Pelicans currently sit at 10th in the Western Conference standings with a record of 28-36, 3.5 games behind the Memphis Grizzlies for the eighth and final playoff spot out West.
Looking ahead, the NBA’s return is inching closer with each passing day, with July 31 being the target date.
— Shams Charania (@ShamsCharania) May 29, 2020
And with 2019-20 season on its way to resuming, conversations are currently revolving around the league’s postseason structure for this season. And according to ESPN’s Brian Windhorst, the NBA is discussing ways to make sure Williamson will make an appearance in the playoffs.
“One of the things I’ve been hearing as I’ve talked to people in the league is, the league is gonna set up this playoff plan to make sure Zion Williamson is involved. … Paranoia is at the top of the list with anything in the NBA. … They’re always paranoid about everything — ‘the league is screwing me, and they’re helping that guy.’ In this case, there’s a number of different reasons why the league would want to have 20 or 24 teams, a number of different reasons to get extra games. But most of those scenarios include having Zion Williamson in the postseason.”
It makes sense why the NBA wants Williamson in the playoffs, considering his presence in the league has already positively affected ratings.
In January, Adam Zagoria of Forbes detailed how Williamson’s debut against the Spurs provided a massive spike in viewership for the NBA in a season that had produced low television ratings.
“The Spurs-Pelicans game on Wednesday night drew an average of 2.357 million viewers to the ESPN telecast, with a peak viewership of 2.777 million. Those numbers are up 88 percent from the comparable game a year ago, according to ESPN PR. The game had a U.S. household rating of 1.6, which is tied for ESPN’s highest-rated NBA game this season outside of the Christmas day slate.”
And if the Pelicans were to get into the playoffs as the 8-seed in the Western Conference, that would present a potential matchup between Williamson and Los Angeles Lakers superstar LeBron James in the first round.
This season, the Lakers have won two matchups against the Pelicans with Williamson on the floor, but both LeBron and Zion put on a show.
In those two games, Williamson is averaging 32.0 points and 6.5 rebounds, while James is averaging 37.0 points, 10.0 rebounds and 9.5 assists.
Mark Medina of USA Today believes this is the blockbuster matchup the NBA needs to happen in the first round of the playoffs.
“In two head-to-head matchups, James demonstrated his superiority while Williamson showed that he is not afraid of the showdown. While James appeared more inclined to score in these games, Williamson seemed more determined to play aggressively against the NBA’s biggest star.”
But not all are in favor of the NBA actively trying to find a way to squeeze the Pelicans into the playoffs.
Nick Wright believes that angling for the Pelicans and Williamson to get into the playoffs might have to come at the expense of the Memphis Grizzlies and another bright young star, last year’s No. 2 pick, Ja Morant, who is in need of some bright lights himself.
“I would argue … that it is better for the NBA for Ja Morant to get some publicity this year than Zion. Zion is going to be a star and a media sensation no matter what. A lot of America has never watched Ja Morant play, and seeing him in the first round against the Lakers may raise his star quality enough to where the NBA has another young, marketable superstar.”
"Nobody is a bigger fan of Zion than me. But this is a zero sum game here. If you try to tweak the situation to maybe allow the Pelicans to get in you know who gets left out? Ja Morant." — @getnickwright pic.twitter.com/ldHhkfQgf7
— First Things First (@FTFonFS1) May 29, 2020
The Grizzlies currently sit in the eighth and final playoff spot in the Western Conference standings, and Morant is a large reason why.
The rookie point guard is currently averaging 17.6 points and 6.9 assists, and is the favorite to win Rookie of the Year.
With nearly two months left until the league hopes to make its return, more conversations will certainly be had regarding how to move forward with the playoffs.
But if we had it our way?
We’d love to see both Williamson and Morant in the postseason tournament.