Just as Zion Williamson and the Pelicans flexed their status as apparent contenders in the West by owning the best record in the conference in mid-December, things went a bit left.
Right as they got a positive writeup in Sports Illustrated—maybe the SI curse is alive?—New Orleans promptly lost four consecutive games, the club’s longest skid of the campaign thus far. But making matters far worse: Yesterday the team announced that Williamson, who’d largely been healthy in drumming up low-level MVP chatter this year after missing all of last season, will be sidelined for at least the next three weeks of action due to a hamstring strain.
The news was less than stellar for a club that’s already without All-Star Brandon Ingram, whose timetable for return has been unclear since suffering a setback in his recovery from a toe injury that’s kept him out since late November. (Coach Willie Green said the team will evaluate him from week to week.)
It goes without saying how dominant a force Williamson is. Still just 22 years old, he averaged nearly 30 points per game in the month of December while also logging 7.5 boards and 5.1 assists per contest over that span. He’s still one of the most powerful, efficient finishers in the sport, shooting almost 61% from the field. And he’s been particularly lethal playing in smaller lineups this year, playing a far larger percentage of his minutes—41% to this point—at center than he ever has before, according to Basketball Reference. He also has had plenty of possessions where he’s essentially served as a point forward for a club that often plays lineups that lack a traditional point guard. (CJ McCollum often handles the ball with the starting five.)
Regardless of what role Williamson has played, though, one thing is clear: The Pelicans have statistically been much better with him: 6.7 points per 100 possessions better, to be exact, per Cleaning the Glass—a number that rates Williamson’s impact in the league’s 79th percentile.
That said, it isn’t necessarily a given that New Orleans will struggle mightily without him in the mix. (We thought the Warriors might go belly-up without Stephen Curry, but even with the questions about their bench, Golden State has suddenly won five straight without its superstar.)
The Pelicans, who possess one of the deepest rosters in the league and rate in the top 10 in both offensive and defensive efficiency, have already gone an impressive 6–2 without Zion this season. (It’s worth noting that seven of those eight games were at home, where the club has gone 16–4 to this point.) Versatile forward Naji Marshall, in the midst of his most efficient season by far, will almost certainly get the call to replace Williamson.
And though New Orleans will face some elite competition in this three-week stretch Williamson is expected to miss—namely red-hot Brooklyn, streaking Dallas and the first-place Celtics and Nuggets—there are also a handful of softer opponents on the slate. Overall, the Pelicans have the third-easiest remaining schedule in the Western Conference, after the Grizzlies and Kings.
More than anything, it might be worth wondering how the Pelicans fare if and when they get both Williamson and Ingram back healthy. How much time will they need to jell at a high level? And will that process end up taking place at the expense of the team’s role players?
The injuries are always going to be a concern with Williamson, given his size and his history. But if he and Ingram make it back, the team should still be a load to deal with come the second half of the season and beyond. The Pelicans’ track record so far this season suggests as much.