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BY DAVID THORPE
Zion Williamson, I argue, had the best college basketball season of all time. I have almost zero worries about his game. But we all have to worry about the physics of one of the biggest and heaviest players in the game jumping higher and landing harder than just about anybody.
At Duke, Zion pushed his foot right through the heart of his Nike high-tops. Marcus Elliott, M.D., founder and director of sports performance facility P3 told us on BRING IT IN that Zion creates more force, “pushes harder against the earth,” than any athlete they have ever measured.
His engine might be the best ever. We were always going to watch Zion’s career and wonder about his driving and his tires. Could he put all that force to work without hurting himself?
He missed a chunk of college with right knee trouble after that shoe blowout. After being the first overall pick of the 2019 draft, he hurt his knee nine minutes into summer league.
And earlier this week: a bummer of a media day for New Orleans. After Hurricane Ida, floods, and even an alligator attack on a water logged street across from Lake Pontchartrain, we learned this week that Zion had a third injury to his right leg. This time it is a right-foot injury.
“It sounds like Zion’s injury was stress-related,” Jeff Stotts of InStreetClothes told Will Guillory of The Athletic, “based on his comments.”
Before that last piece of news, I had told Henry Abbott that Zion Williamson was my prediction for this year’s MVP. He still is—but I’m going to hedge a little because of this injury, for reasons I’ll explain.
Luka Doncic +400
Joel Embiid +700
Kevin Durant +700
Giannis Antetokounmpo +800
Stephen Curry +900
Damian Lillard +1100
LeBron James +1400
Nikola Jokic +1600
Trae Young +1600
Devin Booker +2000
James Harden +2500
Anthony Davis +2500
Jayson Tatum +2500
Russell Westbrook +2500
Donovan Mitchell +3000
Paul George +4000
Kyrie Irving +4000
Zion Williamson +4000
Ja Morant +5000
Jimmy Butler +5000
Do a quick rundown of the best players in the league. Last week we reverse engineered what an NBA MVP season typically looks like. The climate is off for some of their MVP candidacies.
Luka Doncic has a very real chance to win. He’s a top tier player now, and will be for a decade. But can the Mavericks win enough games to nudge Luka to the front of the class? They need somewhere close to 50, which would mean, in effect, Jason Kidd showing he has some coaching magic Rick Carlisle lacks. I’m skeptical.
Reigning MVP Nikola Jokic plays with young stud Michael Porter Jr., and they are a deep team that has lots of playoff experience. But their star point guard, Jamal Murray, tore his ACL last spring and is not expected back until, at best, the end of the regular season. The Nuggets will probably be a little worse than last year, Jokic will be missing is ideal partner. It’s hard to win this award when your team is slipping.
LeBron James and Anthony Davis both have MVP chops, but their recent injuries are huge reminders: Rest is a giant goal, second only to finishing with a top-two seed in the conference. This team is old. I expect their stars to set good examples. They’ll have a great record, but I doubt LeBron or AD will have the minutes or points to win a ton of MVP votes.
If Giannis Antetokounmpo plays this whole season like the final few weeks of the playoffs, the award would be his. His only mode is all-out—which is why the Bucks will monitor his games and minutes. That could be enough. The Bucks will have a great record. Ultimately, I expect media members who vote to lean away if the race is close, because they’ve already given Giannis two MVP awards.
The same goes for Stephen Curry, who won his two trophies when the Warriors owned the league. He’d have to be on a super elite team to get a third. The Warriors probably won’t have a good enough record.
Joel Embiid won’t have Ben Simmons to help on defense, or to feed him easy baskets inside. Whomever they get in a trade, we know two things; they won’t pass the ball as well as Simmons, or defend as well.
Kawhi Leonard is out for the season, more or less.
Trae Young’s defensive numbers likely will drag him down and out of the running. Same with Damian Lillard.
Donovan Mitchell is amazing, but Rudy Gobert is the best player on the Jazz—and Rudy just won’t score enough to merit the award.
James Harden has a similar issue—if you aren’t the MVP of your team can you be MVP of the league?
I am tempted to say Devin Booker is also in that boat, but … the Suns will be among the league’s best, and after Book’s incredible playoffs and Olympics, Booker might be on a path to surpass CP3.
Given all that, I assess that the conventional favorite for this year’s MVP award is Kevin Durant. My colleague at TrueHoop, Jarod Hector, puts it like this: “If you are playing one game of pickup that has huge consequences for winning and losing, who do you want on your team the most? Kevin Durant. He’s the best basketball player on earth right now.”
Jarod isn’t wrong. A few years ago the answer would’ve been LeBron James. Before that it was Curry, and before that LeBron again. And there is a historic problem the MVP voters might want to fix before Durant is too much older: He only has one MVP trophy—the same number as Russell Westbrook and Derrick Rose. With the Nets favored to win it all, now seems a good time to address that issue.
ESPN.com’s NBArank calls Durant the top player in the NBA this season, after being sixth last year, when he was coming off a torn Achilles. Worth noting: many of the people who vote on NBArank also vote for the NBA’s official awards.
Sports Illustrated also picked Durant over Giannis who is clearly in his prime, and has had as impressive a three-year run as any in recent memory. The Nets didn’t beat the Bucks, but Durant could have hardly been any better in the playoffs.
Durant carried a talented but somewhat underwhelming Team USA to the Gold Medal in Japan, showing that there is no better player to throw the ball to when a team is desperate for a bucket.
His jumpshot, as players like to say, is pure. And largely indefensible.
It’s no stretch to imagine that Durant will average 27 points a game, shooting at least 50 percent from the floor, 40 percent from 3, and 90 percent from the free-throw line—all on a team with one of the NBA’s three best records. It will take a monster effort this season to convince the voters to pick anyone else.
Down in New Orleans, such a monster exists. Only in the form of a smiling, sweet natured, Thor-like athlete aptly named Zion. The Warriors used a whole team to create a Cuisinart that chopped up defenses. Zion does it alone.
And … is any player better positioned to become the league’s scoring leader? Zion finished eighth in the league at 27 points per game. But he could score far more. At 61 percent shooting from the field there are clearly far more quality opportunities at the ready for him.
No other elite scorer has a field goal percentage remotely close. Deandre Ayton scores 14 points per game, and is the only other scorer in the top 100 with a field goal percentage north of 60 percent. But Ayton benefits from an excellent team offense with Point God Chris Paul and scoring machine Devin Booker creating space and scoring lanes.
Zion scored 27 a game with 61 percent shooting with the whole defense focused on him. He took 17 shots (33rd highest in the league) and nine free throws (third) a game, 33rd most in the league.
Every coach in the NBA would want Zion to shoot more. It’s hard to imagine he won’t be firing up 19-plus shots a game this year, and it’s not like 25 would ruin the Pelicans’ offense. Importantly, some of Zion’s rivals atop the scoring table kill it at the free-throw line. The NBA has announced rule changes that might cut into their easy points. Zion, meanwhile, has never been a great free-throw shooter, and is very used to fouls not being called.
He’s one of the elite guys who is absolutely fouled MORE often than is called. In fact, he likely has supplanted LeBron as the player who gets fouled the most without a call being made—their power does not give them the benefit of the doubt sometimes. Factor in his below average 70 percent free-throw shooting, up from 64 percent his rookie year, and between more shots and slightly better free-throw shooting it’s simple to imagine he’ll pass 30 points per game. Last season, only Steph Curry and Bradley Beal did that. Zion is a good bet to lead the league in scoring.
This is where word of his foot injury looms large. Reduced minutes could ruin these numbers. Of course, no one can predict how these things will go, but early indications from Pelicans camp are that the team feels very confident about Zion’s current condition. He has played his whole career with minutes restrictions, averaging 28 and 33 minutes his first two years.
Rumor has it that’s all over, and he’s cleared to run and run. Zion does not like or want a minutes restriction. One hope is that to avoid one he will lose some weight. (Two summers ago we suggested that a leaner, lighter Nicola Jokic would become a more magical player. He lost a lot and became last year’s MVP.)
With a small amount of luck, Zion could create at a stat line of 31 points per game on 58 percent shooting, eight rebounds, and nearly five assists. Those are MVP numbers.
Will the Pelicans be a good enough team to help Zion win MVP votes? Who knows?
But big improvement is possible. The Pelicans quietly made strides last year:
In the first 36 games, the Pelicans were garbage on defense. As in 29th-out-of-30 trash. But then the staff adjusted the defense, and BINGO, everything changed. The big change: They ended a misguided scheme where the big would “show” on the screen. (Interestingly, the Blazers are all excited to install something similar.) For the second half of the season the Pelicans had the seventh-best defense in the NBA, just ahead of the world champion Bucks.
The offense was another story. They started on fire—a shocking sixth, ahead of the Blazers and Suns for the first 36 games. As is often the case, though, when players suddenly expended far more energy and focus playing defense, their offense suffered. They dropped from sixth to 21st in offensive efficiency in those final 36 games (while Zion averaged 29 points per game).
Add it all up and the team averaged 113 points per 100 possessions for the season, and gave up 113.3, for a -0.3 net rating that ranked 18th in the league. But what the team could play offense like it did in the first half of the season, averaging 115.6 points per 100? (In Jonas Valanciunas and Devonte’ Graham the Pelicans added major offensive talents.) It’s conceivable they’d also play defense like the second half, giving up 110.4 per 100, giving them a net rating of +5.2, which would have ranked them sixth overall last year—just like Jokic’s Nuggets, and he won an MVP.
I don’t expect that to happen, but it’s in the realm of the possible. New coach Willie Green has a lot to work with, a special ability to breathe spirit and culture into players, and the blessing of low expectations. The Pelicans just have to solidly make the playoffs to be the feel good team of the season. Zion can take it from there.
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