The New Orleans Pelicans sit eighth in the Western Conference of the NBA and will likely participate in the play-in tournament next week. The Los Angeles Lakers, Minnesota Timberwolves, and Oklahoma City Thunder will join them after the Dallas Mavericks fell off.
According to team executive vice president of basketball operations David Griffin, the problem for the Pelicans is that they will be without Zion Williamson, who will not even participate in practice. The team wants Williamson to practice before returning from a hamstring injury that has sidelined him since January 2.
The Pelicans are scheduled to practice Saturday before the season’s final game against the Minnesota Timberwolves. They have guaranteed themselves at least the number nine seed but could move out of the tournament altogether should everything fall their way this weekend.
Ideally, the Pelicans can avoid the play-in-tournament, and Williamson can continue his rehab and conditioning with hopes to practice 5-on-5 and be ready to return sometime during the first round of the playoffs. Up to this point, Williamson has played 3-on-3 in practice but pushing him the next day or so didn’t make sense to Griffin in the long run.
Griffin noted that Williamson hasn’t even had any soreness but is cautious and wants to make sure he feels like himself before he steps on the court for in-game action. The injury initially took place against the Philadelphia 76ers on January 2 but had a setback in early February and has played in only 29 games this season.
New Orleans is tied for 7th with the Los Angeles Lakers, a game ahead behind the Los Angeles Clippers and the Golden State Warriors for the final guaranteed playoff position.
In Williamson’s absence, the Pelicans have been using a starting lineup of CJ McCollum, Trey Murphy III, Brandon Ingram, Herbert Jones, and Jonas Valanciunas. Ingram is leading the Pelicans in scoring at 24.5 points per game. McCollum has added 20.8 points per game, while Murphy and Valanciunas have also added double-digits scoring. Jones, who is getting most of the minutes at power forward in Williamson’s absence, is averaging 9.8 points and 4.1 rebounds per game.
While Jones has been solid, the return of Williamson will add a big boost on both ends of the court. Williamson is averaging 26 points, seven rebounds, and 4.6 assists per game. Jones will return to the backup role, where he has averaged 9.7 points in 142 career games.
The play-in tournament features the 9th and 10th seed squaring off and the 7th and 8th seed squaring off. The winner of the 7th and 8th seed game becomes the 7th seed, and the loser of the 9th and 10th seed game is eliminated—the other two teams battle to determine the 8th seed.
Should the Pelicans avoid the play-in tournament, it will give Williamson another week to prepare without missing any games. Chances are Williamson will be back for round one, should the Pelicans avoid elimination.
While New Orleans grapples with the absence of Zion Williamson, other teams are seeing their stars shine, such as the 76ers, where center Joel Embiid has recently won the NBA MVP.