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New expectations on Zion Williamson’s return and rest of Pelicans 2021-22 season

Following Z’s minor setback, let’s revise projections

New Orleans Pelicans v Utah Jazz

With Zion Williamson experiencing what the team is calling a minor setback, we obviously need to revise expectations. When do you think he’ll return to the court, and more importantly, how much hope do you have left that the Pelicans will be playing basketball after the conclusion of this regular season?

Kevin:

My expectation is exasperation. These never ending pushbacks on return dates are tiring. I feel like the Pelicans have needed to put together a playoff run by Zion’s fourth season to get to at least seven years of Zion in a Pelicans’ uniform — with his lack of availability I’m not sure we can get there.

I’m concerned that we may not get a 70-game campaign out of him before his trade request comes in — crippling playoff hopes. There’s blame to go all around there, but this feels like the reality we are about to face. I’m not going to participate in the fool’s errand of predicting when Zion returns because we have seen that’s an absurd task. However, the Pelicans can possibly be a move away from having a postseason run ahead of them even if Zion never returns if that move involves acquiring some much needed competent guard play.

Dallas Mavericks v New Orleans Pelicans Photo by Layne Murdoch Jr./NBAE via Getty Images

Jonas Valanciunas has been remarkable. Healthy Ingram has shown flashes of an All-Star stats guy. I have been concerned that he isn’t a winning player, but I think more than likely it’s that he can be, but he has to be your third best player. Herbert Jones is a perfect frontcourt mate for the aforementioned stars. Devonte’ Graham and Josh Hart are solid rotation pieces — especially if they are bench unit boosters. The rest of the rotation is either a disaster, a question mark or needs seasoning.

Before the season started I said on The Bird Calls podcast that I thought the guard rotation was highly problematic and that has sadly rung truer than I had envisioned. This team needs a true creator and a perimeter defender that can knock down an open three. Without acquiring one or both of those things, I’d think you have to remove any expectation of postseason play. Although, the West isn’t as deep as it seemed due to injury and early stumbling from teams that had higher expectations.

The question now is, do you sacrifice some future for minor upgrades, or do you fail into keeping your first round draft pick. Failing could put an end to the David Griffin, and possibly the Zion Williamson, eras. I’d be happy with one, and I’m perhaps growing calloused enough to see the benefits of the other.

The main problem with trying to acquire guard help is that what was probably the one attainable difference maker (without considering a Zion trade) — Collin Sexton — tore his meniscus and is out for the rest of this season. It’s a bleak present and future, but unfortunately this isn’t our first time. We must survive on jokes till things make a turn for the better or worse.

Jamile:

I’ve always thought Zion would be back around Christmas. If following the David Griffin era has taught me anything, one should always bet the over on any timeline the Pelicans provide publicly.

The Pels are the college kid who tells his parents he’s made the dean’s list, only for them to later find out that not only is he not on the dean’s list but hasn’t been enrolled at the university for the last few semesters. Either New Orleans decision-makers intentionally underestimate every injury or they are terrible at projecting and setting expectations.

Previously, I thought the December 28th home game versus Cleveland would mark Zion’s return date. Given this recent setback, let’s push that projection back to January 20th on the road against the New York Knicks — in apparently Zion’s favorite arena.

This takes for granted no further setbacks, which is a big assumption given the track record. Being cleared for basketball then immediately having a setback is never a good sign. Given the Pels’ history with Zion timelines, I would not at all be surprised if it’s pushed back further or that Zion is eventually ruled out for season.

Since the original Zion injury news broke, I fully expected the Pelicans to miss the playoffs. Even as optimism has recently surfaced with the team’s improved play, I remain of the mind that this team is destined to finish with a bottom five record — so the Zion news doesn’t really change that outcome for me.

David:

Charlie:

No idea!

Zion has another lower body Injury, has been rumored to be frustrated with the franchise and its medical staff, has yet to speak to the public or comment significantly since media day and the Pelicans are near the bottom of the West. I think the variety of factors at play seem to indicate 2022 at the earliest would be reasonable. He and the team have every incentive to make sure that he’s 100% healthy and 100% comfortable, and if the team continues to struggle while he’s out, there’s just no incentive to rush back.

I have zero hope there will be play-in/postseason basketball for New Orleans. The roster is far too thin and can’t handle a mild injury especially while Williamson continues to be on the shelf. The hole is too big and they’re going to approach a point soon where it will be more valuable for the franchise to retain the pick anyways. It’s depressing, but we’re heading for fourth straight trip to the lottery in New Orleans.

Oleh:

Why when he’s ready, of course!

New York Knicks v New Orleans Pelicans Photo by Sean Gardner/Getty Images

The answer may come across as a smart-ass reply, but this one’s straight forward in my book. I’m not buying into conspiracy theories that Williamson wants out of New Orleans pronto and will try to stay sidelined for as long as possible. Or that the Pelicans are already in the midst of punting the season because of their slow 6-18 start, and thus, they’ll continue to hold him out.

From my perspective, Williamson is frustrated. He wants to ball. Those close to the situation say that he wants to return to action as soon as possible. Unfortunately, his surgically repaired foot and overall conditioning are proving cumbersome obstacles.

Look, I’m as unhappy as anyone about a generational talent being on the verge of having missed more games than he’s played in his NBA career. The front office placed an overreliance on his availability and whiffed. The roster may indeed contain better fits alongside their two stars, but it doesn’t matter in the here and now.

Logic assumes that if the current soreness dissipates quickly and doesn’t return, he could be back in relatively short order. But a hiccup coming almost immediately after being upgraded to full participant status doesn’t bode well. It’s a pointless exercise, thus, to circle any more dates on the calendar — or guess if the play-in tournament/playoffs door has shut completely.

Whatever will be, will be.

I will finish my thoughts with this: sports can be unpredictable, but in the Pelicans’ case, instances of major turnarounds that led to significant achievements have been few and far between. No one should be called out for having lost all hope on this season.