The Western Conference had better hope that Zion returning to New Orleans is another false alarm

Guess who’s back in the Big Easy?

Guess who’s back in the Big Easy?
Image: Getty Images

A lot happened this past weekend. So much that Duke fans cried and Duke haters laughed at the same time for about five minutes following Duke’s 94-81 loss in Mike Krzyzewski’s last game at Cameron Indoor Stadium, before LeBron James got to work scoring 56 points to help get the Los Angeles Lakers’ their first victory since before the all-star break. It can be easily forgiven for sports fans who missed the news that Zion Williamson is back in New Orleans.

The Athletic’s Shams Charania and Will Guillory broke the news on Saturday that the City of New Orleans confirmed on Sunday. Pictures circulated on social media that Williamson took with the congregation of the Fifth Baptist Church in New Orleans’ Uptown neighborhood. A picture later went viral of him at what appears to be a pet store, with two dogs that, if let off the leash, could probably eat everything inside the shop.

Willamson is returning to a team that was written off as recently as January. In February, though, the Pelicans started to play their best basketball in years. They won seven of 11 games, and were on a four-game winning streak before losing an overtime game in Denver to the Nuggets and Nikola Jokić’s 40-point triple double. They’re still 10 games under .500 at 27-37, but with the Western Conference a far cry from the days when the Golden State Warriors had the ninth-best record at 48-24 in 2008, the Pelicans currently have the 10th-best record and are clinging to that final play-in spot. During this recent four-game winning streak, three of those victories were by 28 points or more. Yes, the Pelicans, who lost 12 of their first 13 games this season, are blowing the doors off of opponents.

The trade for C.J. McCollum and the decision to go for as much length as possible in the starting lineup with Jaxson Hayes, Jonas Valančiūnas, and Herbert Jones has made the Pelicans one of the more difficult teams to match up against in the NBA recently. And with 18 games remaining in the season, the Pelicans’ best player, and one of the most transcendent talents in the NBA, might be returning to a team that can finally compete.

Ja Morant has been spectacular this season, a true treat to watch every single night as the Memphis Grizzlies are fighting with the Warriors for the No. 2 seed in the Western Conference. Meanwhile, Willamson, who the Pelicans originally said would be ready for the start of the regular season in October, has not played at all due to a broken right foot that’s had setback after setback this season. Williamson was supposed to practice with the Pelicans on Dec. 2, but after that didn’t happen he decided to go almost as far away from New Orleans as physically possible while still being in the United States of America by going to Portland to rehab. This on the heels of a report from the Times-Picayune a month before the start of this season about Williamson being unhappy with the Pelicans. And last week, J.J. Redick, who played for the Pelicans with Williamson for a season and a half, described him on national television as a “detached teammate.”

All this being said, do not forget why Williamson was selected No. 1 overall, ahead of Morant, in the 2019 NBA Draft. He was one of the most transcendent men’s college basketball stars of all time. Former President Barack Obama was at the Duke vs. North Carolina game when Willamson was on the court. He wasn’t at Cameron Indoor Stadium for Krzyzewski’s last game on Saturday. Yes, Williamson has only played in 84 NBA games, but during that time he’s averaged 25.7 points per game on 60.4 percent shooting from the field. Did we already forget about “Point Zion,” from last season?

The old saying is “time heals all wounds,” but in sports it’s winning and money. Willamson is already going to lose money when it comes time for his contract to be renewed because of all of the time he has missed, but this Pelicans team that he is returning to is not the one that blew almost every close game possible down the stretch of last season to miss the postseason. This is a young team with pieces that fit, and a real veteran star in McCollum.

ESPN’s Andrew Lopez reported that Williamson is not practicing with the team at the moment because they are still on a mini-road trip that they won’t return from until after Tuesday’s game against the Grizzlies. He is then expected to be fully back with the Pelicans, as he works with his teammates and staff to try and get back on the court.

There are a lot of unknowns in the NBA with less than 20 games remaining in the regular season. Much of that is due to injuries to Ben Simmons, Chris Paul, Williamson, and others. Because of those injuries, it’s almost impossible to project what is going to happen in the postseason. Williamson returning to New Orleans doesn’t do much to provide clarity, but if he can get on the court before mid-April, I do believe the Pelicans will earn the infamous title of “team no one wants to see in the postseason.”

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