Three Things to Know: After latest Zion recovery setback, what is next for Pelicans?

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Three Things is NBC’s five-days-a-week wrap-up of the night before in the NBA. Check out NBCSports.com every weekday morning to catch up on what you missed the night before plus the rumors, drama, and dunks going that make the NBA great.

1) After latest Zion recovery setback, what is next for Pelicans?

We’re not going to see Zion Williamson on the court anytime soon.

This latest setback feels ominous — as in “will we see him on the court this season?” ominous. Or “will we see him in a Pelicans’ jersey again?” ominous.

Hopefully, the answer to both of those questions is yes. Over the weekend, the Pelicans announced a setback in Zion’s recovery and that the “volume and intensity of his training will be reduced for an extended period.” That’s vague phrasing, but there is no timeline — it certainly is possible Zion will return to the court this season. You can also see a path to how he does not. His fifth metatarsal (the bone connecting the little toe and the ankle) is not healing the way doctors want, so they are scaling back his workouts. That is not an area of the foot with good blood flow, and recovery can be slow. There are still four months of NBA regular season left, is that enough time?

For the sake of basketball fans everywhere, hopefully we see Zion on the court this season because when he has played he has lived up to the nearly impossible billing he had coming into the league (25.7 points, 7 rebounds and 3.2 assists a game on average, and last season proving he could be a point-forward and hub of the offense).

However, the reports of tension between Zion’s camp and the Pelicans are legitimate, multiple sources have told NBC Sports. Whether that tension is with president/GM David Griffin or the medical staff or the franchise as a whole is a matter for speculation — because Zion doesn’t talk publicly. And because, in his desire for personal privacy, there is not a well-coordinated string of sourced leaks and reports letting the fan base know and understand his thinking. He expressed his love for New Orleans on media day — the last time he spoke — but that was also the day he said he expected to play on opening night. Since then, it’s been radio silence. That’s not to say Zion has been a recluse. According to reports in local papers, he has been seen around New Orleans, and good luck finding anyone who has dealt with him personally who has a bad thing to say about the man. He is friendly and genuine by all accounts.

If he’s frustrated with the Griffin or the organization, he can get in line with the Pelicans fan base. New Orleans is 8-21, dead last in the Western Conference, with a bottom-five offense and defense — the roster built to go around Zion isn’t very good. How far could a healthy, in shape, peak Zion have lifted this roster? The play-in games? Even that may be optimistic.

Things around Zion feel ominous in part because we’ve seen this movie before: New Orleans fails to build a good roster around a superstar level player and he eventually bolts. New Orleans needs to avoid a sequel.

The latest setback in his recovery means the Pelicans have some decisions to make.

In the short term, the team needs to make roster decisions looking ahead to next season and beyond. Who plays and how much — more Herb Jones, more Jaxson Hayes or Kira Lewis Jr. if it helps them develop — experimenting with lineup combinations, and even who could get traded (and for what) are decisions to be made looking through a prism of what is best for next season and beyond. That doesn’t mean tank this season, but at this point reality says even the play-in is out of reach, don’t make decisions based on a fantasy run to those games.

Also, Zion owes the Pelicans more. He needs to be in shape, dedicated to and diligent with his rehab, and he needs to get back on the court as soon as he can. If Zion’s defenders and the people around him want to say “he has done that,” then he needs to show those things. Zion needs to come out of his protective bubble.

Then next summer, Zion is eligible for a contract extension to his rookie deal. No. 1 picks traditionally end up with a max extension — which in his case would be five years, $181 million, with the potential to go higher if he made an All-NBA Team next season — but this has been anything but a traditional situation.

Do the Pelicans put the five-year max extension in front of him? Yes. Almost certainly. The potential for loss is too great not to. This is akin to the Joel Embiid situation: Despite all the time lost to injury (he had played 31 games in three years), Philadelphia realized his potential and put the max in front of Embiid (with a few very specific injury exceptions) and hoped he would grow into the player that deserved it. He has. New Orleans would be betting on the same basic scenario.

Will Zion sign that deal? Or will he become the first player to turn down a max extension, trying to force his way out of New Orleans with a trade? Those are good questions, and speculation is all we have on that front.

But even without Zion on the court, the next seven months in his future could be very, very interesting.

2) Who is your MVP? Kevin Durant drops season-high 51 in Nets win

ESPN’s Tim Bontemps recently completed his first straw poll on the MVP race, polling a group of 100 media members with a similar make up to the actual voters. The results: Stephen Curry is the runaway early leader.

Kevin Durant would like to have a word with voters.

Sunday, on a night James Harden was out for rest, KD dropped an NBA season-high 51 points to lift the Nets’ to a win over the Pistons.

“I knew I probably needed to pick up a little more of the scoring tonight,” Durant said, via the AP. “We were turning the ball over more than we should, and I was doing as much of that as anyone, so I figured I better just keep shooting.”

Curry is unquestionably putting up impressive numbers — 27.1 points and 6.3 assists a game, shooting 40.4% from 3 — but his raw numbers are down from last season when he finished third in MVP voting. What is different is the Warriors are winning and winning big this season. They are a surprise success — most pundits picked them to finish fifth or below, possibly in the play-in games — and arguably the best team in the NBA (it’s the Warriors or Suns).

Kevin Durant is putting up numbers, too: 29.4 points per game, 7.6 rebounds and 5.6 assists a night, shooting 52.9% overall and 38.3% from 3, and he leads a 19-8 Nets squad that sits in first place in the East (despite the fact Harden has not been himself this season and Kyrie Irving is not with the team, he’s off somewhere quietly being the voice of the voiceless, or whatever is going on).

The difference is we expected the Nets to be elite; the Warriors’ success is a surprise. The resurgence of the Warriors to championship level gives Curry the narrative edge. And I agree with the voters (my ballot right now would go Curry, Durant, Giannis Antetokounmpo, Nikola Jokic, then… not sure, fifth is wide open). It just should be closer than the poll indicates.

Last season at the halfway point of the season, LeBron James and Joel Embiid were battling it out for 1-2 in the MVP race. Things ended differently. Judging the NBA MVP race now is like judging a horse race midway through the backstretch, things are getting set up, but the real race is to come.

Count Durant out at your own risk.

3) Zach LaVine makes it nine Bulls players in health and safety protocols

I’m afraid I will get sick just writing about the Bulls.

On Sunday, Chicago’s Zach LaVine and Troy Brown Jr. went into the league’s health and safety protocols. They join DeMar DeRozan, Coby White, Javonte Green, Matt Thomas, Derrick Jones Jr., Ayo Dosunmu and Stanley Johnson, who were already there. Throw in Patrick Williams — out injured — and it is conceivable the Bulls will not have the league required eight players needed to play Tuesday night against the Pistons.

White is reportedly already back at the team facility, and Green also will be beyond the 10 days required by the protocols and could return (if they have produced negative tests and can pass a cardiac test). Officially, their status is unknown.

Like the rest of the nation, the NBA is seeing an increase in coronavirus cases, in part because the league ramped up testing. So far, no games have been postponed, but that could change this week if more players test positive.

Highlight of the Night: Three massive blocks from LeBron James

The Lakers look much better when LeBron James is both healthy — which he said he is feeling the last week with his abdomen — and decides to take the regular season seriously (which he has to do for this Lakers team to win, but that’s another discussion).

He was everywhere Sunday against Orlando: 30 points, 11 rebounds, 10 assists, but it was the three massive blocks that were the most impressive.

Last night’s scores:

Milwaukee 112, New York 97
Brooklyn 116, Detroit 104
Dallas 103, Oklahoma City 84
San Antonio 112, New Orleans 97
Minnesota 116, Portland 111
LA Lakers 106, Orlando 94

Is Matisse Thybulle ready for a big step forward with 76ers?

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Matisse Thybulle brings a valuable NBA skill to the table — he is an elite perimeter defender. Two-time All-Defensive Team in three years in the league.

But when the 76ers got up against Miami in the playoffs, Thybulle’s role shrank dramatically. While Doc Rivers needed his defense, Thybulle’s lack of an offensive game became a problem — the Heat largely ignored him and helped off him, allowing Miami to muck up the Philly offense (he was limited in the Toronto series because he was not vaccinated and could not play in road games). The 76ers tried to solve that problem this offseason by bringing in DeAnthony Melton, Danuel House and P.J. Tucker — solid role-playing defenders who can contribute on offense, too.

Thybulle wants to be part of the solution, too, and told Keith Pompey of the Philadelphia Inquirer he spent the summer focused on his offensive game.

“I’m really proud of what I did,” Thybulle said of his offseason. “I’ve worked harder than I’ve worked. And I had a meeting with [Sixers coach Doc Rivers] early this week and was telling him I feel more bought in than I’ve been before.”

No doubt Thybulle put in the work, we will find out soon if it paid off — and if that will get Thybulle paid.

Thybulle is entering a contract year — the 76ers can extend him up until Oct. 18, after which he would become a restricted free agent next summer. Thybulle said his goal is to remain in Philadelphia (and he’d like an extension).

“At this point, I would always want to stay in Philly,” he said. “And if it’s up to me, that’s always going to be my choice.

“But considering that I’ve realized the reality of how far out of my control it is, if I do get traded or something does end up happening, I can look at myself in the mirror at the end of the day.”

With a win-now Sixers team, Daryl Morey may be in a wait-and-see place with Thybulle, letting the market set his price next offseason. If he signs now, it will likely be on a team-friendly deal (but maybe one that still works for the 25-year-old).

If Thybulle gets on the court this season and shows an improved offensive game, one where he can make teams pay for helping off him, his price goes up and there may be multiple teams bidding for his services next summer. And Doc Rivers would be happy in the short term.

It’s up to Thybulle to prove it now.

 

Markelle Fultz will miss start of training camp, at least, with broken toe

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The basketball gods continue to turn their backs on Markelle Fultz.

A torn ACL had limited him to 26 games over the past two seasons, but he was healthy and ramping up to a larger role this season with a young and interesting Magic team. Then came the news he fractured his left big toe during a training session. As a result, he will be out for at least the start of training camp, the team announced. From the official announcement:

“He has been placed in a walking boot and his return to play will depend on how he responds to rehabilitation and treatment. Fultz suffered the injury during a preseason workout prior to returning to Orlando and imaging confirmed the fracture.

He will not need surgery, according to the team.

Fultz was set to split point guard duties with Cole Anthony, this injury means RJ Hampton could see more run at the point for now. Fultz should be able to return either during the end of the preseason or early in the season.

Fultz was the No.1 pick in the 2017 NBA Draft but never found his footing with the 76ers (in part due to injury). However, since getting out of that spotlight and allowed to develop in Orlando he’s been a solid rotation point guard when healthy. Last season in 18 games he averaged 10.8 points and 5.5 assists a game, and while he’s still not an efficient shooter he can run a team.

How Anthony and, eventually, Fultz will work off the ball as rookie Paolo Banchero gets the opportunity to create more offense will be just one of the interesting things to watch with this Magic team this year. We’ll have to wait a little while to see Fultz.

 

Vintage Kobe: Redeem Team recalls him running over Pau Gasol

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If the goal of a trailer is to get you to want to see the movie, then well done Netflix. I’m in.

Netflix released a trailer for its upcoming Redeem Team documentary on the 2008 Olympics, featuring some vintage Kobe Bryant. Just as a quick refresher, in 2008 the USA’s toughest opponent would be a deep Spanish team led by peak Pau Gasol but also with Marc Gasol, Ricky Rubio, José Calderón, Rudy Fernández, Juan Carlos Navarro and more. This was a legitimately dangerous team and one the USA would face first in group play.

Kobe wanted to set a tone — and did by running through his friend Gasol. (Warning: There is NSFW language in the video clip below.)

“‘First play of the game I’m running through Pau Gasol.’ And we was like, ‘What?’ He said, ‘First play of the game, I know what they’re gonna run.’ And he knew Pau was gonna be the last screen and he said ‘I’m running through him,'” Dwayne Wade said

Spoiler alert: The USA thrashed Spain in group stage play. However, come the Gold Medal game it was a lot tougher for the Americans to beat the Spaniards, with Kobe having to have a big fourth quarter and — what often goes unremembered — a master class from Chris Paul in game management to control the tempo and flow.

I’m all in for the documentary, which drops on Oct. 7 on Netflix.

Spurs’ Keldon Johnson to miss start of training camp with shoulder injury

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Keldon Johnson is poised to have a monster season on a rebuilding Spurs team.

Except he’s going to miss the start of training camp and the team’s preseason games. And could be out longer.

Johnson suffered a “right shoulder posterior dislocation during Spurs open gym” the team announced Saturday. Posterior dislocations are rare (less than 5% of all dislocations) and are usually from a fall on an extended arm. Recovering from the injury depends on many factors but can extend out for months. However, the Spurs said Johnson is expected to be available for the start of the regular season less than a month from now.

Johnson averaged 17 points and 6.1 rebounds a game last season, and is an elite perimeter shooter off the catch-and-shoot (39.8% from 3 overall), who also can put the ball on the floor and finish at the rim. He was the team’s second-leading scorer last season (to Dejounte Murray, who is now in Atlanta).

The Spurs will be cautious with bringing Johnson back. Even in what could be Gregg Popovich’s last season as coach the Spurs are looking more to be part of the Victor Wembanyama sweepstakes than push for a playoff spot. Johnson is a quality player who helps San Antonio win games, which both is why they want him back healthy and why they are not going to rush him.