A simple number retirement wasn’t enough to honor Kobe Bryant’s monumental career. The Lakers found the perfect solution, retiring both his No. 8 and No. 24.
Likewise, commemorating Bryant’s tragically short life warranted far more than a standard moment of silence. The Spurs and Raptors found a perfect solution, each team taking a shot-clock violation to open their game today in memory of Bryant, No. 24.
What a beautifully fitting tribute to an all-time great player.
Here are 15 thoughts from Zion Williamson’s debut (and the rest of our Three Things to Know)
Every day in the NBA there is a lot to unpack, so every weekday morning throughout the season we will give you the three things you need to know from the last 24 hours in the NBA.
1) Here are 15 bullet point thoughts from Zion Williamson’s debut. Zion Williamson impressed in his debut game — 22 points on 8-of-11 shooting, plus seven rebounds, all in just 18:18 of court time. Here are my thoughts from his opening night.
• What were the odds Zion’s first game would feature zero monster dunks but four made threes?
• I can’t watch those four minutes in the fourth quarter enough.
• The four line-drive threes were the story because they were unexpected, but the most impressive play of the night came when Jakob Poeltl blocked his shot, but Zion got the ball back, exploded to the other side of the rim and scored. It was his most athletic bucket of the night.
• Can’t blame the Spurs for letting Zion take those threes, he was 1-of-4 from deep in the preseason and he was not a great three-point shooter in college (33.8 percent on a couple a game). The scouting report was to let him shoot. Future opponents will not let him set his feet and take those shots uncontested (the Spurs were in a zone when his run started, which seemed to be a green light in Zion’s mind, other teams will defend him differently).
• Zion said postgame that when he couldn’t move much during rehab, he worked on his shot. It showed — he looked more comfortable from deep than Ben Simmons has (and maybe even the Greek Freak). Zion has a set shot from three, it’s not a quick release or something he can take in motion pealing off a screen, but it doesn’t have to be. Defenders now will have to close out on Zion when he sets his feet, and when they do he can blow by them and attack the rim.
• Pelicans’ assistant coach Fred Vinson worked with Zion, Lonzo Ball, and Brandon Ingram this past year on their shots, and all three now have vastly improved jumpers. Vinson is not getting enough credit.
• Coach Alvin Gentry taking Zion out was painful to watch… and exactly the right thing to do. This is not about “rest” it’s about injury prevention — major injuries are more likely to occur when fatigued muscles cannot provide the support for ligaments and tendons on explosive moves and things snap. Williamson was obviously not in peak game shape (nor should he be expected to be coming off knee surgery), so a minutes limit was there to prevent him from pushing through tired muscles and re-injuring his just-repaired knee (or some other body part). Yes, it sucked as fans, but the goal is to have him play most of New Orleans remaining 37 games this season (and for seasons beyond this one), not to watch him go down in his first game back.
• Clearly, Zion needs to round into game shape (as to be expected for any player coming off knee surgery), but Mark Jackson’s handled the weight topic poorly on the broadcast, buying into the “Zion can’t play at that weight” trope. Zion is a unique athlete. Unless you’re a member of the Pelicans’ medial team that has done extensive testing on Williamson, you’re not in a position to say what his ideal playing weight will be (up or down). Maybe he should play at a lower weight than what he is at right now, maybe not, but this is an issue that should be handled with some delicacy, and Jackson was a Pamplona Bull on the run.
• Between Zion needing to lose weight and Brandon Ingram needing to add it, the Pelicans are a body shamers dream team.
• Williamson did defer too much through the first three quarters, but he mostly looked like a rookie who had not played much and was trying to fit in. The upside is he didn’t force anything. He wasn’t bad, he just wasn’t aggressive.
• Zion’s passing was surprisingly good. He made smart basketball plays passing out of double teams (picking up one good assist on an Ingram drive) and took what the defense gave him.
• Zion’s defense is going to be a work in progress (as it is with every rookie not named Matisse Thybulle). He has the athleticism and instincts to be a good defender, we saw it in the preseason, but in his first game against NBA players going at NBA speed he struggled and made some bad reads. It’s to be expected with any rookie, it’s just going to take time to see what kind of defender he will be.
• Expect to see a lot more Zion as a small-ball five, that seems the most natural fit. However, he did have the gravity to draw defenders, which helped open things up for Derrick Favors to get some first-quarter buckets.
• How well Ingram and Zion play together is the $168 million question for the Pelicans. That’s how much Ingram’s five-year max contract from New Orleans will be worth next summer — and he’s going to get it. The question becomes will Ingram and that contract ultimately get traded because of fit issues? It’s way too early to make that call.
• Ja Morant — the Grizzlies point guard running away with Rookie of the Year — came off a similar knee surgery last summer and it took him some time to get his legs under him and start to find how to use his athleticism in the NBA. Now he’s must-watch League Pass television. I expect the same thing out of Williamson as he rounds into form following his knee surgery.
• Bonus bullet point thought: That’s still a loss for the Pelicans to one of the teams they are battling for the final couple of playoff
2) Houston snaps four-game losing streak against shorthanded Nuggets (and they are fine with that). Houston had lost four games in a row (and 5-of-6), then rolled into Denver Wednesday, only to find a beaten-up Nuggets squad. No Jamal Murray (sprained ankle), Paul Millsap (knee), Mason Plumlee (foot), Gary Harris (aductor), or Michael Porter Jr. (back).
This is the NBA, you catch teams when you catch them — and in this case, the Rockets were happy to catch the break. Houston got 27 points from James Harden on just 13 shots, and Russell Westbrook had 28 points, 16 rebounds, and eight assists, and Houston cruised to a 121-105 win.
The Rockets’ offense has struggled of late, enough that it couldn’t cover up the team’s unimpressive defense. On Wednesday everything clicked. The question is, can the Rockets build off this and get back on track?
Denver, for its part, needs to keep its head above water until they get healthy again.
3) Shorthanded Sixers lose another starter in Josh Richardson, Toronto picks up the win. Philadelphia has gone eight games now without Joel Embiid, and now they will need to go a few games without Josh Richardson, too. The Sixers’ wing pulled up four minutes into the game grabbing his left hamstring. He did not return to the game.
Josh Richardson to be re-evaluated for his left hamstring strain tomorrow. #Sixers
Philadelphia fell to 5-3 without Embiid in a 107-95 loss in Toronto. They have tried to win with defense, starting Matisse Thybulle next to Ben Simmons, but when Thybulle picked up a quick second foul on a Kyle Lowry pump fake and had to leave the game, things started to fall apart for the Sixers.
Toronto got 22 from Fred VanVleet and had a balanced attack with six players scoring at least 16 points.
If the playoffs started today, this would be the first-round matchup and Toronto would have the home court. The Raptors keep on winning, and Nick Nurse’s case for Coach of the Year gets stronger and stronger.
After sitting through his cautious start, fans in New Orleans — and ones sitting in front of televisions from San Diego to Kennebunkport — got their payoff during the fourth quarter of Williamson’s NBA debut:
Zion absolutely dominated a three-minute stretch of the fourth quarter.
Williamson — a 19-year-old rookie who had missed 44 games coming off knee surgery — was the best player on the court for those minutes, scoring 17 straight points and getting the Pelicans back in a game they had trailed by double-digits for much of the night. And he did it going 4-of-4 from three.
Williamson finished the night with 22 points on 8-of-11 shooting, plus seven rebounds, all in just 18:18 of court time.
It wasn’t enough to get the Pelicans a win; San Antonio got 32 points from LaMarcus Aldridge and the victory 121-117.
Williamson spent the first three quarters looking like a rookie who had not played much, needed to work on his conditioning, and was trying to fit in. He didn’t force anything, made smart basketball plays passing out of double teams, and took what the defense gave him. Zion’s first NBA basket came in the second quarter, a putback off a Nickeil Alexander-Walker miss.
Williamson played cautiously through three quarters, with five points on 2-of-3 shooting, four rebounds but also four turnovers. His teammates were telling him to let go and get in the flow of the offense.
Then in the fourth you could see his confidence grow as Aldridge (and later other Spurs defenders) dared him to hit a three over the top of a zone. Postgame, Zion said during is rehab, when he could not run, he took a lot of standstill jumpers and it paid off. Once Zion knocked one down and his confidence started to swell, he got back to being the attacking, aggressive player everyone expected — and Pelicans fans loved every minute of it.
It’s just 18 minutes of basketball, the definition of a small sample size. But those 18 minutes only whetted our appetite. They weren’t even the appetizer, they were an amuse-bouche.
In his first quarter run, Zion looked to be unselfish with the ball and made the right basketball play a few times, passing out of soft doubles and picking up an assist to Brandon Ingram cutting down the lane (but Zion was 0-of-1 shooting).
It was a good start if a bit tentative, something to be expected of a guy who missed 44 games and is now trying to come into the rotation midseason.
As he grows more comfortable, New Orleans needs Zion to attack the rim. The Pelicans have shot creators and shooters — Jrue Holiday, Lonzo Ball, Brandon Ingram, J.J. Redick — and a rim-running, attacking threat that forces defenses to collapse a little will make things easier for the Pelicans’ perimeter players.
San Antonio was sharp in the first half and led by double-digits for much it. That came in part because New Orleans started 0-of-9 from three (despite some clean looks). San Antonio led 60-51 at the half. If the Pelicans are going to make a playoff push, this is the kind of game they need (at home against another team in the mix for one of the final playoff spots in the West).
NBA Power Rankings: Milwaukee on top, Jazz pass Lakers for second
Milwaukee, on a seven-game winning streak, continues to hold on to the top slot, but the Lakers recent troubles — combined with the Jazz being on a hot streak — has Utah moving up to the second slot (with the two Los Angeles teams right on their tail).
1. Bucks (39-6, Last Week No. 1). One does not hear the words “load management” and “Giannis Antetokounmpo” in the same sentence often, but that’s because the Bucks have been able to keep his minutes in check by blowing teams out. Antetokounmpo has played in 41 of the Bucks 45 games but is 48th in the NBA in total minutes played — Cedi Osman and Tomas Satoransky have played more total minutes. That’s because the Bucks are destroying teams and letting the Greek Freak have large parts of the fourth quarter off. He’s averaging just 30.6 minutes a night. The last time coach Mike Budenholzer had Antetokounmpo on the court for more than 35 minutes in a game was Nov. 27th.
2. Jazz (30-13, LW 3).Mike Conley returned on Saturday and has fit in well off the bench in a couple of blowout wins. That leads to the question: Should Conley become Utah’s sixth man? On paper that works because the current starting five — Donovan Mitchell, Royce O’Neale (who just got a contract extension), Joe Ingles, Bojan Bogdanovic, and Rudy Gobert — has been dominant, with a +22.5 net rating this season, and defensively that group gives up less than a point per possession. However, will Conley willingly accept that role? Could everything change during the playoffs? And who will close games?
3. Lakers (34-9, LW No. 2). It would be a mistake to overreact to one ugly loss to the Celtics, in the middle of January, during a long road trip. It happens. However, if you’re looking for a thread that ties together the Lakers’ losses to Boston and Orlando last week it is transition defense — both teams had success running on L.A. The Lakers are third best in the NBA in half court defense but middle of the pack in transition defense (stats via Cleaning the Glass). This is a regular season concern, but maybe less of a postseason concern (because the games tend to slow down). The Lakers play the Clippers next Wednesday and a win helps make their “Best in LA” case.
4. Clippers (31-13, LW 7). In his last six games, Kawhi Leonard has averaged 36 points per contest on 55.8% shooting overall, plus 5.6 rebounds and 4.8 assists a game. He’s looked like the all-world player from last postseason. Lou Williams was asked over the weekend what has changed with Leonard in recent games: “I think he just got his legs. He won a championship, I think he took a break, and basketball is a rhythm game. He’s just playing consistently now, getting his legs under him, and he’s more comfortable with the guys he’s playing with now.”
5. Nuggets (30-13, LW 6).Jamal Murray is going to miss some time with a sprained ankle, and don’t be surprised if we’re talking weeks according to the buzz around the league. That’s a blow to Denver, which is +9.6 per 100 possessions better when he is on the court (using Cleaning the Glass stats, which filter out garbage time). The timing of Murray’s injury is rough for Denver as it struggles to hold on to a high seed in the tight West and has 7 of its next 10 games on the road.
6. Celtics (28-14, LW 5). The utter destruction of the rival Lakers on MLK day ended a three-game losing streak (and 6-of-8), and it also was the first game in a week where the normally solid Boston defense looked like itself. Defense and slow starts — even the Lakers opened on an 8-0 run before falling apart — have been issues Brad Stevens has been focused on in recent weeks. With the Celtics healthy again the inconsistent bench shooting should be less of an issue.
7. Heat (30-13, LW 8).Jimmy Butler is a lock for the All-Star Game — he might even start, if the media/players vote him in — and he should be joined by Bam Adebayo (who the coaches will need to vote in as a reserve). With an efficient 16 points and 10.5 rebounds a game, plus strong defense, Adebayo deserves a spot on the ASG roster. Miami went 2-3 in a recent run of road games, but came home where they are 19-1 on the season for five games. Good tests coming up with the Clippers on Friday and the Celtics next Tuesday.
8. Raptors (29-14, LW 9). The Raptors are finally healthy — Fred VanVleet, Pascal Siakam, Marc Gasol, and Norman Powell are all back in the lineup — and not coincidentally the Raptors have won four in a row. After Philly on Wednesday night the Raptors have six games in a row against teams below .500, expect them to rack up wins as Masai Ujiri decides whether to be a seller at the trade deadline or to stick with the roster he has and see how much noise they can make in the postseason.
9. 76ers (29-16, LW 13). Winners of four in a row despite continued offensive issues — the Sixers are bottom 10 in offensive rating during that time (and over the past 10 games). After looking at the roster for half a season Elton Brand is checking out the trade market looking for shooting and playmakers, eyeing Derrick Rose for the point and wings Robert Covington and Malik Beasley. If the goal is winning the East this season and having a real shot in the Finals the Sixers may be one player away still.
10. Mavericks (27-16, LW 12). Dallas has lost Dwight Powell for the season with a ruptured Achilles and he is going to be difficult to replace. It’s not just the 9.6 points and 5.7 rebounds a game Powell gave them, but also he brought grit and a willingness to do the dirty work needed inside to allow Kristaps Porzingis to play his pick-and-pop game on the outside. Maxi Kleber and Boban Marjanovic will get more run but it’s not the same.
11. Pacers (28-16, LW 10). This ranking is too low for this team, but it sadly kind of fits the trend of media overlooking the Pacers and coach Nate McMillan. Domantas Sabonis and Malcolm Brogdon are both on the bubble for making the All-Star Game, but expect one of them to get a nod from the coaches for a reserve spot. Sabonis is battling a bruised knee but got his first career triple-double anyway, and in general the Pacers are getting healthy and look like a team that could make a run up the East standings (and these rankings).
12. Rockets (26-16, LW 4). Losers of four in a row and 5-of-6, just as Russell Westbrook is taking on a larger role and seeming more comfortable in the offense. Coincidence? The problem for the Rockets over the past six games has been the offense, just 19th in the league over that stretch, not good enough to cover up for a defense that has struggled all season. Houston takes on Denver on Wednesday night then takes off for four on the road, including a difficult Denver/Utah back-to-back.
13. Thunder (25-19, LW 11).Shai Gilgeous-Alexander became the youngest player in NBA history to rack up a 20-20 triple-double last week — he continues to be a great get from the Paul George trade, someone who OKC can build around. Expect the trade rumors to fly around this team in the coming weeks, but also expect the big names — Chris Paul and Steven Adams — to stay put, mostly because their contracts are so large and hard to match. Danilo Gallinari remains a name that comes up in a lot of trade discussions, he’s the guy that could be on the move. If anyone will be.
14. Grizzlies (20-23, LW 14). Over the past 10 games, the Grizzlies have the third best offense in the NBA, which is overwhelming opponents and has he Grizzlies in the playoffs if they started today. Ja Morant continues to lead the team on that end of the floor, running away with the Rookie of the Year race (no way Zion can catch him) and putting up ridiculous highlights every time he steps on the court.
15. Magic (21-23, LW 15). Orlando got its signature win of the season so far beating the Lakers (ending L.A.’s nine-game win streak) behind a Markelle Fultz triple-double, but consistency has not been Fultz’s or this team’s strength. That’s especially troubling with backup point guard D.J. Augustin likely to miss three-to-four weeks with bone irritation in his knee, he was a stabilizing influence on this roster (and a potential trade chip that just got harder to move). Evan Fournier is still drawing a lot of trade interest from other teams, but the Magic are a playoff team right now (5 game cushion) and are not having a fire sale, it’s going to take a quality offer to get a deal done.
16. Spurs (19-23, LW 17). San Antonio has settled into its identity this season: A top-10 offensive team led by efficient shooting from DeMar DeRozan and LaMarcus Aldridge, but a bottom five defense that continues to put their playoff streak in jeopardy. DeRozan has a good case to get an All-Star game invite, however the West is so stacked at the guard position that it seems a longshot he (or Aldridge) make the final cut. It will be in the hands of the coaches, who vote on the reserves.
17. Trail Blazers (19-26, LW 19). This week’s trade — which sent out Kent Bazemore and brought back Trevor Ariza — was mostly about reducing Portland’s league-largest tax bill (now down to $6.2 million). Can’t blame ownership for not wanting to pay the tax for this team, which means expect another trade — Hassan Whiteside? — or two as the deadline nears to get all the way under the tax. Also, did you see Lillard’s ridiculous 61?
18. Pelicans (17-27, LW 20).Zion Williamson finally makes his debut for the Pelicans Wednesday night, and that means a few things. One is dunks — highlight dunks nightly. But it also means a playoff push from a team that is not out of the mix (3.5 games back) and has gone 11-5 in its last 16 before Zion’s arrival. The Pelicans have stepped back from the edge of trading away their best veterans, for now, to see how well this team can perform together and if they can make a legitimate push for the postseason.
19. Suns (18-25, LW 21). Since the calendar flipped to 2020, Deandre Ayton has averaged 19.4 points per game on 55.4% shooting, plus pulling down 12.4 rebounds a game — those are All-Star level numbers if he had played enough games (and wasn’t in the West, which is deep with good centers). Devin Booker will make his first All-Star appearance this season because the coaches will vote him in as a reserve (unlike the fan vote, Alex Caruso is not getting a spot). Phoenix has won 4-of-6 and remains within striking distance of the playoffs.
20. Nets (18-24, LW 16). Kyrie Irving returned right as Brooklyn hit a tough part of the schedule, so it’s not on him the team has dropped four in a row. It was on him that Irving gave an ill-timed “state of the franchise” statement that led to days of news cycle, with each story talking about his 6-of-21 shooting against Philly. The good news for the Nets is that after the Lakers on Thursday the schedule softens up for a couple of weeks.
21. Bulls (16-29, LW 23).Zach LaVine is a player on the bubble for making the All-Star team in the East, but the game being in Chicago this season may give him a boost with coaches. I thought Lauri Markkanen would evolve into an All-Star level player but he’s been pretty average this season, averaging 14.9 points per game but not excelling in any one area. Markkanen has spent most of his season at the four, but is seeing more time at center with Wendell Carter Jr. out injured.
22. Pistons (16-28, LW 25). Andre Drummond is available via trade, but the market for him — especially at $27.1 million this season, has been limited. That should inform Drummond about what awaits him if he opts out of the last season of his contract ($28.8 million) and tests the free agent waters, but it sounds like he is headed to playing the field this July.
23. Kings (15-28, LW 18). De’Aaron Fox is back healthy and the Kings are playing fast again. After being the slowest paced team in the league through November and December, the Kings are top 10 in pace in their last 10 games. Fox is averaging 22.7 points and 8.3 assists per game in January, but the Kings have lost six in a row and need to turn things around to end the longest playoff draught in the NBA.
24. Timberwolves (15-28, LW 22). The “Andrew Wiggins has figured it out” narrative got flowing in November when he averaged 27.1 points per game on a 56.6 true shooting percentage, plus he made some clutch plays. But in December that TS% fell to 51.7 (the league average is around 56), and in January Wiggins is scoring 15.4 points per game with a 48 TS%. Wiggins is back to being what he has always been, a nice rotational player who has night that remind you of that potential, but mostly is an average starter. Just one on a max contract owed $93.9 million over the three seasons after this one (fully guaranteed).
25. Wizards (14-28, LW 24).Bradley Beal may well be frustrated, but he took the big checks and now he is going to be with the Wizards for a while, the only place he is going is to Chicago for the All-Star Game (as a reserve). There’s no real trade buzz there. However, there is a lot of trade buzz around Davis Bertans, numerous teams are interested in the big shooting 43.3% from three, and that leaves the Pelicans with a choice: He’d fit great next to John Wall and Beal next season and the Wizards have talked about re-signing him, but Bertans is a free agent. If Washington isn’t sure they can re-sign him, they will have to consider those deadline trade offers.
26. Knicks (12-32, LW 26). RJ Barrett is out for a week with a sprained ankle, reducing the reasons to watch this team play — unless you’re scouting Marcus Morris for a trade. Which a lot of teams are doing. Morris is a hot name because a lot of teams could use his combination of shooting and defense inside. But can the Knicks get a protected first or enough else in return to get a trade worth it?
27. Hawks (10-34, LW 29). It’s just been two games, but so far the “Jeff Teague is here to help the second unit wile Trae Young sits” experiment has had mixed results. Teague has come off the bench and for two games and shot 7-of-12 for 17 points, but is still -19 in those games (because one man cannot save that bench unit). The Hawks lost both games. Atlanta did pick up a quality win in San Antonio Friday night on a Kevin Huerter game winner.
28. Cavaliers (12-32, LW 27). Bright spots are hard to find for a team with this record in a five-game losing streak (and 10-of-12), but here is one: In January Collin Sexton is shooting 46.3% from three on nearly five attempts per game. If the second-year guard can start to hit that consistently — and continues his overall improved play this month — he becomes much more valuable to Cleveland.
29. Warriors (10-35 LW 30).Stephen Curry is targeting March 1 for a return to the court, although at this point expect him to be on a minutes limit and for him still to get plenty of nights off this season. The Warriors are thinking about next season, not this one. They snapped their 10-game losing streak thanks to catching Orlando on the last night of a West Coast road swing, but the win still counts. Then MLK day it took a ridiculous 61 from Damian Lillard to hold the Warriors off.
30. Hornets (15-30, LW 28). Charlotte was booked to play in an NBA game in Paris (this Friday, against Milwaukee) because Tony Parker was on this roster last season. Except, then Parker retired. Still, Charlotte gets a nice mid-season trip. My word of advice: If the Hornets are going to the Louvre, “Winged Victory” and “Liberty Leading the People” are more inspiring than the “Mona Lisa” and “Venus de Milo.”