Another one was given Tuesday, and yet again it was not a statement that Williamson is ready to make his debut. It was the most promising update yet, though, as a return might actually be on the horizon for the thrilling but injury-plagued young phenom.
There’s a big hole in the Pelicans’ lineup and offensive output that should be eased greatly by Williamson’s presence. Without him and dealing with other injuries — including to star Brandon Ingram — the Pelicans stumbled to a 2-14 record, losing a league-leading four games this season when ahead by 15 or more points. They are looking to become the first team since the 1996-97 Phoenix Suns to start 1-12 or worse and still play beyond the regular season (the Suns started 0-13).
Here is a simple FAQ updating the situation and the journey that got the team here:
When will Zion make his season debut?
That’s still up in the air, but Tuesday’s announcement does give us the clearest picture yet. The Pelicans announced Williamson has been cleared for contact, starting with one-on-one drills and progressing toward full team workouts. He is expected to undergo another set of imaging on Wednesday, and that should determine if he will be cleared for those workouts. Once he’s cleared for 5-on-5 work, then the Pelicans can settle on a return to play. How long it takes once he’s cleared, though, will depend on how comfortable New Orleans is with his progression.
Didn’t the team say he was going to play on opening night?
It did and so did Williamson himself. On the first day of training camp on Sept. 27, Pelicans executive vice president of basketball operations David Griffin announced that Williamson had fractured his right foot and needed surgery on an unspecified date over the summer. He then said this:
“His timeline should get him back on the court prior to the season. That would be our hope. That would be our view. We’re very optimistic about what that looks like.”
Shortly thereafter, Williamson said: “I expect to be back for the first game. The first official game, I should say.”
They would regret these statements almost immediately, and Griffin would later stumble a bit while walking it back. Williamson himself hasn’t spoken to the media since.
Why have the Pelicans kept pushing back the return?
The doctors Williamson has been working with had not cleared him to participate in contact drills until Tuesday. But the team has not handled this well from a public relations standpoint. It kept the injury and surgery quiet, sources said, out of respect to Williamson and his preference for privacy. Then instead of announcing a complete timetable, it did incremental updates that made it seem like he was having setbacks whether that was accurate or not. That strategy may have helped with the front office’s relationship with the franchise player, but it hurt the team’s credibility with its fan base. It has made it challenging to accept subsequent updates at face value.
When did the Pelicans actually know about this injury?
The Pelicans had a strength and conditioning coach with Williamson in Los Angeles for summer workouts, sources said, so they were aware Williamson was hurt. Perhaps being vague about the timing of the injury — Griffin has said both “early in the summer” and “before summer league” — was to honor Williamson’s request for privacy. But that did invite speculation of whether the team was in the loop, which is naturally a sensitive topic.
Star players get star treatment when it comes to injury announcements. For example, Chris Paul had wrist surgery last summer and it was never announced by the team when it occurred.
Did the Pelicans know he had surgery?
It is true Williamson had a non-team doctor — Dr. Richard Ferkel did the surgery — but this isn’t unusual. Ferkel is a go-to surgeon for NBA players with foot injuries and made a name for himself for successful care of Stephen Curry‘s ankles. Griffin said the Pelicans were aware throughout the process and that the Pelicans’ team orthopedist, Dr. Scott Montgomery, consulted. They have still not said when the surgery was.
Does the way the Pelicans handled this show there are issues between the team and Williamson?
There was some concern about Williamson’s connection to the team when he wasn’t around teammates much last summer. He also didn’t go with the team when it moved operations to Nashville, Tennessee, in the wake of Hurricane Ida. Williamson explained this absence, citing the unannounced injury and saying: “When my teammates see me, I want them to always see me with my head up high … I didn’t want to be around them giving off that bad energy.”
Speculation about trust issues has increased with the way the team handled this injury publicly. When Williamson was a rookie, there were some abnormalities in handling his return from knee surgery, which appeared to generate friction. In the 2020 Orlando, Florida, bubble, Williamson and the team were at times evasive about why he left the bubble for a period. Additionally, Williamson publicly supported the re-signing of free agent Lonzo Ball last summer, and he was eventually traded to the Chicago Bulls.
As for his relationship with the front office, again in Williamson’s words from September: “It’s all love with me and Griff … we’re both competitors and we both want to win. Do we disagree on some things? Yeah, who agrees on everything? We don’t. I think that’s what makes our relationship great.”
How sure is it that Williamson will sign a contract extension with the Pelicans next summer?
This is what Williamson said about playing with the Pelicans: “I love it here. I love the city of New Orleans. I don’t want to be anywhere else.”
Of course, rival teams are monitoring the situation. It is important to know the rules are set up to financially motivate players coming off their rookie contracts to stay and extend. Nearly all young stars have re-signed with their teams under the current system.
This is rare, but if a player were to credibly threaten to sign a one-year extension after his fourth year, it could apply pressure to his team to trade him. For example, this is the tactic that got Kristaps Porzingis traded away from the New York Knicks during his third season. Porzingis’ injury problems contributed to the Knicks’ decision.
One thing worth watching with this in mind, Williamson’s one-year qualifying offer is slated to be $17.6 million in 2023-24, the largest in NBA history and the type of number that makes taking that one-year deal more credible. But Williamson would need to start 41 games or play 2,000 minutes next season to qualify for that, otherwise his one-year qualifier would drop to $7.7 million.
Williamson’s health is most important, but watching his relationship with the team heading into next summer will hold plenty of interest.
What are the Pelicans doing to make sure Williamson stays healthy and wants to be in New Orleans?
The Pelicans have poured resources, time and energy to protect Williamson’s health. They have changed members of the staff and even changed some of their culinary practices in an attempt to support him. They have talked with him about protecting his body from extra hits. Griffin has stood up for him privately, sending video clips to the league to illustrate how Williamson was getting beat up. When that didn’t work, Griffin ripped NBA referees publicly for not protecting Williamson and was fined $50,000.
So far it has not shown terrific results, but everyone is going to keep trying. His talent is breathtaking. He showed it last season when averaging 27 points on 61% shooting in 61 games, as he displayed some of the most incredible interior scoring since Shaquille O’Neal while ably running the offense. He’s worth all the work and the wait, and the Pelicans and Williamson still have time to make this all come together.
Sacramento Kings fire Luke Walton, name Alvin Gentry interim coach
The Sacramento Kings promoted associate head coach Alvin Gentry to interim head coach after firing coach Luke Walton on Sunday, the team announced.
“After a thorough evaluation of the season thus far, I decided to make a change to the head coach position,” Kings general manager Monte McNair said in a statement. “I want to thank Luke for his efforts and contributions to our team.”
The Kings have lost seven of eight games and dropped to 6-11 on season — leaving them 12th in the Western Conference. Several recent losses came against struggling teams like the San Antonio Spurs, Oklahoma City Thunder and Minnesota Timberwolves.
Gentry will be taking over his sixth NBA team. He will get a pay raise and already was under contract for the 2022-23 season on his assistant coaching contract, sources said. Kings assistant coach Rico Hines, meanwhile, has been promoted to the front of the bench, sources said. Hines was hired to Walton’s staff as a player development coach in 2019.
The Kings are discussing potential benchmarks of success for Gentry the rest of the season that could serve as possible parameters on keeping the job on a longer-term basis, sources said.
Still, this is an interim coaching job and the struggling Kings could be opening another coaching search process in the offseason.
Walton was 68-93 in two-plus seasons as Kings coach.
The Kings have been one of the league’s worst defensive teams under Walton, ranking 26th in defensive efficiency this season and last in 2020-21. This season, Sacramento also ranks 26th in defensive rebounding percentage, 29th in paint points per game allowed and last in second-chance points per game allowed, according to ESPN Stats & Information.
Sacramento has the longest active playoff drought in the NBA (since 2006). In those 15 years, the Kings have had 10 head coaches; Walton’s interim replacement will be the 11th since Rick Adelman led the Kings to their last playoff berth.
Milwaukee Bucks to ‘continue to fight for better’ after Kyle Rittenhouse found not guilty in Kenosha protest shootings
MILWAUKEE — Bucks coach Mike Budenholzer said the organization would “continue to fight for better” in the aftermath of a jury’s verdict Friday that Kyle Rittenhouse, who fatally shot two men and wounded another during protests in Kenosha, Wisconsin, last year, was acquitted of all charges.
The Bucks performed a wildcat strike during the NBA’s playoff bubble in Orlando, Florida, days after a white police officer shot Jacob Blake, a Black man, in August 2020 and one day after Rittenhouse shot three people in the protests over police violence that followed.
The Bucks met as a team ahead of Friday’s 96-89 win over the Oklahoma City Thunder, and while Milwaukee forward Khris Middleton didn’t want to go into details about the team’s conversation, he said they never discussed not taking the court Friday.
“We talked about [the verdict] a little bit as a team,” Middleton said after Friday’s game. “Speaking for myself, it was definitely disappointing, but at the same time, it really wasn’t surprising about the verdict. I watched [the trial] a little bit and was able to keep up with it, but it’s something that I think we’ve all seen over and over again.”
Memphis Grizzlies star Ja Morant appeared to share Middleton’s opinion, tweeting, “not surprised at all.” Toronto Raptors guard Fred VanVleet also said he wasn’t surprised but added that he didn’t want Friday’s verdict to be discouraging either.
“I think that we’ve got to continue to use the tools that we have at our disposal,” VanVleet said. “I think that things are changing and they will continue to change, but we can’t lose sight, we can’t lose focus, we can’t lose hope.”
Rittenhouse had been charged with homicide, attempted homicide and reckless endangering after killing Joseph Rosenbaum, 36, and Anthony Huber, 26, and wounding Gaige Grosskreutz, now 28, with an AR-style semi-automatic rifle during a tumultuous night of protests.
Rittenhouse — who is white, as were those he shot — pleaded self-defense. He could have gotten life in prison if found guilty on the most serious charge, first-degree intentional homicide, or what some other states define as first-degree murder.
The anonymous jury, whose racial makeup was not disclosed by the court but appeared to be overwhelmingly white, deliberated for close to 3½ days.
The System Is Broken.
— Karl-Anthony Towns (@KarlTowns) November 19, 2021
In January, the Bucks and Detroit Pistons each knelt on the court for seven seconds after tipoff and then rolled the ball out of bounds, following a decision by a Wisconsin prosecutor to not file charges against Kenosha police officer Rusten Sheskey for shooting Blake. The number of seconds matched the number of times Blake was shot.
“Still trying to push for better in our country,” Budenholzer said before Friday’s game. “Hoping for improvement. Organizationally, just continue to fight for social justice, for better. But at the same time, have to abide by the jury and the decision and the verdict and continue to fight for better.”
Budenholzer’s comments pushing for better were echoed by coaches around the league Friday.
“Clearly these situations are disappointing, and it’s important to not become demoralized and for people to continue to fight for the type of justice and equality that serves all,” Nets coach Steve Nash said. “While I think it raises a lot of eyebrows, questions, a lot of pain, we recognize there has to be a path forward.
“It can’t be, ‘Well, this is just the way it is,’ and so I think the movement that we’ve experienced, one way or the other, is pushing change. Even if you can’t see that change on a daily basis or even year by year, over the course of time, without that type of attention and willpower to come together and fight for a brighter future, I think there would be no change, and it’s paramount in the seeds of change. So I think these are always opportunities for us to look in the mirror.”
Warriors coach Steve Kerr voiced his concerns about gun laws before Golden State’s game in Detroit on Friday.
Rittenhouse, who was 17 when he went from his home in Antioch, Illinois, to Kenosha, had also been charged with possession of a dangerous weapon by a person under 18, a misdemeanor that had appeared likely to lead to a conviction. But the judge threw out that charge before jury deliberations after the defense argued that the Wisconsin law did not apply to the long-barreled rifle used by Rittenhouse.
“The fact that we are seemingly OK with a teenager’s right to take an AR-15 into an area where there is civil unrest, that’s really scary and concerning,” Kerr said. “This is where we are with gun laws. This is why we have to have safer gun laws in place to protect ourselves, to protect each other.
“It wasn’t a shocking verdict, but one that poses great risk going forward if we continue to go down this path of open carry and states determining that people can carry, even underage people, weapons of war. This is America. Treading down a dangerous path.”
National Basketball Social Justice Coalition executive director James Cadogan released a statement saying the organization “remains committed” to protecting the right to peaceful protest and that “any forms of vigilantism in our society are unacceptable.”
ESPN’s Brian Windhorst and Ohm Youngmisuk and The Associated Press contributed to this report.
Lakers fall below .500 in LeBron James’ return from injury
BOSTON — LeBron James‘ return from an extended absence couldn’t cure the inconsistent play that has plagued his team on both ends and was on full display in the Lakers‘ 130-108 loss to the Celtics on Friday.
The defeat dropped Los Angeles — one of the oddsmakers’ favorites to win the championship — to 8-9 with more than a fifth of the season in the books.
“It’s never, ‘We got 65 games left,'” James said when asked if he can take the long view considering the Lakers’ early injuries and how much of the 82-game regular-season slate remains. “We damn sure need to play better, no matter who is in the lineup. We have our system and we need to obviously fast-track it and get better with it so we can play, no matter who is out on the floor, we can play at a high level. … There’s no level of panic, but there should be some sense of urgency any time we take the floor.”
James played for the first time in 2½ weeks because of an abdomen strain and showed signs of his old self, registering 23 points on 10-for-16 shooting, six rebounds, two assists and two steals, but only three of his shot attempts came in the paint, which could be seen as a sign of the caution the 19-year veteran played with, dealing with his third significant injury in the past four seasons.
“Physically I felt OK and good enough to know that I can trust my body and get out and play tonight,” James said. “So I’m more looking forward to seeing how I’m feeling tomorrow when I wake up. That is the telltale sign if I’m moving in the right direction with my injury.”
Who knows what direction the Lakers are headed, however.
Boston outrebounded Los Angeles 51-33 despite starting center Robert Williams III (averaging a team-best 9.2 rebounds per game) out of the lineup.
“I mean … rebound,” said Russell Westbrook. “Ain’t too much you can do about it. Just go get the ball … simple as that.”
The Lakers, who led by as many as 14 in the first half, saw their third-quarter woes continue, with the Celtics breaking things open with a 33-21 quarter out of the break.
“We have to get committed to playing as a team offensively,” said Lakers coach Frank Vogel. “And when we do, like we saw in the first quarter, it looks beautiful and you see the potential of what we can be. But we got into holding the ball too much and not playing for each other enough. But that’s part of learning each other and building that cohesiveness and the right habits. And then defensively, guys are going to have big roles if they commit to the defensive side. And if they don’t, they’re not. It’s that simple.”
The 130 points by Boston were the most the Lakers have allowed all season.
“We can go out and compete every night, but I don’t think it’s our offense. I think it’s our defense, honestly,” said Anthony Davis, who led the Lakers with 31 points. “We’ve just got to do a better job on the defensive end.”
For Westbrook, who was outperformed by the point guard he was brought in to replace, Dennis Schroder — as the Boston guard had 21 points, six assists and six rebounds to Westbrook’s 12, six and four — there was an element of déjà vu. It was another frustrating night for him and his new team as they try to come together.
“I think the reality of it is everybody on the outside have really high expectations of our team, as they should,” Westbrook said. “But the reality of it is we haven’t really played with each other realistically, and nobody cares and everybody asks the same question, and I’m tired of giving the same answer to the same question every time we lose.
“It’s like, ‘Hey, how long do you think it’s going to take?’ We don’t know. When we win, it’s still going to take some time. So the reality of it is, throughout the season, there’s going to be ups, there’s going to be downs. It’s now what you do as a team. You can pull apart, or you can come together and figure it out.”
The Lakers are still without Kendrick Nunn (right knee) and Trevor Ariza (right ankle), who have both yet to appear in a game this season. And rookie swingman Austin Reaves continues to be sidelined with a hamstring strain.
James said he would like to see the team settle on a consistent look — either going big, with DeAndre Jordan and Dwight Howard getting the lion’s share of the minutes at center, or small, with Davis at the 5 — and sticking to it.
He also doesn’t want the team to run from its struggles.
“It’s never as bad as it may seem, and it’s never as good as it may feel,” James said. “So I stay even-keeled throughout the whole journey. I understand this is a huge [undertaking]. It’s a process for us. And I’ve always felt comfortable when things are uncomfortable, so I look forward to the process of us trying to get better.
“And us getting better. Not trying. We will get better. We will improve.”
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