Let’s not overstate it. There’s no fireable offense, grotesque coaching incompetence or shouting-match worthy argument over the reason the New Orleans Pelicans coughed up its NBA restart showdown against the Utah Jazz.
But refusing to play Zion Williamson for most of the fourth quarter of what turned into a 106-104 loss was still a crucial mistake. Minute restrictions are fine. Entering an eight-game bubble that doubles for New Orleans as a kind of postseason, and then benching your chance at winning even one of those games, is not.
If you’re going to risk players’ health and potential infection of a virus that has shut down much of 2020 – which is exactly the reality behind the beauty of basketball’s return – you play to win.
You don’t sit Zion. Not in the fourth quarter. Not as a four-point lead turns to a dog fight and, in the end, a heartbreaking loss.
Sitting Zion Williamson Thursday night was wrong, potentially costly and can’t happen again in the seven games that remain.
You know the details. Zion was sharp and impressive in his limited action in Orlando, putting up 13 points, and a nifty behind-the-back assist, in just 15 minutes of action. But the Pelicans have always been more than just Zion’s stats.
There’s a sense of swagger and confidence when he’s on the floor because Zion’s presence puts that organization markedly closer to the thing they may just become down the road.
Brandon Ingram, who has blossomed into an All-Star in the Big Easy, has the chance to be truly great.
Lonzo Ball, freed of the grind of playing with LeBron James and the glamour and pressure of Los Angeles and the Lakers, has become a true floor general. JJ Redick remains a key veteran and shooter. Josh Hart has upside. Jrue Holiday can be the third-best player on a great team.
But that team is built for and around Zion, and in close games that matter – like Thursday night’s – he needs to play. There is something deflating about organizations that meet big moments and chances at success, no matter how unlikely or limited, with the choice to sit their star.
Caution is fine. Surrender or insouciance to success is not.
The stakes may not be the same, but the Washington Nationals did the same thing in 2012 when they refused to play Stephen Strasburg that postseason. Yes, he’d missed 2011 with Tommy John surgery. He also went 15-6 before being benched for the playoffs behind a 3.16 ERA and 197 strikeouts in 159 innings pitched.
The Nationals lost in the NLDS, but the real failure was what it told a promising team, the message that a guy who can help and be key won’t get that chance. It’s self-defeating. It’s overbearing. And it’s wrongheaded.
The consequences were certainly less significant Thursday night, but the effect felt the same. No, if New Orleans somehow claims the No. 9 spot, beats, presumably, the Grizzlies twice, they are not going to beat the Lakers in a seven-game series and ride off to championship glory.
But that’s not the goal. Making up for the games and critical experience missed during the past four months, the growth of a young, promising team, and the on-the-job lessons Zion can learn about the postseason by actually playing in them – those things are the goals. And they’re invaluable.
Clinching that ninth spot and tasting that sense of success is a building block. Playing – and just maybe beating – Memphis twice to earn a spot in a seven-game series is a rung on the ladder you have to climb to eventually be a champion. Even getting owned by the Lakers, swept or otherwise, teaches lessons and leaves a sense of failure and hunger you want a young team to know.
But you have to win games to get there. Especially when there are only eight of them, and a fully healthy Portland team – plus Phoenix and Sacramento – are vying for the same thing.
So by all means, protect Zion Williamson from playing 38 minutes on that return. But also protect him from the overbearing silliness of not letting him finish that game off, even if just for the final four or five minutes.
If he could play – and he could – he should have been in there for the end. Anything else is a waste of his time and talent, and of those of everyone who chose to enter a bubble despite the associated risks and difficulties.
They came to win. Next time, let them.