Ben Golliver and Michael Pina open with a discussion of the Portland Trail Blazers' injury woes. What was driving CJ McCollum's early season success and how will his injury impact Portland's playoff outlook? From there, the guys shift to the struggling New Orleans Pelicans and Zion Williamson's second season. Williamson has been dominant in the paint, but does he need to expand his spheres of influence? Should Stan Van Gundy consider a lineup change? After detailing the Utah Jazz's place in the NBA's exclusive "40/40" club, Ben and Michael close with an extended look at the Brooklyn Nets' loss to the Cleveland Cavaliers. How did the "Big 3" look in their first game together? Is Kyrie Irving the weakest link in Brooklyn's defense? What does Steve Nash need to do late in games to get better results?
Ben Golliver: Let's shift gears to Zion Williamson, because you also wrote about him this week, as did I for my newsletter at The Washington Post. I was digging into some of the numbers around Zion, and he's playing pretty well. He's producing pretty well. The Pelicans have really struggled. They're well below .500, not in the playoff picture right now. And they're just kind of a weird and a very different team.
Stan Van Gundy looked at his roster and his personnel and he just said, you know what? We're not going to be able to play modern basketball. We don't have enough shooters. We don't have the capability to have perfect spacing on offense. And on defense, we've got these two bigs with Steven Adams and Zion Williamson, who are kind of the bully-ball, bash brothers approach that we discussed entering the season. And it's played out exactly that way.
These guys rebound very well. They don't shoot the ball from three very well. They don't defend the three very well because they're always in the paint. But they do defend the rim quite well and the basket area quite well. And so they're a little bit of a dinosaur team right now and it's not exactly working for them. And then even schematically, they're saying, you know, we're going to make compromises. We're not going to be able to guard everybody's three-point shooter.
So you go back to Christmas, they just get lit up by Duncan Robinson. I think he had like what, 42 three-pointers on Christmas, something like that. And he's not the only one who's been able to do that to New Orleans. Now, on certain nights, they're able to kind of get by if the other team is cold or just things aren't going well for them. Their strategy is almost similar in a way to what Milwaukee wants to do, which is encourage you to shoot threes, hope you miss them. And then just outscore you on the other end. But it doesn't always work that way, in part because their shooting has been super hit-or-miss.
Eric Bledsoe is still Eric Bledsoe unfortunately, and Lonzo Ball really hasn't made the leap that some people were hoping for from him as well. So in terms of the Zion conversation, I guess my conclusion, after looking at everything was: if he's going to be a franchise level player that we expected, he can't have such a narrow impact as he has displayed so far this year.
He's unbelievable in the paint. He's finishing great through traffic. I think he takes like 90 percent of his shots from within 10 feet. He bulldozes people. He gets the highlight reel dunks. It's very difficult to keep him off the offensive glass. He's been as expected and as advertised in that sense, but pretty much outside of the paint, he's doing almost nothing. You're not really seeing him pass or facilitate in any way. Like you can't really throw the ball to him on the elbow and have him go to work. He's not shooting three-pointers at all after his initial debut. I went to go down to New Orleans to see in person last year, and the three-pointers were a huge part of that exciting performance. All that stuff is totally gone.
Then defensively, he has a really hard time covering ground out to three-point shooters, closing out, making the extra effort plays on the perimeter. He gets a lot of hustle stats because he does play hard. But you're asking a lot of a guy that big to track three-point shooters and stretch forwards out to the perimeter and do all those kinds of things, too.
So the challenge I think for New Orleans right now is, as I put it, they have to expand his spheres of influence. They've got to get him to be more than just a paint player on offense. They've got to kind of get him more comfortable in whatever role it's going to be defensively so that they can do a better job of guarding the three-point line than they have recently.
I don't know if that comes with time and development for Zion. I don't know if that comes with better conditioning for Zion. I don't know if it's a schematic change, or potentially a lineup change from Stan Van Gundy that could kind of help Zion get into some more advantageous situations. But right now, he's a little bit of a one-trick pony. And when you're the No. 1 overall pick—a guy who's supposed to be a franchise level player—that's not quite good enough. You know what I mean?
Michael Pina: Yeah, I kind of am okay right now with what Zion is. And I put more of the blame on the roster, which you outlined really well, just how they've tried to build around him, bringing in Steven Adams, who is this old-school center who has made one three-pointer in his entire career. So if Zion is your guy and you're trying to accentuate his strengths...
Golliver: Real quick, was that a heave too? I'm pretty sure it was a heave. Steven Adams "one three-pointer".
Pina: Probably, yeah.
Golliver: I want to say it was like a half-court shot, some crazy shot put type shot. Maybe I'll Google it while you keep talking.
Pina: Yeah, I think you're spot on there. But yeah, Zion is a guy who dominates in the paint. He leads the league in points in the paint, he's averaging more points in the paint than Giannis did during both of his MVP seasons, which is a little stat I put in my column, which really kind of shocked me, frankly. Because Giannis was dominant and then I went back and compared him to Shaq, and Shaq averaged 20 points in the paint during his 29-year-old season with the Los Angeles Lakers when he was just out of his mind—MVP/best player alive, most dominant force ever seen. So for Shaq to only be averaging a point more than Zion is right now in the paint, is really telling me something. And when I look at Zion's shot chart, I'm kind of like, OK, so this is basically Ben Simmons, except Zion is more aggressive and he has better touch and he can finish in a lot of different ways. So let's take advantage of that.