The Wild West Rises Again: Zion and Ja battle for the playoffs


Erik Drost

Erik Drost | Wikimedia Commons

Kyle McKee, Sports Editor

All the other teams in the playoff picture in the Eastern Conference, as of March, will most likely be there at the end of season, the only difference being the seeding of the teams.

However, the Brooklyn Nets, who hold the eighth and final playoff spot, might prove to be the exception, as they might start to tank since their star player, Kyrie Irving has been ruled out for the season.

With that said, the Nets do have a five and a half game lead over the ninth-placed Washington Wizards, and have played well all season with Irving hurt, winning 18 games without their enigmatic point guard.

With the poor quality of the conference as a whole this season, it’s hard to imagine that the Nets will collapse so badly down the final stretch of the season that they will miss the playoffs.

The Western Conference is very similar to the Eastern Conference.

The Los Angeles Lakers have been atop the Western Conference standings all season long, and like the Bucks, there is no reason to doubt that the Lakers will be slowing down anytime soon.

Just like the Eastern Conference, the next six teams, after the Lakers in the West, are all locks to make the playoffs: The Los Angeles Clippers, the Denver Nuggets, the Houston Rockets, the Utah Jazz, the Oklahoma City Thunder and the Dallas Mavericks.

The only difference at the end of the season, as opposed to now, will be the seeding of the teams, just like in the East.

However, unlike the Eastern Conference, the last playoff spot in the Western Conference is up for grabs.

As of early March, the Memphis Grizzlies have that final playoff spot in the conference. Memphis currently holds a three game lead over the New Orleans Pelicans, the Sacramento Kings and the San Antonio Spurs.

The Grizzlies have become the new, young, up-and-coming team of the NBA. Rookie sensation Ja Morant has been a human highlight reel all season long, averaging 17 points per game and seven assists per game.

Morant, along with Jaren Jackson Jr., Brandon Clarke and Dillon Brooks give the Grizzlies a very promising future.

This year’s Grizzlies are very similar to the 2009-2010 Oklahoma City Thunder team that featured a young Kevin Durant, Russell Westbrook and James Harden.

That young Thunder squad went on to make the playoffs as an eight seed and ended up losing in six games to the top seeded Los Angeles Lakers, who went on to win the title that year.

It’s highly unlikely that these Grizzlies will develop into those Thunder who had three future MVP’s in their squad, but they are similar in that they both exceeded expectations with a very young core.

With all the said about the Grizzlies and their bright future, the Pelicans, who are right behind Memphis in the standings, are coming, and their future is even brighter.

Zion Williamson has taken the NBA by storm since making his NBA debut in late January. He is averaging 24.1 ppg and 6.8 rpg, while shooting 59.3 per cent from the field, in only 28.6 minutes per game. Oh, and he is only nineteen years old.

Zion has shown to the world that the hype is real and greater than most people thought.

Zion is truly something that the NBA has never seen before. A six-foot six-inch, 284 pound, forward-center hybrid, he is not only the strongest player on the court, but also the most athletic.

He is the third heaviest player in the league, behind only Boban Marjanovic and Tacko Fall. However, a caveat to consider is that Boban and Tacko are almost a full foot taller than Zion.

Because of this a lot of people on Twitter and even in sports media tease or discuss Zion’s weight in a negative fashion. Except, Zion is nothing but fat, he is just jacked, and that weight, along with his athleticism and quickness, helps him move taller defenders out of his way with ease.

The Pelicans are 8-7 since Zion has made his debut, but more importantly, the Pelicans look rejuvenated.

The Pelicans were good moving the ball before Zion’s debut, but since then, their ball movement has been brought up to a new level. Before Zion, a good amount of the time, the Pelicans would rely heavily on Brandon Ingram and Jrue Holiday to make plays.

Ingram, in particular, has seized the opportunity to be the main source of offense during Zion’s absence. In Los Angeles, Ingram was always going to be overshadowed by bigger stars, mainly LeBron.

With New Orleans, Ingram earned his first appearance in the NBA All-Star Game, scoring 24.6 points per game and collecting 6.2 rebounds per game.

Meanwhile, Holiday has averaging 20 points, 7 assists and 5 rebounds a game, Holiday has solidified himself as a franchise cornerstone.

Now, with Zion, the Pelicans run a lot of more high pick-and-rolls, and do not rely as heavily on Holiday and Ingram’s playmaking because Zion is such a great passer.

Not only has the Pelicans’ ball movement that has improved, but their defense has gotten better as well.

The Pelicans’ opponents points per game is lower when Zion takes the court than without the 1st overall pick.

What Zion lacks in height, he makes up for in athleticism and because of this, Zion is a great rim-protector.

Of course, he still has a lot of work to do on the defensive end, similar to every rookie, but Zion is no slouch.

With all the praise said about the Pelicans and Zion, they are still three games out of the playoffs with only a month and a half left in the season.

However, New Orleans has the second easiest schedule remaining in the NBA whereas the team ahead of them, the Grizzlies, have the third toughest remaining schedule.

Additionally, one of Memphis’ key players, Jaren Jackson Jr., recently sprained his knee which will most likely put him out for the remainder of the season.

That is a huge loss to Memphis because Jackson has been the Grizzlies second-best player, averaging 16.9 ppg.

Only time will tell if the Pelicans can leapfrog the Grizzlies in the standings, but as a basketball fan, that would be the most desirable outcome in terms of storylines.

Zion and the Pelicans facing off against LeBron, Anthony Davis and the Lakers. The Lakers and the Pelicans’ present and futures are inextricably linked, with the two teams involved in a landscape-shifting trade last summer.

AD will face off against his old team. The old face of the Pelicans in AD against the new franchise cornerstone in Zion.

The former Lakers players currently on the Pelicans, Lonzo Ball, Ingram and Josh Hart trying to prove to LeBron and the Lakers’ brass that they made a mistake in trading them.

Even if the Lakers sweep the Pelicans in this hypothetical, that would be quite the round one to watch.

There is one thing that is certain, and that is Zion is the real deal. He is a problem for the rest of the league and will be for many years to come.