Before the NBA season was abruptly paused back in March, the New Orleans Pelicans were pushing hard to make the playoffs. Back then, star rookie Zion Williamson had just returned from an injury that had kept him sidelined for most of the season.
Next week, the NBA restarts its season. Twenty-two teams, including the New Orleans Pelicans, have arrived at Walt Disney World in Orlando, Florida, where they’ve quarantined and started practicing.
To get caught up on the team, and the latest news on Zion Williamson, reporter Travis Lux spoke with Pelicans beat writer Christian Clark from The Times-Picayune | The New Orleans Advocate.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
Travis Lux: So the NBA is restarting the season in Florida. And players and coaches have already been living there at Disney World in Orlando in this very controlled environment that people have been calling "the bubble." How have players reacted to their new lives in this very controlled environment of the bubble?
Christian Clark: Well, first of all, I think bubble is an interesting term and not the most accurate term to describe what's going on. A bubble implies that it's enclosed. And this is not completely enclosed. The Disney support staff who are in charge of the cooking cleaning are allowed to go in and out. So, I guess it's a semi-permeable bubble?
But the pelicans have been there for about two weeks now and it's kind of been like an adult summer camp. I mean, there is a pandemic, like, raging outside of the confines of the Walt Disney World grounds. But these guys are bass fishing. You know, they're lounging by the pool, they’re reading when they're not playing. So for right now, it feels like adult summer camp with basketball practice mixed in.
The biggest story, of course, for the Pelicans, has probably got to be Zion Williamson — who traveled with the team to Florida a couple of weeks ago, but then abruptly left last week due to an undisclosed family matter. Do we know what's going on and if or when he'll rejoin the team?
No and no. It's really weird. I mean, this came out of nowhere. On Thursday morning, the team sent out a press release that just said Zion has left the bubble, he's got to attend to an urgent family medical matter, and he’ll rejoin the team at a later date. No new details have emerged at the national level, at the local level.
I've even tried to figure out — because you can't just come back into the bubble and start playing right away. There's a process you have to go through. I've tried to figure out that process. I mean, depending on if Zion has agreed to do daily testing, while he’s outside of the bubble, he’s going to have to quarantine for four days. But if he doesn't agree to be tested outside the bubble, he's going to have to quarantine for 10 to 14 days. And no one's even saying whether he's agreed to do testing outside of the bubble. (Ed. note: Since this interview was recorded, Williamson has agreed to testing outside of the bubble.) So, there's really no information. I mean, we’re kind of in the dark about this guy who basically got his team on national TV in six of the eight games [prior to the start of the playoffs].
I want to talk a little bit about the team more broadly and the playoffs and how things are looking on the court. Right now, teams are going and playing about eight games before the playoffs start. The point of that is to sort of finish up the regular season and figure out the seeding for the playoffs. The Pelicans are in this battle with a few teams for the final spot in the Western Conference. So, what do you think the chances are that they will get that last pot and make it into the playoffs?
You know, if they have Zion for those eight games, I would say decent. I mean, maybe 40 percent, 50 percent if you're optimistic. [If] they don't have Zion — not great.
They basically have to do three things to make the playoffs. They, number one, have to win the ninth seed outright. Number two, they have to stay within four games of the team in eighth. They're currently three and a half games behind the team in eighth. That essentially means, you know, if the Grizzlies go and 6-2 [during those eight games], the Pelicans have to go 6-2. That would then qualify them for the Western Conference play-in tournament. And the way the play-in tournament works is the team in ninth needs to beat the team in eighth twice in a row to advance [to the playoffs]. But the team in eighth only has to beat the team in ninth once to advance.
So basically, the Pelicans, even if they do this hard stuff, they still beat the team in front of them twice in a row to earn a first-round series.
Are there any other storylines that you're paying attention to between now and then? What are you going to be looking for in that first game?
The way that the players elect to protest racial injustice I think is a huge storyline. We already know that the words Black Lives Matter will be painted onto the court. So, every person who watches these games, I mean, that message is going to be right there in front of them.
I think this is a huge issue for the players. I mean, the NBA is obviously a majority Black league. A number of players have just not even answered basketball questions during the press conference. They just said, you know, I only want to talk about the cops who killed Breonna Taylor. Stuff like that. So, I think that's a huge storyline for this thing.
Christian Clark is also the co-host of the weekly Pelicans podcast called Bird Watch. You can listen to it wherever you get your podcasts.
Correction: An earlier version of this story misspelled Breonna Taylor's name.