Did the NBA Rig the New Schedule to Get Zion Williamson and the Pelicans in the Playoffs?

Zion Williamson was coming into his own as an NBA rookie when the season went on hiatus. While COVID-19 affected every NBA team, the Pelicans were robbed of an upswing as the season went into limbo. Luckily for them, the league’s plan for Orlando benefits them greatly. However, many wonder if the NBA’s strategy helps the Pelicans a little bit too much.

Zion Williamson’s hype machine 

The most touted rookie since LeBron James sat out the first half of the season after a series of knee injuries caused some concern. Just 19 years old, Williamson’s knees were already a concern. After all, he missed time as a high schooler, college player, the team’s Summer League, and in his rookie season. Once Williamson stepped on the court, the hype proved greater than the concern. 

Williamson began making headlines since he was in middle school. Many saw him as the greatest phenom since James got similar coverage as a teenager. Now, with social media and every move scrutinized, Williamson had all the pressure in the world to succeed on him. The injuries made some question whether he would be the next big superstar or another case of what could have been. 

In late-January, however, Williamson made his debut against the San Antonio Spurs. In limited minutes, the 19-year-old put on a show. He shot the ball, dunked it, and showed the type of domination that made him such a superstar before he ever played an NBA game. Williamson went into the break averaging 24 points a game and seven rebounds. Furthermore, the Pelicans started to win right as the season ended. 

The Pelicans struggled to get wins without him. But with the No. 1 pick in the lineup, things were coming together in their first year without Anthony Davis. Still, those early struggles made the playoffs a long shot. Now, those hopes are a little more optimistic thanks to the league’s new plan. 

The NBA’s Orlando bubble 

The league’s plan to let teams finish their seasons with an eight-game set will set the final standings. The difference between previous years and the Orlando bubble is that the eighth seed isn’t necessarily a shoo-in for the playoff race. If the ninth seed in either conference is within four games of the eighth seed, a play-in game will be implemented

This is similar to the play-in game that happens at the NCAA tournament. While it may be a way to spur on excitement and add a new dynamic to a strange NBA season, some saw it as the league trying to favor one player and one player only — Zion Williamson. 

Was the league trying to rig the playoffs for Zion Williamson?

The Pelicans' Zion Williamson
Zion Williamson of the New Orleans Pelicans shoots | Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images

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Before anything was set, Brian Windhorst said NBA executives were worried that the association was trying to build its return around Zion Williamson. While other teams like the Portland Trailblazers and Sacramento Kings have equal shots, the play-in tournament was seen by many as an excuse to get the phenom more of a chance. 

“One of the things that I’ve been hearing as I’ve talked to people in the league is going to set up this playoff plan to make sure Zion Williamson is involved,” Windhorst said per RookieWire. “Paranoia is at the top of the list with anything in the NBA. In this case, there’s a number of different reasons why the league would want to have 20 or 24 teams. A number of different reasons to get extra games. But most of those scenarios include having Zion Williamson in the postseason.”

Whether not that played a factor, the league eventually settled on 22 teams in the bubble with a play-in game for the postseason. Williamson and the Pelicans made it to the bubble, but they had their hands full against teams such as Sacramento, San Antonio, Utah, and the LA Clippers. New Orleans lost four of its final five games in the bubble and missed the playoffs. Williamson could very well be the superstar that he was christened, but the Orlando bubble wasn’t quite his coming-out party, even if the NBA wanted it to be.