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Zion Williamson Is a Legit MVP Candidate, and the Pelicans Are Legit Contenders

Andy Bailey@@AndrewDBaileyFeatured Columnist IVDecember 12, 2022

NEW ORLEANS, LOUISIANA - DECEMBER 09: Zion Williamson #1 of the New Orleans Pelicans dunks the ball during the fourth quarter of an NBA game against the Phoenix Suns at Smoothie King Center on December 09, 2022 in New Orleans, Louisiana. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading and or using this photograph, User is consenting to the terms and conditions of the Getty Images License Agreement. (Photo by Sean Gardner/Getty Images)
Sean Gardner/Getty Images

Zion Williamson and the New Orleans Pelicans did more than break an unwritten (and probably unnecessary) rule over the weekend. They signaled their arrival to the bona fide contenders tier with back-to-back wins over the Phoenix Suns that solidified their position atop the Western Conference.

As time wound down in the first contest against Phoenix with the game already in hand, Zion punctuated the win with a 360 windmill fit for the dunk contest.

New Orleans Pelicans @PelicansNBA

LADIES AND GENTLEMEN... ZION WILLIAMSON. <a href="https://t.co/MhjV7Zpl0R">pic.twitter.com/MhjV7Zpl0R</a>

Chris Paul and the Suns, of course, took exception. The teams had an informal, we'll call it "meeting," in the immediate aftermath. Backup Suns guard Cameron Payne called the finish unsportsmanlike after the game.

Zion's explanation, on the other hand, may open a window to what's driving him and his team to its current level.

Ballislife.com @Ballislife

ZION on his 360 windmill at the end of the game<br><br>"That was a little out of character for me but you got to understand, they sent my teammates home last year. I missed all last year...If they was to do the same thing, I wouldn't have a problem with it."<a href="https://t.co/3o6eaZanRO">pic.twitter.com/3o6eaZanRO</a>

Zion is hungry. And few players are feasting quite like he is this season.

The two points he collected from the now-infamous dunk brought him to 35 that night. Sunday, he went for the same total, albeit with Devin Booker unavailable for the Suns this time.

In the seven games since Brandon Ingram left the rotation with a sprained big toe, Williamson is averaging 30.0 points, 9.1 rebounds, 5.3 assists, 1.6 steals and 1.1 blocks. Most importantly, the Pelicans have won all of those games.

During the most recent victory, New Orleans fans broke out the MVP chants, and there's some legitimacy to them.

"Zion is quickly moving up the MVP ladder," Suns color commentator Eddie Johnson tweeted after the game. "He is a serious problem and if his jumper keeps improving he might eventually lead league in scoring this year. Impressive."

Zion probably started a little too slowly to catch the likes of Luka Dončić (32.9 points per game), Giannis Antetokounmpo (31.9), Shai Gilgeous-Alexander (30.8) or the handful of others at or around 30 points per game this season, but that shouldn't take him out of the MVP discussion.

Prior to Sunday's win, he cracked the top 10 of Basketball Reference's MVP Tracker. And given Nikola Jokić securing the award from third place in 2021 and sixth place in 2022, there will be a lot of media pushing the "best player on the best team" criteria this season.

Jayson Tatum has been great for the Boston Celtics, but the heavy MVP chatter he's gotten is largely driven by that philosophy. Statistically, he's not on the same level as Luka, Jokić, Giannis or maybe even Anthony Davis. But his team is dominating, and he's clearly the best player.

Now, the talent, versatility and length of Zion's Pelicans are giving Tatum some company in this discussion.

New Orleans has loads of firepower in its starting five. His shooting numbers are down this season, but CJ McCollum had averaged at least 20 points in each of his seven seasons prior to this one. Ingram is now working on his own four-year streak with a 20-plus scoring average. Even Jonas Valančiūnas has quietly averaged 15.4 points in just 25.9 minutes (21.5 per 75 possessions) since the start of the 2017-18 season.

And of course, Zion is one of the most prolific volume scorers we've ever seen. No, really. Joel Embiid (30.4), Michael Jordan (30.3) and Luka (29.1) are the only players in league history with a higher average than Zion's 28.6 points per 75 possessions (and none of their true shooting percentages are close to Williamson's).

But scoring is just the tip of the iceberg here. The depth (and, bear with me here, length of that depth) appears to be legit.

  • Herbert Jones: career averages of 2.0 steals and 1.0 blocks per 75 possessions with a 7'0" wingspan
  • Trey Murphy III: averaging 12.9 points with a 40.1 three-point percentage and a 7'1" wingspan
  • Larry Nance Jr.: career averages of 12.5 points, 9.9 rebounds, 2.9 assists, 1.8 steals and 0.8 blocks per 75 possessions with a 7'2" wingspan
  • Naji Marshall: shooting a career-high 35.5 percent from three with a 7'1" wingspan

Those four, Ingram and Williamson give head coach Willie Green loads of optionality with his lineups. For example, Valančiūnas starts at the 5, but the Zion/Nance frontcourt is dominant and often closes games. With Ingram and Jones out, Marshall played in crunch time against the Suns.

And somehow, this far into the piece, we haven't even mentioned Jose "Grand Theft" Alvarado, the diminutive pest/guard who's already cultivated a rivalry with CP3, has his own signature play and singlehandedly swung a game against the Denver Nuggets with 38 points.

His competitiveness and savvy alone make New Orleans' bench interesting. When surrounded by some of the aforementioned forwards and wings, he pilots one of the best benches in basketball.

New Orleans can play big, small or positionless. And, when healthy, any variation can feature two or three high-end scorers.

None are more dangerous, though, than Zion.

Throughout the history of the league, having a top-10(ish) player has basically been a prerequisite to competing for a title.

During his breakout 2020-21 season, Zion looked like he could be that level of player. During 2021-22, he had to watch his teammates from the beginning of the campaign to the painful end. That experience clearly impacted him, and he now looks every bit like the kind of player who can not only check the "best player on the best regular season team" box for MVP discussions—he can also be the best player on a real title contender.