The New Orleans Pelicans beat LeBron James and the Los Angeles Lakers over the weekend even with Anthony Davis riding the bench, ostensibly to get some rest after the All-Star break.
When they met again Wednesday night at Staples Center, Davis was watching courtside for most of the second half after being pulled for Cheick Diallo. Still, the Lakers struggled to put away the Pelicans even with their star on the bench.
That says something about the Lakers, who suddenly find themselves in a race for irrelevancy in the West. Bookies in Las Vegas now believe they won’t even make the playoffs, and even James seems to be having second thoughts about the guys playing on the court with him.
Barring some miracle, the Pelicans won’t make the playoffs either. And there surely won’t be a miracle with Davis benched for some games and an afterthought in others.
The Pelicans, of course, are giving Davis limited minutes because he wants to play elsewhere. No sense risking his trade value when there are plenty of teams that will come courting for the star after the end of the season.
“Obviously, he’d like to be playing,” New Orleans coach Alvin Gentry said. “But I think we’ve got to look and see what we feel like is best for us at this particular time and move forward.”
The situation is a little different at Duke, where star freshman Zion Williamson is out because of a bizarre equipment malfunction that sent shock waves through Nike headquarters. The Blue Devils were the No. 1 team in the nation before Williamson sprained a knee in a shoe blowout, but have now lost two of their last three games with him out of the lineup.
The injury has led to speculation that Williamson might not play the rest of the season, even if he’s judged healthy. Some believe there’s too much money at stake in the NBA, where Williamson is widely expected to be the No. 1 pick in the next draft, to risk injury even though Duke would be favored to win a national title with Williamson on the court.
Sit or play. Two different situations, with two possibly very different outcomes.
Does New Orleans owe it to its fans to play Davis even if it might jeopardize a future trade? Does Williamson owe it to himself and his family to protect his financial future by sitting the rest of the season even if it costs Duke a possible national title?
Surprisingly enough, the answer to both questions just might be yes.
There’s really no good reason for New Orleans to sit Davis some games and not play him in the fourth quarter in others. And there’s a lot of reasons — most of them financial — for Williamson to protect himself for what will surely be the biggest score of his life.
Sure, the Pelicans might be taking a bit of a risk by playing Davis when they are realistically out of contention for a playoff spot in the West. There’s always the chance — however slight — that he could injure himself so badly that the Pelicans don’t get the biggest pot of gold available when he is officially offered up for trade at the end of the season.
But there are still fans paying good money expecting that New Orleans puts the best starting five it can on the court every night. There are sponsors and broadcast partners who have every reason to expect Davis would be out earning the $25 million he is being paid this season instead of riding the bench.
No, this is not a situation the Pelicans created. Blame that on Davis for declaring last month through his agent that he wanted to be traded.
Still, in a star-driven league, it’s hard to rationalize not playing one of the biggest stars around for the last part of the season.
Williamson, on the other hand, owes Duke little. He was recruited to play just one season to begin with, so it’s not as if he’s going to miss out on finishing his degree by sitting out the rest of the season.
This is Williamson’s one shot to cash in, and jeopardizing that would be a mistake, even if it means Duke might not win its sixth national title under coach Mike Krzyzewski.
The billion-dollar NCAA Tournament might just have to take place without him.
Tim Dahlberg is a national sports columnist for The Associated Press. Write to him at [email protected] or http://twitter.com/timdahlberg