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Zion Williamson’s Injury Setback Is Everyone’s Loss

Zion Williamson sits on the bench in street clothes.
Garrett Ellwood/NBAE via Getty Images

Zion Williamson has not played in an NBA basketball game since Jan. 2. It sucks! The Pelicans were third in the Western Conference standings when Williamson was injured, with a top-10 offense and a top-10 defense, and the NBA's fourth-best net rating. Since the injury, the Pelicans have lost 14 of 20 games and fallen to seventh in the West; their defense has dropped to the bottom half of the league; their offense has dropped into the bottom 10; by net rating they are the sixth-worst team in basketball. From Jan. 16 to Feb. 2 they lost 10 straight games. It's pretty simple: With a healthy Zion Williamson in the rotation, the Pelicans are one of the best teams in the NBA; without him, they are crud. Maybe not quite as bad as they've looked over the past month or so, but definitely solidly in the crud zone.

Here is some bad, bad news: Pelicans general manager David Griffin announced Sunday that Williamson will not return to action until "multiple weeks" after the All-Star break. It was a hamstring injury that Williamson suffered back on Jan. 2, and Griffin says Williamson aggravated the injury doing 3-on-3 work as part of his course of rehabilitation, and is now out indefinitely. Griffin says the team will continue to "image" Williamson after the break, but didn't dare offer up anything close to a definite timeline.

Hamstring injuries are the worst. For one thing, they are infuriatingly difficult to prevent: Despite a whole range of practices and training programs designed specifically to protect and fortify the hamstrings of athletes, hamstring injuries remain the most common non-contact injury type across professional sports. According to this 2021 study I found on the website of the NIH's National Library of Medicine, increased probability of hamstring strain injuries is related to "exposure to transiently elevated load volumes, relative to those an athlete is regularly performing." I do not pretend to be a medical expert, but looking at the cartoonishly muscled physique of Zion Williamson, and observing how he often hurls himself into the air as if unencumbered by gravity, I feel qualified to announce that very much of what Williamson does on a basketball court can be categorized under "transiently elevated load volume," relative to pretty much anything experienced by any other human body, possibly in the history of the species. How could his poor hamstrings possibly stand up to such conditions?

Most discouraging of all is what this study has to say about the abysmal recurrence rate of hamstring strain injuries: Did you know that up to 60 percent of hamstring injuries suffer some sort of recurrence? Sixty percent! You can choose to be optimistic about this if you like—Williamson's recurrence places him solidly in the majority of professional athletes recovering from hamstring injuries, which might mean that in the bigger picture this is nothing to freak out about—but for the Pelicans it is a disaster. The All-Star break is not the midway point of an NBA regular season. New Orleans has just 25 games left on their regular-season schedule. By the time Zion returns to action—let's say "multiple weeks" means two weeks, and pray like hell—the Pelicans will have something like 15 games left to fight their way toward the playoff seeding that was rightfully theirs.

For now, it's still possible to hope that Williamson has just had some lousy luck to open his NBA career. For that matter, it's possible to hope the Pelicans will keep their heads above water long enough for Williamson's return to matter: By combined winning percentage the Pelicans have the softest remaining schedule of any team in the NBA. Maybe the Pelicans' various guys have a heroic push left in them, with Trey Murphy III and Herb Jones and Naji Marshall doing far more than anyone intended, for a team and in a sport that cannot count on a decent Zion impersonator coming along before the heat death of the universe.

Wised-up NBA knowers are fond of reminding everyone that every NBA season is shaped, at least in part, by injuries. And it is slightly annoying that Western Conference supremacy might eventually be settled this season without Williamson and the Pelicans having their rightful say. But the real tragedy of a prolonged Williamson absence is less about legitimacy than it is about, well, dunks. Williamson is one of the coolest basketball players on the planet, possibly ever, and to date he has participated in just 114 of a possible 283 regular-season games over most of four years as a professional. He's been around just enough to make it absolutely clear that he is every bit as excellent as anyone ever dared to dream, but not nearly enough for that excellence to etch anything of much note in the era rushing forward around it.

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