Did the NBA Go out of Its Way to Include Zion Williamson in the League’s Restart?

Jesse Pantuosco
June 04, 2020 - 10:46 am

The NBA’s proposed restart will include 22 teams—13 from the Western Conference and nine from the East. That disparity has not gone unnoticed with many seeing it as a blatant ratings grab. ESPN’s Brian Windhorst all but confirmed that the league did everything in its power to ensure Zion Williamson’s New Orleans Pelicans, tied with the Sacramento Kings for 10th in the Western Conference and 3.5 games behind the eighth-seeded Memphis Grizzlies, would be playing in Orlando.

While the Pelicans are certainly more deserving than the Eastern Conference’s ninth-seeded Washington Wizards, who were 16 games below .500 (24-40) when play paused amid the coronavirus pandemic, their inclusion in the league’s Orlando slate has predictably generated skepticism. Appearing on WFAN, longtime host Mike Francesa touched on the NBA’s expected 22-team restart Wednesday night, opining that the league got exactly what it wanted.

“They have done what they wanted to do. They have quieted Lillard and they have made sure that Zion is around,” said Francesa, alluding to Damian Lillard’s threat of sitting out if the Trail Blazers weren’t given a “true opportunity” to make the postseason. “I really think that’s to placate ESPN, which has had a stake in Zion since day one. I think ESPN has decided Zion is part of their company and they are going to promote him in every possible way for his whole career. And they want him in the playoffs this year.”

Francesa may have a point. Williamson’s jersey is already among the league’s top-sellers while the rookie’s Pelicans debut in January was broadcast to a national audience on ESPN. A superstar seemingly since the moment he arrived on Duke’s campus, the one-and-done Zion was the league’s most hyped No. 1 pick in recent memory. The 19-year-old has somehow lived up to his lofty expectations, impressing by averaging 23.6 points per game on elite 58.9 percent shooting in 19 appearances since returning from a torn meniscus.

With ESPN ponying up a whopping $1.4 billion a year for television rights including the NBA Finals aired annually on ABC, it makes sense that the cable giant would want its golden goose, Zion, front and center for the league’s restart. The NBA’s resumed season, of course, will take place at ESPN’s Wide World of Sports facility at Disney World’s Orlando resort.

During a spot on 92.9 The Game in Atlanta, Kurt Helin of NBC Sports echoed Francesa’s sentiment, positing that Zion’s presence was needed for the NBA’s restart. “Wherever that cutoff line was going to be, Zion was going to be on the right side of it,” said Helin during Wednesday’s appearance on the John Chuckery Show. “There’s no fans in the building, they need people to watch even if it’s just eight regular season games and the Pelicans don’t make the cut. That’s eight regular season games, and some of them will be on ESPN or TNT, Zion is going to get a lot of people watching.”

The league’s desire to have Williamson back on the court, even if it’s only for eight games, is fairly transparent, not that any of us are complaining. An athletic freak with a penchant for emphatic blocks and rim-rattling dunks, Williamson, at least through the early portion of his fledgling career, has been well worth the price of admission.

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