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Thursday, April 13, 2023

Zion Williamson's Refusal to Play Despite Being Healthy Embodies What is Wrong With Today's NBA

The New Orleans Pelicans' 2022-23 season ended at home last night with a 123-118 Play-In Tournament loss to the Oklahoma City Thunder. The Pelicans would probably have won if they had received any contribution from Zion Williamson, who was paid over $13.5 million to play in 29 games this season. In his four year NBA career, Williamson has received over $44 million from the Pelicans despite playing in just 114 games. He has been blessed with generational wealth by the NBA in exchange for less than a season and a half of work--and that does not even include the millions of dollars that he has been paid for commercial endorsements. There is no doubt that Williamson is a talented player--his career averages are 25.8 ppg, 7.0 rpg, and 3.6 apg--but in most professions a person does not get paid for missing the equivalent of two and a half years of work, nor does a person have the good fortune of being financially set for life after working for 18 months. 

Williamson's public comments a day before the Play-In Tournament must exasperate and infuriate Pelicans' management, players, and fans. "Physically, I’m fine," Williamson declared. "Now it’s just a matter of when I feel like Zion. I can pretty much do everything, but it's just a matter of the level that I was playing at before my hamstring. I don't want to go out there and be in my own head and affect the team when I can just be on the sideline supporting them more, because I know myself. If I was to go out there, I would be in my head. I would hesitate on certain moves and it could affect the game."

Williamson admits that he is healthy, a fact that we can all see with our own eyes as he unleashes a flurry of dunks while warming up before his teammates go to work. Williamson is healthy, but he does not "feel like Zion," so he collects a check for not playing. Willis Reed played in game seven of the 1970 NBA Finals despite a painful hip injury, but Williamson refused to even attempt to help his team with the season on the line.

It would be great if the Pelicans management informed Zion, "Financially, the franchise is fine. But until we feel like paying you, we are not going to pay you."

Yes, I know that the team cannot do that, because the players collectively bargained for themselves the right to receive guaranteed contracts so that they will be paid even if they choose not to play.

Williamson's foul attitude is a direct result of the NBA endorsing the following noxious notions: showing up to work does not matter, winning does not matter, and employees deserve to be compensated despite not doing their jobs. As I noted in a recent article, the toxic combination of load management and tanking "cheats the fans who buy tickets to see their favorite players, compromises the integrity of playoff seeding, devalues individual and team statistics, and creates a host of issues regarding legalized wagering."

If I ran the Pelicans, I would trade Williamson to any team willing to take him. You cannot trust a person like Williamson, and you certainly cannot win anything of significance with him as the franchise player. There is no reason to believe that he loves the game or that he has a competitive spirit. Maybe he will mature, but he is already a grown man and the NBA as currently structured provides little incentive for players to develop any competitive spirit that is not an intrinsic part of their character already.

If I were one of Williamson's teammates, I would be furious at him. C.J. McCollum has played for months with a thumb injury that may require offseason surgery, and he played the last several games with a shoulder injury that may require offseason surgery--but he played in 75 games for the Pelicans this season, and he played in the Play-In Tournament game last night.

Hype and compensation should never precede accomplishment--but NBA owners and players are not fools; they are brilliant, because they are getting rich off of the money provided by consumers who watch the games, attend the games, and purchase the endorsed products. As long as we continue to spend the money, the owners and players will be happy to take it.

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posted by David Friedman @ 9:42 PM



At Friday, April 14, 2023 1:45:00 AM, Anonymous Kevin said...

Watching Zion in the nba has been very frustrating. He has the physical tools to be pantheon caliber but I doubt he’ll ever develop the skill set or mindset to get close to that level

With the guaranteed millions he’s already made in his early 20s I guess I can’t really blame him

Also, his athletic peak will always be in Duke. I have not seen the same kind of explosion in the NBA and from the dunks he was demonstrating last night (that I’m sure the Pelicans would have appreciated in a must win game) he did not look as explosive as he did earlier in his pro career

I remember early in his career he mentioned how growing up his mom had him watch Michael, Magic, and Larry and I thought he would be a throwback player with an old school mindset

So far he’s shown to be the opposite

At Friday, April 14, 2023 6:03:00 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

How do you know he isn't suffering from a mental health issue? The culture and systems in the NBA are simply emblematic of our society at large. We value entertainers, wealth, and other things which are not important vs the things that do not matter. Additionally, players know that they are disposable. Once they aren't useful or relevant the teams and fans will toss them aside and forget about them. So, they have to look out for their self interest. Ultimately, who cares if Zion fordnt play...they Pel will still function and play the games regardless. Maybe there are other things going on behind the scenes that you aren't aware off, you shouldn't be so presumptuous.

At Friday, April 14, 2023 10:07:00 AM, Blogger David Friedman said...


Williamson would not only need to play regularly but also show a lot more interest in defense and rebounding to even get close to Pantheon level--and there is no evidence that he has the requisite mentality to play regularly, let alone complete his skill set.

At Friday, April 14, 2023 10:21:00 AM, Blogger David Friedman said...


No one can know anything for sure. Does that mean that I should not write commentary about observed behavior and confirmed quotes from the man himself?

If you are OK with Williamson "looking out for himself," then you should also be OK with the team looking out for itself if that means suspending Williamson for refusing to play while healthy or trading him or cutting him (though we know that would never happen).

The Pelicans have invested a significant amount of money in him, so they cannot just "function and play the games regardless."

I am not being "presumptuous." I quoted Williamson, observed his behavior, and analyzed those publicly known facts.

By the way, it diminishes the importance of real mental health issues to offer mental health as an excuse for an NBA star refusing to play when there is zero evidence that the NBA star is suffering from a mental health issue, so I would argue that you are being presumptuous.

At Friday, April 14, 2023 12:00:00 PM, Anonymous TR said...

I thought last year the Pellies should have traded Zion while his value was high. His size is an issue, nevermind the character concerns that you've laid out brilliantly. Agree as well on point about this behavior being emblematic of many of the league's top stars.

At Friday, April 14, 2023 12:19:00 PM, Blogger beep said...

this is simply the effect of sickness of NBA as a whole, but as long as enough people spends money on this product it will only become worse, I think... I can only grab popcorn and watch where the border is.... it seems way far still

At Friday, April 14, 2023 1:26:00 PM, Blogger David Friedman said...


Williamson's value is presumably declining, but if the Pelicans can get him on the court for a few games next season and he looks good then they probably could find a buyer--and I would advise them to sell before he decides to sit out again because he does not feel like himself.

At Friday, April 14, 2023 1:27:00 PM, Blogger David Friedman said...


The decline of the NBA in the past decade or so is sad, and appears to be accelerating. Load management, tanking, and players not being competitive have all become markedly worse in a short period of time.

At Friday, April 14, 2023 2:17:00 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

well at least the smaller, healthy players have high character, like Kyrie and Ja Morant ... oh, wait ...

well at least there are consequences for these non-competitive acts, like the $750k fine for the Mavs ... j/k. From the Mavs' perspective, it might as well have been $750.

I used to be a devoted fan. Now I mark it as a badge of honor to watch as little of the playoffs as possible (though I still follow and read about them, watch highlights ... for now).


At Friday, April 14, 2023 2:23:00 PM, Blogger David Friedman said...


There are players who play hard and do things the right way, including Giannis and Westbrook. I enjoy watching Kawhi even though I abhor his load managing. Jokic is a throwback player.

I am glad that the NBA fined the Mavs, and that the fine is larger than their previous fine for tanking, but I wish that the NBA had taken away the draft pick that the Mavs sought to protect by tanking.

I still watch the playoffs, but I don't enjoy watching the NBA as much as I used to enjoy it.

At Friday, April 14, 2023 3:41:00 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Say what you will about LeBron, but he is the all-time leader in postseason minutes and games played and, to my knowledge, has never missed a postseason game. He's got a bunch of records, but 266 (and counting) consecutive playoff games played without one missed seems like the most unbreakable of the bunch.

It would be interesting to see how other young stars would have reacted to the scrutiny LeBron received and continues to receive -- I guarantee Zion wouldn't have admitted to taking a day off because he didn't "feel like himself" if he was under the LeBron microscope, and he was one of the most hyped prospects since LeBron himself.

Last thought here is that this reminds me of Tony La Russa -- when he coached the great Ricky Henderson, who was himself a career iron man in terms of total games played and continued to play independent league ball after the majors, he would sometimes come up to La Russa before the game and say "Ricky can't play today. Ricky's head's not right." If Tony did indeed play him anyways, it was a guarantee he would be flat-out awful both at bat and in the field. And Rickey Henderson, over the course of his life, sure did love playing baseball! I think the point here is that there is an argument for considering if a player is mentally ready to go as well as physically, but in my mind it should be an earned privilege -- as I write this, Zion Williamson is no Rickey Henderson.

At Friday, April 14, 2023 4:29:00 PM, Blogger David Friedman said...


I did not say anything about LeBron in this article. In other articles, I have placed him in my Pantheon of greatest pro basketball players of all-time.

We are seeing how modern stars react to a fraction of the scrutiny that LeBron received, and it is obvious that LeBron deserves a lot of credit for how well he has navigated his career overall. That does not make LeBron immune from receiving justified criticism.

In the unlikely event that Zion even remotely approaches the level that Rickey Henderson reached, we can discuss if Zion has earned the right to ask for a day off. I don't recall Henderson asking for a day off when his team faced elimination from postseason play, either.

There are athletes who get bad raps from idiotic media members like "Screamin' A" and Skip "Clueless," and I defend those athletes while criticizing the idiotic media members, but Zion deserves to be criticized for refusing to play when healthy (which also raises questions about how long his rehab process has taken in general).

At Friday, April 14, 2023 5:02:00 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Well I inadvertently contributed to the phenomenon I was discussing -- even when LeBron has nothing to do with something, he's never that far from our minds. On one level, mea culpa.

For whatever reason, certain players seem to "capture the imagination," both for good and for bad, the way others don't -- I feel like we've gotten used to a wing player being there for scrutiny every day, whether it was LeBron or Kobe or Jordan. Imagine if any of them had missed the play-in after their team added Kyrie at the deadline!

I think to salvage my point I would say the current stars are taking the wrong lessons from modern stars -- LeBron was one of the first players to take a day or two to manage his body (that's the short version.) It's clearly paid dividends for him, especially in terms of his playoff performance. When you compare him to someone like Karl Malone, a legendary regular-season iron man who saw his playoff performances often not be up to snuff, it seems like there may be something to this "load management" thing, but clearly Zion is taking it to a point of absurdity when he sits out a do-or-die game.

Same with Ricky Henderson -- some athletes need the occasional mental health day and can still be franchise-level players, but that shouldn't be taken to the extreme either.

Heck, even Magnus Carlsen gave up the world championship because the mental toll was becoming too steep. These are, in my opinion, good things, but again the wrong lessons are being taken. In the Lloyd Bentson voice, Zion Williamson is no Magnus Carlsen.

I am essentially rambling, but there is a happy medium between drawing absolutes for how players should act and coming down on them every time they don't meet previous ideals that may be counter-productive in the big picture and letting a young player with superstar potential off the hook for saying "nah, not today" in his team's biggest game of the year. I think we're agreeing with each other?

At Friday, April 14, 2023 8:26:00 PM, Blogger David Friedman said...


I am not sure if we agree, because--as you noted--your comment rambled a bit.

You are correct that some players capture the imagination to such an extent that their names are inserted into discussions that don't have much to do with them.

I am not sure if LeBron taking personal days explains his longevity. There is a difference between correlation and causation. If anything, it is likely that the reported $1 million/year that LeBron spends on body maintenance has more to do with his longevity than his occasional rest days.

Similarly, I do not see a cause and effect relationship between Karl Malone's regular season durability and postseason choking. There is no evidence that he was worn down during the playoffs. He just was not a great clutch player. Malone's teammate John Stockton was similarly durable, and he was excellent in clutch situations. Most of my Pantheon players were both durable and performed well in clutch situations.

The Magnus Carlsen situation is completely different than Zion Williamson's situation for several reasons. One, Carlsen is playing an individual sport, so his decisions only affect himself (and his family/friends), not any teammates. Two, Carlsen did not quit in the middle of the World Championship, but he declined to defend his title; in essence, he retired from World Championship play (though he still plays in other top level events, and he could "unretire" at some point, as other great athletes have done). Three, Carlsen did not say that he is perfectly healthy but will nevertheless not play; he stated that he prefers that a different championship format be used (for reasons that are beyond the scope of this discussion), and he only retired after his conditions were not met.

Williamson quit on his team because he did not feel like playing--his words, not mine. If he has a mental health issue, he did not mention it and neither did anyone else. If anything, he sounded more concerned about his personal statistics, suggesting that if he played he may not quite match his previous playing level. That is selfish. His team needed from him whatever he could provide. Willis Reed gave his team four points in game seven of the 1970 NBA Finals, but the inspiration that he provided spearheaded a great win. Williamson is the anti-Willis Reed, but he is just the most recent and extreme example of a disturbing trend of star players not displaying competitive hunger.

If Williamson is only going to play when he feels like playing, then he should give back the money and go play on playgrounds for free when he feels like playing. There are many of us who played hurt in rec league games and pickup games because we love the game and we love to compete.


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