Power forward Zion Williamson is now in contention for the NBA MVP. That’s after the surging New Orleans Pelicans seized the top spot in the Western Conference thanks to a seven-game winning streak.
The Utah Jazz halted the Pelicans’ winning streak on Tuesday night. But the Pelicans still remain in first place in the Western Conference with an 18-9 record.
The Pelicans are +900 odds to win the Western Conference and secure a berth in the 2023 NBA Finals. The Pelicans and Memphis Grizzlies are tied for the best record in the West, yet the Pelicans are the sixth-highest team on DraftKings’ conference futures board.
After their recent winning streak, the Pelicans saw their 2022-23 NBA championship odds bump to +1800. During the preseason, the Pelicans had modest title odds at +2200.
Bettors were reticent to back the Pelicans in the preseason because they were wary about Williamson’s health. He missed all of last season with a fractured foot. Inspired by a healthy Williamson, the Pelicans emerged as the best team in the NBA that’s not named the Boston Celtics.
Never Mind the Grizzlies, Here Come the Pelicans
The Grizzlies and Pelicans both share an 18-9 record. But the Pelicans are in first place in the Southwest Division because of a tiebreaker.
The Grizzlies entered this season at +105 odds to win the Southwest in back-to-back seasons, while the Pelicans were third on DraftKings’ NBA futures board at +400 odds. Luka Dončić and the Dallas Mavericks were sandwiched in between the Pelicans and Grizzlies at +140 odds.
According to a recent update by DraftKings, the Grizzlies are still the favorite to win the division at +105 odds. The Pelicans saw their divisional odds improve to +115, while the Mavs slipped to +600.
The Mavs struggled in the first quarter of the season adjusting to the loss of point guard Jalen Brunson, who bolted to the New York Knicks in free agency. The Mavs have a 14-12 record and sit in third place in the division.
The San Antonio Spurs and Houston Rockets are tied for last place in the Southwest Division with 9-18 records. Neither team has emphasized winning games this season because their executives believe winning the draft lottery will turn around their stagnant franchises. Oddsmakers are aware both teams are more interested in securing the draft rights to French teenage sensation Victor Wembanyama, which is why their Southwest Division odds are an astronomical +80000.
Pelicans Have No Ceiling with a Healthy Zion
Williamson’s long-term health will determine the Pelicans’ success this season. If he avoids injuries, especially in the postseason, the Pelicans could compete for the Western Conference crown.
The Pelicans selected Williamson out of Duke with the #1 pick in the 2019 NBA Draft. Williamson was clearly the best player in the NCAA during his one-and-done season with Duke in 2018-19. He looked like a man-child during his high school days in South Carolina, where his gravity-defying dunks made him an overnight viral sensation in the social media era.
Williamson has been a star since he was a teenager, but injuries stunted his growth as a pro. He suffered a knee injury during the 2019 NBA Summer League, which delayed his professional debut by a couple of months. In just 24 games as a rookie, Williamson demonstrated flashes of excellence. As soon as he got rolling, the pandemic shut down the regular season in March 2020.
In his second season with the Pelicans in 2020-21, Williamson appeared in 61 games averaging a career-high 27 points and 7.2 rebounds per game. A fractured finger prematurely ended his season.
In the summer of 2021, Williamson fractured his foot during an offseason workout, which required surgery. He missed the entire 2021-22 season, much to the disappointment of fans. Multiple setbacks in his rehab delayed his return to the team.
Americans love a good comeback story, which is why Williamson’s return to the Pelicans this season has drawn significant attention among fans across the league.
Zion’s MVP Odds Boost
In 22 games this season, Williamson leads the Pelicans in scoring by averaging 25.0 points and 7.3 rebounds per game. He boasts a 61% field goal percentage. Poor free-throw shooting was his biggest liability as a pro. But he’s shooting a career-best 71.5% from the charity stripe this season. His 3-point shot still needs improvement at 31.3%.
Basketball nerds adore advanced stats. Williamson hasn’t disappointed the math geeks with a 26.95 PER rating, which is ranked #7 in the NBA.
In recent back-to-back victories against the Phoenix Suns, Williamson dominated both games. He dropped 35 points in both ends of the back-to-back in New Orleans, which included a 129-124 overtime victory on Sunday.
Zion is a matchup problem,” said Pelicans head coach Willie Green. “He just attacks. And when he attacks like he does, he’s just tough to cover. It’s incredible what he can do.”
Both wins were revenge motivated by the blossoming rivalry between the Pelicans and Suns. The top-ranked Suns knocked the Pelicans out of the first round of the playoffs last season. Williamson watched that disappointing elimination in street clothes on the Pelicans’ bench while still recovering from a fractured foot.
“The Suns, they’ve earned their resume,” said Williamson. “They’re a great team. So, for us to get two back-to-back wins against them, that’s big for our confidence.”
Williamson has been on fire in December, averaging 30.0 points, 9.2 rebounds, 4.8 assists, and 1.3 assists per game.
A couple of weeks ago, Williamson wasn’t even in the top 15 on DraftKings’ NBA Awards board for MVP betting. However, oddsmakers took note of Williamson’s play during the Pels’ recent winning streak. He saw his NBA MVP odds drastically improve to +2200.
He’s now sixth overall behind Jayson Tatum (+220), Giannis Antetokounmpo (+300), Luka Dončić (+320), Joel Embiid (+1000), and Steph Curry (+1100).
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