Three big questions facing the Pelicans with Zion Williamson still out

Woj: Zion's return from hamstring injury is 'open-ended' (1:05)

Adrian Wojnarowski reports on the timetable for Zion Williamson's return from his hamstring injury. (1:05)

On Dec. 30, the New Orleans Pelicans were 23-12 and tied for first place in the Western Conference. Just a month and a half later, heading out of the All-Star break, the Pelicans are 30-29 and in the thick of the middle of the West standings.

What happened? Well, two main culprits are largely responsible for all those losses: Zion Williamson's right hamstring and Brandon Ingram's left big toe.

Ingram injured the toe against the Memphis Grizzlies on Nov. 25 and the Pelicans fell to 11-8 that night. However, after that, Williamson put the team on his shoulders, averaging 29.3 points, 7.6 rebounds and 5.4 assists over the next 15 games he played (he missed three games during this stretch because of health and safety protocols).

Then on Jan. 2, Williamson hurt his right hamstring. The Pelicans fell to 23-14 that night, and by the time Ingram returned on Jan. 25, the Pelicans were 26-23. The team lost their next four to cap off a 10-game losing streak before finding some footing to climb back above .500 ahead of the break.

The Pelicans faced the toughest schedule in the league in January, and they were forced to do so for much of the month without their top two players. Ingram is back, but now Williamson is set to miss "multiple weeks" because of a reaggravation of his hamstring injury.

How will that impact the Pelicans' playoff push? Here are three big questions facing New Orleans as the team gets set to open the second half with a visit north of the border to face the Toronto Raptors (Thursday, 7:30 p.m. ET).

1. When can we expect to see Williamson back on the court?

When Williamson suffered the right hamstring strain against the Philadelphia 76ers on Jan. 2, his original timeline said he would be reevaluated in three weeks. At that mark, Williamson was making what the team determined to be "good progress with his recovery" and a further evaluation would come in two weeks.

Williamson had progressed to playing 3-on-3 and had an outside chance of making an appearance before the All-Star break, but he reaggravated the injury during a 3-on-3 session roughly five weeks after suffering the initial injury.

Speaking to reporters on Feb. 12, Pelicans executive vice president of basketball operations David Griffin said: "I think we're looking at multiple weeks past the All-Star break that he'll be back."

Griffin offered no further comment on what exactly "multiple weeks" looks like, but he did say the team plans on reevaluating Williamson once everyone returns from the All-Star break this week.

If Williamson recovers on the same timeline as was projected with the initial injury, his return would come sometime in mid-March, although it's possible he comes back sooner.

Still, this is the third time in four seasons that Williamson has missed extended time. He was sidelined for what would have been the first 44 games of his rookie season because of a torn meniscus suffered in the preseason, then missed the entire 2021-22 season because of a foot injury.

Ideally, the Pelicans would like to get Williamson as much time on the court as possible with Ingram and CJ McCollum before the team gears up for the playoffs or the play-in tournament.

The trio has not played together much since McCollum was acquired at the trade deadline last season. Williamson, Ingram and McCollum have played just 10 games together, all this season, sharing the court for a combined 172 minutes. The Pelicans are plus-60 in those minutes and scoring 120.9 points per 100 possessions and giving up 104.4 points per 100 possessions.

2. How do the Pelicans stay afloat until then?

New Orleans was in a similar situation last season. After acquiring McCollum at the trade deadline, it was clear the Pelicans were going to make a push for the play-in tournament, even with Williamson sidelined.

Ingram missed 13 of the final 18 regular-season games because of injury, but McCollum & Co. willed the Pelicans into the play-in tournament, in which they defeated the San Antonio Spurs and LA Clippers to claim the No. 8 seed.

This season, McCollum shouldn't have to carry the load by himself again, as Ingram has started to look like his old self. In his last six games, the former All-Star is averaging 29.2 points, 4.8 assists and 4.7 rebounds while shooting 54.0% overall and 43.8% from deep. It's the first time in his career he's scored at least 25 points in six consecutive games, and he was one missed field goal in his sixth game from shooting at least 50% from the field in all of them.

At 30-29, the Pelicans are seventh in the West. But with third place (Sacramento) and 13th place (Los Angeles Lakers) separated by just six games, anything can happen over the final leg of the season.

The Pelicans are three games behind the Kings and three games up on the Lakers. They are just two games away from the fourth-seeded Clippers, and getting to that No. 4 spot would give them home-court advantage in the first round of the playoffs. But on the other end of the spectrum, New Orleans is just 1.5 games up on 11th place -- which would put the Pelicans out of the play-in tournament.

To make sure they are on the right side of the play-in, the Pelicans will have to find their offensive identity. When Williamson was injured on Jan. 2, the Pelicans had the eighth-best offensive rating in the league at 114.7. In the six-week stretch with Williamson out, the Pelicans ranked just 22nd at 111.9.

New Orleans has maintained a top-10 defense in the league, and if the offense can catch back up, there's a better chance of righting the ship before Williamson returns.

3. Does their schedule make things easier on them?

The good thing for New Orleans is the schedule becomes a lot easier for the final 23 regular-season games.

Based strictly on opponent winning percentage, the Pelicans have the third-easiest schedule remaining in the league behind only the lottery-bound Detroit Pistons and Dallas Mavericks, who -- like the Pelicans -- are competing for a top-six spot in the West and who have three games remaining against the 14-47 Spurs.

ESPN Analytics' strength of schedule metric, which takes into account the opponent, whether the game is home or on the road and back-to-backs, gives the Pelicans the third-easiest schedule in the West, behind the Mavericks and Lakers.

New Orleans has already completed its season series against the Phoenix Suns, and avoids the new-look version with Kevin Durant. The Pelicans have two games left against Golden State but could catch the Warriors without Stephen Curry for the first matchup.

The Pelicans also have five games left against teams in the bottom of the league standings in Houston (twice), San Antonio, Charlotte and Orlando. Four of those come in a four-game stretch from March 17 to 23, for which Williamson should be back. The Pelicans have only 10 games remaining against teams currently above .500. While five of those games make up the Pelicans' closing stretch, New Orleans does get a four-game homestand to open April before traveling to Minnesota for the regular-season finale.

If New Orleans can handle its business against teams under .500 and get Williamson back quickly, the Pelicans should be in good position to make consecutive postseason appearances for the first time since 2008 and 2009.