The Whiteboard: Zion's free throws, Zach LaVine trade scenarios and more

Today on The Whiteboard, we're talking about Zion's free throws, a LeBron-adjacent gambling scandal, Zach LaVine trades and more.

Nov 29, 2023; New Orleans, Louisiana, USA; New Orleans Pelicans forward Zion Williamson (1) shoots a
Nov 29, 2023; New Orleans, Louisiana, USA; New Orleans Pelicans forward Zion Williamson (1) shoots a / Stephen Lew-USA TODAY Sports

The Pelicans offense has turned the corner over the past two weeks and Zion Williamson has been absolutely dominant. Over his last five games, he's averaging 28.4 points, 5.8 assists and 5.2 rebounds and 1.8 steals per game, shooting 64.7 percent from the field.

He's been driving much more and more efficiently, creating for others and often playing as a primary creator instead of just a dominant finisher, emulating some of the success from when he was at his best pre-injury last season.

But the most exciting trend for Pelicans fans over the past five games should be that he's made 31-of-39 (79.5 percent) of his free throws.

Zion Williamson has to stop leaving points on the board at the free throw line

Williamson had made just 57.3 percent of his free throws over the first 10 games and although his percentage had increased across each of his first three seasons, he's made just 68.7 percent for his career.

Williamson is not bad enough to be in Hack-A territory but for a player with his size, touch and and propensity for getting to the free throw line (9.3 attempts per 36 minutes) he's leaving a ton of points on the board.

The league-average free throw percentage this season is 78.3 percent and hitting at that rate would have netted Williamson an extra 14 points so far this season, essentially raising his scoring average by a point per game. Hitting at that rate across his entire career would have earned him an additional 103 points over 129 games.

Those numbers may not sound huge but the larger the time span and sample size the greater the aggregate effect. If he is staying healthy, maxing out his games and minutes across a long NBA career those small differences in free throw accuracy are costing him huge point totals.

Since he entered the league, Williamson has the fourth-highest free throw attempt rate among the 53 players players with a usage rate of at least 25 percent. Of that group, only Russell Westbrook and Giannis Antetokounmpo have made a lower percentage.

Health and consistency are obviously the biggest barriers to greatness for Zion. But if he can eliminate those, improving from the free throw line may be the next challenge up.

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Lebron James, Maverick Carter
Uninterrupted Canada Launch / George Pimentel/GettyImages

Gambling scandal touches LeBron James

In 2022, a former minor league baseball player named Wayne Nix pled guilty to charges related to an illegal gambling business he had reportedly been running for two decades. At the time of his arrest, it was rumored that several former and current athletes were clients of his although there were precious few confirmed details.

This week we learned that Maverick Carter, LeBron's manager and business partner, admitted to being one of those clients. According to ESPN, in 2021 Carter told federal investigators looking into Nix that: "he placed approximately 20 bets on football and basketball games over the course of a year, with each bet ranging from $5,000 to $10,000."

This may not seem like a huge deal given the amounts being discussed and the fact that sports gambling is now legal in dozens of states and likely headed for national approval. There have been no accusations of wrongdoing against LeBron, but Carter's proximity to one of the biggest stars in basketball and the lack of defined guidelines around this nascent industry has made this a huge story.


Nov 28, 2023; Sacramento, California, USA; Sacramento Kings guard Malik Monk (0) is interviewed
Nov 28, 2023; Sacramento, California, USA; Sacramento Kings guard Malik Monk (0) is interviewed / Sergio Estrada-USA TODAY Sports

The Big Three: Jared Dubin on the Kings, terrible defense and Zach LaVine

You may have noticed that I'm often sharing pieces from Jared Dubin and his Last Night, In Basketball newsletter in the Recommended Reading section of The Whiteboard. Jared is one of the sharpest basketball minds around, and reading his work regularly has taught me a ton about the game.

I invited Jared to answer three questions about the state of the NBA today, and he was nice enough to arrange a free 30-day trial to his newsletter for any readers of The Whiteboard who are interested.

I highly recommend checking out his work at the newsletter and anywhere else you come across it. And here he is on the Kings, Hawks, Pacers and Zach LaVine.

1. Pick a television show to explain the trajectory of the current Sacramento Kings. Was last year an incredible first season impossible to repeat (Westworld)? Are they beginning a multi-year run of excellence (The Good Place)? Have they just created a toehold that sets the stage for a dramatic reinvention (The Leftovers)?

I'm trying to think of a TV show that was awesome for a short time, had a prolonged period where it was terrible, then made a comeback with a new showrunner and some new cast members. That seems to most accurately track with the arc of the 2000s Kings. Unfortunately, TV shows that are terrible for a prolonged period usually get canceled, so none really fits.

The closest analogue I can think of is Parks & Recreation, but only if we view it this way: Parks was originally developed as a spin-off of The Office, which was a great show. But The Office did go through a swoon period, and the first season of Parks was objectively not very good. But then they brought in Rob Lowe and Adam Scott and tweaked the way the characters viewed Leslie Knope, and the show went on an extended run of greatness.

In this analogy, Mike Schur (who worked for The Office and then created Parks & Rec) is Mike Brown, De'Aaron Fox is Leslie Knope, Domantas Sabonis is Ben Wyatt, Malik Monk is Chris Traeger, Kevin Huerter is April Ludgate, Harrison Barnes is Ann Perkins, and Keegan Murray is Andy Dwyer. Roy Hibbert still gets to play himself in Season 3. You can't argue with this.

2. You recently wrote a piece at The Messenger . Which of the Hawks and Pacers has a better chance of becoming a functional, competitive defense as the season goes on?

I feel like it should be the Hawks because they are the more experienced team and have at least a few players who should be able to form the infrastructure of a good defense, but I'm going with the Pacers because they have Myles Turner and Bruce Brown and a bunch of interesting stuff to use if they want to make a trade, and that might be a more likely path to a good defense than "actually the Hawks are just gonna play better defense now."

3. What's the most disastrous Zach LaVine trade scenario? The most fun?

Most disastrous is there is no trade and Bulls fans are stuck living in this limbo for even longer. Most fun probably involves him going to Miami as an upgraded version of Tyler Herro playing next to Jimmy Butler and Bam Adebayo. I should clarify that such a scenario would be the most fun, basketball-wise, and not at all fun for people who do not like a) Pat Riley (like me); or b) Heat fans on Twitter.

Recommended Reading:

1. The Suns are scary good: "If sustained—or even improved on once everyone is healthy—this evolution is a five-alarm fire for opponents who entered this season hoping Phoenix’s three stars would need a more traditional facilitator to really hum. For them, sadly, that hasn’t at all been the case. Instead of treating his new circumstances as a burden, Booker has used them as an opportunity to showcase just how great his all-around game can be." Has Devin Booker Become the NBA’s Best Point Guard?

2. Random variance carried the Lakers through the NBA In-Season Tournament group round: "The Los Angeles Lakers — with the largest difference in performance between the two types of fixture — had an average Net Rating 26.4/100 higher in tourney games. One of the main differences in league aggregate performance is the 37.3 percent 3-point accuracy on Tuesdays and Fridays compared to 35.7 percent in normal regular-season play. The Lakers are responsible for around a third of that gap, going from 29.7 percent in non-tourney to 47.5 percent in their four tournament contests. Every other team in the league was within seven points of their non-tourney accuracy, making the Lakers 17.8 point gap stand out all the more." NBA In-Season Tournament by the numbers, plus suggested future improvements

3. If you like basketball and sadness, the Pistons are the team for you: "Need a quick fix? Try Detroit. The Pistons are the NBA’s palate cleanser. Having a tough stretch, like the woebegone Wizards? Play the Pistons. Need a course correction after a 44-point blowout loss, like the Lakers? Play the Pistons. The Washington Generals could bus into Detroit these days and win. A prime Red Klotz could probably drop 30." The Pistons Are the NBA’s Slowest Sinking Ship

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