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NBA Preview: New Orleans Pelicans should take care of business in Zion Williamson’s road debut against Cleveland Cavaliers

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Let’s get Brandon Ingram back on track, too

NBA: Boston Celtics at New Orleans Pelicans Derick E. Hingle-USA TODAY Sports

[Note: this was all written prior to end of Cavs-Pistons Monday night, but check the sick Kevin Porter Jr. slam here:]

Sex-Land Is Now and Later

Collin Sexton and Darius Garland make up the two highest draft picks by the Cleveland Cavaliers in the past two drafts. Sexton went 8th overall in 2018 and Garland was the 5th overall selection this past summer. Cavs fans are still in the evaluation period of both guards, and maybe most importantly, the fit of both guards when they’re on the floor together. Those two, plus regular starters Cedi Osman, Tristan Thompson, and Kevin Love play more minutes together as a five-man unit than any other in the league. But that has not led to any success, as the 5-man unit has a -10.6 net rating. Hey, they’re 12-34 overall, so that makes sense. But what about Sex-Land, regardless of teammates?

Sexton and Garland have played 992 minutes together, prior to Monday’s game against the Pistons. In that time, they have a 104.6 offensive rating and 116.4 defensive rating, leaving a -11.9 net rating. The combo is in line with other 2-man lineups with heavy usage: they don’t defend, pass, or shoot well.

Basically, the Cavs stink regardless of who’s on the floor.

But don’t just look at the numbers for these two.

Sexton has picked up the scoring slack since the exit of current Jazzman Jordan Clarkson on December 23. Since the move, Young Bull is averaging 22.1 points per game, shooting 46.2/44.3/90.2. He’s going to take shots from all over the floor, but Cav hopefuls are rooting for, of course, more 3s and layups, and fewer paint wanderings that end in inappropriate floaters. He’s a fast, active, pesky defender, but is small and still learning the ropes.

Garland may be the more talented guard, overall, and could be projected as a long-term starter at the point guard spot. He’s certainly a better, more-willing passer, but his team-high 4.6 assists per game since the Clarkson trade kind of shows where this team is right now. He’s getting more comfortable taking more off-the-dribble 3s, but that doesn’t mean they’re all going to go in. He’s shooting 39.6/33.0/86.7 since the pre-Christmas trade.

This could be a nice time for Lonzo Ball to keep up his hot streak, get Jrue going, and maybe get contributions from the guards as a whole. Just play Hart 40 minutes and watch a Pels blowout.

Zion

This Cavs matchup will be Zion Williamson’s 4th regular season game. Quickly: he’s averaging 19.3 points, 8.0 rebounds, 1.7 assists, and 3.3 turnovers in 22.3 minutes per game. He’s shooting 66.7/66.7/37.5(!). As seen in, well, his Duke and NBA career thus far, he appears to make most shots around the rim, and the ones he does miss, he immediately gets the rebound or loose ball and lays it in.

And if you don’t block out on a Pelicans shot, he may grab the offensive rebound and slam it on your head.

I’m not going to really delve into player combination minutes this early, but there may be a future connection with Lonzo Ball, and this could be THE combo moving forward, which brings me to our potential All-Star: Brandon Ingram.

Ingram

We’re in the midst of a little slide for our dynamic wing scorer — shooting percentages are down across the board in the last 5 games, and his time spent hunting mid-rangers has been cut. The future of this team may not RELY on Ingram being the alpha scoring forward that all teams drool over, but it does seem essential to have a guy like him closing out possessions and games with his iso scoring and playmaking ability. Others like Zo and Zion should do literally everything else.

So far, the fit is just something to monitor. Let’s hope Ingram gets back on track with a matchup against... checks notes... Cedi Osman, Alphonso McKinnie, and Dante Exum. Not exactly the 1927 Yankees.

Kobe

The death of Kobe Bryant has struck a nerve with every NBA player, coach, front office member, media member, and fan, and has stretched to the rest of the world, too. Kobe is one of those important stars who developed a cult of personality; his practices and work ethic were almost immediately legendary. Five rings in two totally different eras. He’d depart the team bus with sunglasses on, because he’s Kobe. He took Brandy to prom. He scored 81 points in a regulation NBA game. He was so important to the Lakers, they traded away SHAQ. Like, THE SHAQ. He saved the U.S. from a 2008 silver medal embarrassment. Oh, and he won a damn Oscar.

His fame and basketball skills are massive in scope.

Despite us being surrounded by him for his entire adult life, Kobe is nearly a myth. And a stand-in for your views on: the “alpha” scorer, the mid-range game, players going from high school to the pros, the brand value of the Lakers, the Kobe-Jordan debate, the Kobe-Lebron debate, a 1-team career, ringz culture, etc. etc. etc.

We can plaster any meaning we want onto him. I, like many others, didn’t even like him as a player or NBA character. It was easy to find ways to downplay his achievements.

”Well, he had Shaq, then Pau/Odom.”

”Wade’s peak was better.”

”He missed more shots than anyone else in NBA history.”

However, he should be honored — even the most cynical watchers had to admit he’s one of the greats. Yeah, Kobe was definitely not perfect, but who finishes off a 20-year career with a 60-point game?

Game is at 6:30pm at the Quicken Loans Arena in Cleveland.

Geaux Pels!