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NBA Preview: Will LeBron James Embrace or Baptize the Next Face of the League as Pelicans Battle Lakers?

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Zion Williamson meets The King for the first time in his career!

Los Angeles Lakers v Golden State Warriors Photo by Andrew D. Bernstein/NBAE via Getty Images

One of the most anticipated clashes of the season should be about so much more than basketball. It should be the juxtaposition of old and new, past and present, life and untimely death.

I never liked Kobe Bryant, but I always respected his drive, conviction, talent and thoughtfulness. He was undoubtedly one of the greatest players of our generation and in history itself. He was a rattlesnake, a bulldog, a premeditative assassin — The Black Mamba — and it’s impossible to navigate this matchup without addressing him.

Kobe Bryant’s memorial was held on Monday inside Staples Center, with some of the biggest names in the history of the game in attendance. They each paid respects while having fun at his and their own expense all in tribute to a true pioneer and father.

So, while Bryant’s life represents so much and speaks to so many in numerous differing ways, a game will be played the next day representative of his work both on and off the floor.

This symbolism touches on the passing of meanings greater than that of a hardwood classic, but it makes being an ambassador so much more critical.

That is where LeBron James and Zion Williamson meet.

Like James, Zion has entered the league with unrelenting expectations, putting his full and massive frame to the test.

Like James, the acclaim and promises have all been paid in full.

If it sounds familiar, it should.

James’ rookie season was equally inspiring as the 19-year-old put up a 20-5-5 line, numbers which put him in rare company. However, those stats were just the beginning as we quickly learned. LeBron moved onto bigger and greater things in his storied 17-year career and is likely to add a few final chapters to his book before it’s all said and done. There is one item, however, that he could cross off his list on Tuesday: an opportunity to embrace the next ‘Face,’ just as Jordan did for Bryant.

LeBron probably won’t come across another rookie of Zion’s caliber, with such an attentive ear and a heart as wide as his chest, over the rest of his career. This is basketball and a place in its history so it should merit something bigger than just a game.

And James still has so much left to teach.

17 seasons and nearly 60,000 combined (regular and postseason) minutes has only enhanced the King’s power.

LeBron James - 2019-20 (Are you kidding, dude!)

  • Number one in real plus-minus
  • Number one in assists (first time in career)
  • One of just five players to average 25 points, 10.7 rebounds and seven assists
  • Number one in plus-minus (if we don’t include FOUR Bucks)

James has piloted his Lakers to the top of the Western Conference with a 43-12 record, enjoying a comfortable five-game lead over the Denver Nuggets. Los Angeles has won five straight and seven of their past eight, so asking for an upset by the Pelicans is a tall proposal.

Speaking of tall....

Anthony Davis

  • Number one in blocks
  • One of four players averaging 25 points and nine rebounds
  • 74 percent at the rim (83rd percentile)

As you may be well aware, Davis has been the perfect complement to James on both sides of the floor but has struggled without him. A +8.3 rated player with James, Davis plummets to -3.6 without him. Now, some of this exists in part because of the dearth of talent around Davis when James is dismissed. Players like Rajon Rondo and Kyle Kuzma rise into starring roles, somewhat mitigating Davis’ decreased effect.

However, we can’t help but draw from history and Davis’ 3-17 record in New Orleans without Jrue Holiday by his side. When James sits, the Pelicans should look to take advantage. Forcing Davis into the mid-range will give them immediate benefits where Davis fires off 41 percent of his shots (92nd percentile) while converting just 39 percent of them (47th percentile).

Pelicans’ fans will salivate at the opportunity to see Zion bully Davis in the post, but more likely than not, Davis will drift into the open floor and look to shoot over the 6’5” former Blue Devil and stretch his long arms over Zion to steal rebounds.

The Lakers, as a whole, are fourth in offensive rating and third in defensive rating, making them the second-most well-rounded team in the NBA (Milwaukee). They run with a pace (12th) well-suited for a matchup with the Pelicans. We’ve already seen in prior matchups that this team isn’t afraid to run with the Pelicans and use that speed to their advantage with James as its headmaster.

The crowd will play a factor, but if Zion can put on a show, he can steal the spotlight. The self-proclaimed “Lakers’ town” actually trails its roommate in ticket sales by 30,000 in 2019-20 and sits just ninth in the NBA.

Keys to the Game

  • -Maximize minutes without LeBron
  • -Rise to the Occasion (Ball, Hart, Ingram)
  • - Win in Clutch

Let’s geaux, Pels!

Where To Watch/Listen

What: New Orleans Pelicans (25-32) at Los Angeles Lakers (43-12)

Where: Staples Center - LA, CA

When: Tuesday, February 25, 2020, 9:00 PM

Watch: TNT

Listen: ESPN Radio 100.3 FM