Records: Lakers 15-2, Pelicans 6-11
Offensive ratings: Lakers 111.1 (5th), Pelicans 109.7 (10th)
Defensive ratings: Lakers 103.1 (6th-Tied), Pelicans 114.0 (27th)
Projected Starting Lineups: Lakers: Kentavious Caldwell-Pope, Danny Green, LeBron James, Anthony Davis, JaVale McGee
Pelicans: Jrue Holiday, JJ Redick, Brandon Ingram, Kenrich Williams, Jaxon Hayes
Injuries: Lakers: Avery Bradley (out); Pelicans: Zion Williamson (out), Darius Miller (out), Derrick Favors (questionable), Josh Hart (questionable)
Lakers coming in: A win in San Antonio brought the Lakers win streak to games 8 in a row, including the first 3 of their 4 game road trip that ends with this game. They’ve found their stride offensively, moving up to 5th in the league during this stretch, mostly by scoring efficiently against defenses in the bottom half of the league. In their last win vs. the Spurs, for example, they posted an offensive rating of 121.3, but that came against the 26th ranked defense in the league.
As the Lakers offense has improved, though, their defense has slipped. After ranking 1st or 2nd for a large part of this young season, the Lakers are down to 6th (tied with the Raptors). Going into the game vs. the Suns on November 12th, the Lakers’ defensive rating was a full 5 points lower than it stands today. This type of change is not small. There’s a lot of factors that combine in this — losing Avery Bradley to injury, a dip in effectiveness by Dwight and LeBron, a certain amount of regression as offenses around the league improve as the season progresses, and a playing some really good offenses during this stretch.
That said, for a team that was building its reputation (and identity) as a top flight defense, I’d like to see them rediscover some of that effectiveness…and soon. Maybe it won’t happen until Bradley comes back and better defensive lineups can be deployed.1Bradley being out has led to lineups where Rondo is playing next to Quinn Cook or Troy Daniels rather lineups with KCP/Caruso/Danny Green…this matters. But, overall, there’s been a decline in attentiveness and commitment that is only noticeable if you watch every possession and that’s not just Bradley being out.
Anyways, hard to complain about 15-2 and the best record in the league…even if that’s what I just did.
Pelicans coming in: New Orleans is 6-11 on the season and has lost two straight games. That said, those losses came against the Jazz and the Clippers — no shame there. Also, before those defeats, the Pelicans had won 3 in a row and had seemingly righted the ship after starting the season 2-8.
Their record is, probably, best explained through their two biggest story lines of the year: losing Zion Williamson to injury for 8-10 weeks before the season started and the emergence of Brandon Ingram as a go-to scorer.
Story one explains itself. Zion was billed as a generational talent and, in the games he played in during the preseason, looked to fit that description. I don’t think I need to explain what makes him good and such a tantalizing prospect, he’s a one-of-one prospect with a uniqueness of build, skill, and athleticism that just pops when you watch him. Losing him is a major blow to a team that hoped to turn things around quickly and push for the playoffs after the AD trade triggered a hard reset this summer. They should get him back in mid to late December and if they’r still within shouting distance of .500, I would not count them out as a threat in the 2nd half of the season.
As for story #2, Ingram has blossomed and continued the upward trend he was showing before a blood clot ended his season early last year with the Lakers. In his last 20 games before being shut down, Ingram was averaging 21.5 points, 5.8 rebounds, and 3.6 assists in LA. This season, those numbers have jumped to 26.1 points, 7.2 rebounds, and 4.2 assists in New Orleans, mostly on the strength of increased volume and accuracy from behind the arc and an overall confidence after being unleashed as a primary scorer and ball handler. As someone who was a Brandon Ingram truther, this success is wonderful to see.
As I wrote on my Patreon,2Only subscribers can read this post! I continue to root for all the former young Lakers and wish nothing but success for them. My investment doesn’t end because they left the organization.
Keys to the game: Normally in this section there’s mostly X’s and O’s talk or strategy or who I hope plays well or ways that I think this game can go. I’ll offer some of that in a minute and you can scroll down a paragraph or two if that’s what you’re here for.
That said, this game has some extra meaning to it and it’d be silly to ignore how that can, and likely will, impact the feel and level of play in this game. Anthony Davis was the #1 overall pick and played 7 years in New Orleans for this franchise. He then asked to be traded mid-season, triggering an unfortunate deterioration between him and the organization, between him and the fans. When brought this organization tons of great moments, but tonight will not be about those, I’d imagine. I imagine, it will be how it ended, how mad that made a lot of people, and how much it would now mean to those people to win this game. I expect him to be cheered…some. I expect him to be booed more than that.
The flip side of that is that the former young core of the Lakers — particularly former #2 overall picks Ingram and Lonzo Ball — now play for the Pelicans. They’ll surely want nothing more than to play well and show the Lakers what they gave up on in order to acquire AD. I expect them to have a bit extra in their tank and to go at their former team with a little extra vigor.
All of this will create an atmosphere that, honestly, leaves me uncertain of how folks will respond and what level they’ll play to. While LeBron can certainly offer Davis some guidance on what type of vitriol a return to your former franchise can inspire, Davis will need to experience this for himself. And while professional sports is littered with #revengegame energy from players who were traded or allowed to walk in free agency, only performance on the court can tell us how any single individual will respond.
In zooming back into some of the specifics of this game, there are two matchups that intrigue me:
- Who guards Anthony Davis and who does Davis guard? I’d imagine the answer to both of these questions is Kenrich Williams, though there’s a possibility we see Jaxson Hayes, Brandon Ingram, or Nico Melli as the answer. Hayes is the most intriguing option to defend AD, but he’s a rookie. In other words, I think Davis can be destructive in this game if he’s involved early offensively.
- Who defends Brandon Ingram? The initial answer is probably LeBron. Which….okay, this could be good. Ingram’s shown ability as a 3-level scorer that LeBron has not had to deal with very often in his specific matchup for more than a handful of possessions at a time. So, he’s in for a workout defensively this game if his main assignment is Ingram. That said, I’ll be very interested to see if AD gets some time on Ingram too. Davis has, quietly, been the Lakers best wing defender in crucial moments — getting matched up on high powered scorers like Kawhi and DeMar DeRozan. Could he see minutes on BI this game? Honestly, I’d like to see it if the game is close late.
Lastly, this is a game where I expect LeBron to use his super computer brain to make determinations on the best way to lead his team to a W. Throughout the contest that may mean an even sharper approach when making determinations on how and when to involve AD and when it’s best to turn it on as a scorer himself. There’s nothing LeBron hasn’t seen in this league, including, as mentioned before, a returning player to a former team in a hostile environment. I expect him, then, to show his understanding of how to manage things and dictate his approach accordingly.
Where you can watch: 6:30pm start time on Spectrum SportsNet and ESPN.
*All stats via stats.nba.com