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LeBron James and Zion Williamson Epitomize the NBA’s Past, Present, and Future

It’s rare to find so much narrative contained in one game. The Lakers and Pelicans, two teams inextricably linked by a blockbuster trade, are led by the two stars who best embody the NBA’s myth-making powers.

Getty Images/Ringer illustration

This is a fun one. The Lakers play the Pelicans on Tuesday night. Staples Center. Tipoff at the NBA’s beloved, sadistic hour of 10 p.m. ET. Ten o’clock, the time slot LeBron James will have to answer for if the Angel of Justice ever returns to the earth. Why did you do it to them, King? the angel will ask, holding aloft a flaming scimitar. Why did you have to move to California?

I was proud, LeBron will say. And I did not care about their workday mornings, in my arrogance.

Still. This game is worth staying up for. Calling LeBron vs. Zion Williamson a battle of NBA Past vs. NBA Future gives it a tidy narrative frame, though considering the all-conquering state of the Lakers this season, it’s probably more accurate to say NBA Past, Present, and Short-Term Future vs. NBA Medium- and Long-Term Future, Meaning Hopefully Like the Next Decade or So If We’re Lucky. However you diagram it, it’s a matchup with zeitgeist implications. At least for this week. There’s a faint whiff of regicide in the air. You have to tune in just to see what will happen when these players try to impress each other.

The Lakers and Pelicans have been locked in a weird sort of shadow rivalry for a couple of years now, from the precise moment the Lakers started pursuing Anthony Davis. (After a highly publicized breakdown in early talks, the teams finally completed their mega-trade last year.) “Rivalry” might be the wrong word for it. I’m not sure we have a term for the charged relationship that exists between two teams on either side of a major trade. The Thunder and the Rockets: What are they to each other? “Rivals” isn’t quite it; it’s more that there’s a prickly intimacy between two squads that have jumbled their narratives and swapped significant roster pieces.

A minor tractor beam has connected New Orleans and Los Angeles—one that’s only intensified as we’ve watched players we associate with the Lakers (Brandon Ingram, Lonzo Ball) start fresh chapters in New Orleans, and as we’ve watched Davis, the Pelicans’ biggest-ever star, volcanically thriving in L.A. That said, Lakers-Pelicans isn’t Lakers-Clippers. For one, the gulf between the teams is still too wide. (The Pelicans are huffing along after the eighth playoff spot in the West; the Lakers have the second-best record in basketball.) But there’s a shared history, a background consciousness that raises the stakes of every interaction between these teams in a small but meaningful way. We’ve got top-tier drama—Zion vs. LeBron, Anthony Davis vs. his old team, the Pelicans’ former savior vs. their current one—but we’ve also got mid- and low-tier drama. I assume Lonzo Ball: Homecoming will be the basis of a 12-episode web series that will absolutely melt the Facebook Live charts in Transnistria.

So it seemed particularly apt last year when the Pelicans won the Zion lottery and selected the former Duke star with the no. 1 pick. Their season was always going to be defined in contrast to the Lakers’; they lived in the wake left behind by LeBron’s league-reorganizing will. Now they would also feature the player whom many saw as the generation-defining star for the post-LeBron generation. A ragged band of outcasts, on the fringe of a dominant power, suddenly acquiring a transformative heir: throw in C-3PO and you have a pretty good Star Wars movie.

What makes the LeBron-Zion contrast so irresistible isn’t really the frame narrative, though. It’s the players themselves. They have so much in common—intelligence; game-breaking athleticism; a strange quality of perceptual unprecedentedness, that feeling that you have never seen a force quite like this at work on a basketball court—but the experience of watching them is fascinatingly different. I am sorry to have to write something that sounds this abstruse when what I really want to say is on the order of “cool dunks are cool,” but Zion and LeBron seem to represent two diametrically opposed ways of relating to basketball. There are a lot of ways we could think about this, but let’s start by talking about the kind of hyperbole each player tends to generate.

Twelve games into his young NBA career, it’s clear that whatever else he might become, Zion is the greatest pure generator of writerly hyperbole in contemporary professional sports. I say that as someone who (a) has been writing about sports since the dawn of the blog era, and who has therefore experienced the Hyperbole Wars from well inside the splash zone, and (b) once published an article about Roger Federer that compared his career to the plot of an experimental science-fiction novel in which a submarine dives so far it transcends reality itself. There’s just no getting around it. Something about watching Zion really, really makes people want to describe him in cartoonishly evocative, absurdist-poetic language. In the history of the NBA there has never been a player more likely to be called the beautiful child of a rhinoceros ballerina and an ion cannon. When Zion tears the sole of his shoe, venerable organs of sports journalism like Sports Illustrated tweet that his shoe “LITERALLY EXPLODED,” in all caps.

Compared to the manic folk-hero terms in which Zion tends to be described, the language we use for LeBron tends to evoke something more like an 18th-century sovereign, or maybe a Roman general. It’s cooler in temperature, more concerned with historical comparison and large-scale influence assessment than the felt impact of watching him in the moment. An incredible dunk from LeBron will rarely be described as a rose blooming inside a cyclone of lasers; it will be described, instead, as “an incredible dunk from LeBron.” He’s produced many incredible moments. They run together with the titles and records and MVPs into a legacy so enormous it almost seems too large to belong to a real person. “Arguably the greatest of all time” is a more impressive thing to be than a rookie who just racked up a cool block, but keep it going long enough and it can also begin to sound kind of routine. Kind of corporate. When Zion’s shoe breaks, it’s a folk ballad; if LeBron’s broke, we’d worry about Nike going under.

And all this makes perfect sense. LeBron has played in 1,251 games. That’s more than 100 times as many as Zion. He’s won almost as many NBA MVPs (four) as Zion has made NBA 3-pointers (five). The two players are at opposite ends of their careers; of course we tend to describe LeBron as a phenomenon of historical legacy and Zion as a phenomenon of the present. But the contrast feels especially vivid, I think, because it also seems to capture something about how each star approaches basketball, and how our approach to the game has shifted over the past decade or so.

LeBron, after all, has been talking about legacy, thinking of himself in historic terms, and describing himself as a historic figure since he was Zion’s age. This tendency didn’t start when he turned 30. Many of his early interviews show a kid obsessed with the historical arc of the league and his place in it, a blossoming star who saw himself from the very beginning destined for a spot on basketball’s Mount Rushmore. He’s a pantheon thinker, one who, at this stage in his career, seems to relish his role as an elder statesman conferring his blessing on younger players. On Sunday night, for instance, he issued an Instagram post praising Jayson Tatum as an “ABSOLUTE PROBLEM” Sunday night; statements of this sort from LeBron always seem like quasi-official pronouncements at the same time as he seems to really enjoy making them.

Zion, by contrast, comes across as someone who likes to go out and play basketball without necessarily seeing each second of on-court flow as a historic fact. That’s not to say he’s unaware of history—as one of only three no. 1 draft picks in 30 years to score 200 points in his first 10 games, he’s already hearing his own name attached to it. (The other two are Allen Iverson and Shaquille O’Neal.) But he doesn’t seem to have the same high-pressure sense of the game as an all-consuming archive that LeBron had at his age. That sense is one of the things that’s always made LeBron so impressive; its absence is one of the things that makes following Zion so much fun.

And this also makes sense. LeBron’s career coincided with the apex of a post–Michael Jordan tendency to represent the league in terms of organized macro-narrative and all-time rankings and the struggle among elite players to produce the most coherent and unblemished résumé. Zion has come along at a moment when our experience of basketball is shifting back toward the fun mess of one present moment: the highlight, the GIF, the second of shareable chills. In a pretty natural, unforced way, then, the two players seem to personify the dominant tendencies of an era in transition. This can slightly obscure the fact that LeBron still produces some utterly monstrous highlights. Also the fact that Zion is working to be—and in many ways already is—an outstanding whole-game player, not just a brain-breaking GIF machine. But it also makes the contrast between them feel especially significant, because it actually is.

So rather than NBA Past vs. Future, or whatever that other thing was I said at the beginning, tonight’s matchup might be something closer to Utter Immersion in NBA Present vs. Totalizing Conception of NBA History Outside Time and Space. Either way, it’s going to be awesome. Right Now vs. Always—a battle of temporalities so compelling even East Coast insomniacs like me might forget to look at the clock.