Maybe for the first time ever, the Los Angeles Lakers and Los Angeles Clippers are now rivals.
Sure, they’ve nominally been rivals for years by virtue of playing in the same city for the past 35 years and same building for the last two decades, but the term “rivalry” was too strong to describe their relationship. The Lakers and Clippers were rivals in the same way that Garfield and Odie are. They shared a space and occasionally annoyed one another, but there was an established hierarchy.
In the 35 years that the Lakers and Clippers shared Los Angeles, the team in purple and gold won eight championships and reached 12 NBA Finals. During those same years, the red-and-white team won four total playoffs series and missed the postseason 24 times. The Lakers and Clippers were more roommates than peers.
The NBA regular season tips off on Tuesday with the battle of L.A.! Stream Lakers vs Clippers, along with 41 Raptors & +160 U.S. games this season with TSN Direct.
That’s not to say the Clippers have been entirely irrelevant. They’ve finished with a better record than the Lakers for the past seven seasons. The halcyon days of Lob City featuring Chris Paul, Blake Griffin and DeAndre Jordan produced spectacular offence and highight-reel displays on a seemingly nightly basis.
Still, for all of their attractive basketball, their signature achievement was outlasting the San Antonio Spurs in a (classic) first-round series in 2015. The Clippers remained very much the weaker sister of Staples Center.
That all changed on July 10 of this past summer when Clippers owner Steve Ballmer walked up to the Lakers and gave them a bloody nose and put the rest of the NBA on notice when he signed Kawhi Leonard – fresh off of one of the finest postseason runs in league history when he led the Toronto Raptors to their first title – and acquired Paul George from the Oklahoma City Thunder in one of the most impressive double swoops in league history. It might have taken 35 years, but the Clippers were here.
It wasn’t supposed to be like this for the Lakers. The arrival of LeBron James in the summer of 2018 was supposed to signal the return to Showtime after six years in the wilderness. But LeBron ended up missing 27 games – the most of his 16-year career – due to a groin injury, head coach Luke Walton proved to be in over his head and the Lakers ended up missing the playoffs for a seventh consecutive season.
After brief insanity with Magic Johnson’s surprise departure from the team in the spring to spend more time with his insipid tweets, general manager Rob Pelinka moved quickly to make sure the drought wouldn’t last any longer.
Former Indiana Pacers head coach Frank Vogel – with Hall of Famer Jason Kidd as his top assistant – was brought in to take over the bench from Walton and the long-rumoured Anthony Davis trade with the New Orleans Pelicans was finally consummated – aided by the help of super agent Rich Paul – with a package of Lonzo Ball, Brandon Ingram, Josh Hart and three first-round picks heading to NOLA in exchange for the six-time All-Star.
Kawhi, then, was supposed to be the final member of a new Lakers triad, alongside James and Davis, which would return the team to the summit and mark, perhaps, an even more skilled Big 3 than the one the Miami Heat built around LeBron with Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh that reached four straight Finals and won two of them.
Sure, there would be competition for Leonard, but it wouldn’t be from the Clippers – it would come from the Raptors. The Clippers had never won anything before. They weren’t a marquee brand. It was a pipe dream. As Leonard took his time with his free agency, the pundits were quick to write off the Clippers’ ambitions, despite the ungodly amount of legwork the team had done to try to lure Leonard through sending president Lawrence Frank to almost every Raptors game and even firing TV analyst Bruce Bowen when he was critical of Leonard’s exit from the Spurs. You couldn’t accuse the Clippers of making this approach in anything but earnest.
Still, it was to be a two-horse race. News choppers were dispatched to follow Kawhi’s SUV as he returned to Toronto to meet with the Raptors at a Yorkville hotel. “Insiders” tweeted out “the latest” on an hourly basis and appeared multiple times a day on sports networks to let viewers know where Kawhi, a Los Angeles native, was leaning. Fans of both the Lakers and Raptors panicked and even melted down on RealGM boards.
So when word broke in the early hours of a July Saturday morning that not only had the Clippers landed Kawhi, but engineered a trade to land George, Ballmer and company knocked the entire league on its ear and for the first time in their existence, stood shoulder to shoulder with the Lakers. The balance of power in Los Angeles – and maybe in the entire NBA – shifted to the red team.
But how is this going to work?
“Load management” was a phrase that became all-too familiar with Raptors fans a year ago when it came to Leonard. A year after missing all but nine games in 2017-18 with his mysterious quad injury the Raptors gave him regular rest, limiting him to just 60 regular-season contests. His schedule appeared to pay off with Leonard putting on a playoffs performance for the ages en route to an NBA Finals MVP Award for the second time in his career.
While the need for rest might not be at the level it was a year ago, the Clippers will be sure to once again handle Leonard with kid gloves to ensure that their three-year investment is maximized. This seems fairly straightforward, but the Clippers don’t have Alex McKechnie, the Raptors’ director of sports science, widely credited with helping to get the best out of Leonard last season.
Then there is the matter of George’s health. The six-time All-Star underwent surgery on both of his shoulders in the off-season. He missed the entirety of the preseason and is likely to be out until late November.
”There’s no set date,” George said in the summer of his return. “I’ve been progressing really well. I’m at a great point in my rehab. We’ll take our time and look forward to returning whenever that day is.”
For the Clippers, the ultimate prize is that ever-elusive first Larry O'Brien Trophy. Because of that, it’s unlikely George will be rushed back and they’ll handle him with the same kind of care that Kawhi is going to receive. A win in June is more important than one against the Atlanta Hawks in November.
With Leonard and George limited, it will be up to a talented supporting cast to help shoulder (pardon the pun) the load when their dynamic duo isn’t able. Lou Williams, fresh off of a third Sixth Man of the Year Award, still scores in droves and can hit from outside, will be looked to for offensive punch, along with sweet-shooting, second-year guard Landy Shamet, whose offensive ceiling has yet to be reached.
On the other side of the ball, Beverley has the ability to get under the skin of players he’s guarding like few others in the league, while Louisville product Montrezl Harrell has emerged as dynamic, two-way bench threat with tireless work ethic. When this team fires on all cylinders, it has the potential to choke the life out of any opponent.
For the spurned Lakers, there still remains reason to be more excited about this upcoming season than any other in recent memory. If the age of the Big 3 is over, the Lakers’ Big 2 of LeBron and AD stacks up favourably against any of the other gruesome twosomes in the NBA, from the Houston Rockets’ James Harden and Russell Westbrook to Leonard and George. But like elsewhere, the supporting cast will be key as LeBron’s minutes will likely to be subject to load management, as well.
Turning 35 in December, James has played 56,284 minutes (not including preseason or All-Star Games) over his 16 seasons in the NBA and, coming off the most serious injury of his career, there’s no need to risk anything. What will be interesting to see, though, is how committed Vogel is to using James as point guard. The era of positionless basketball is upon us, so it’s not too much of a stretch to see James as a de facto 1, but LeBron will adapt anywhere he plays.
“It doesn’t matter to me,” James said in September of where he plays. “I do whatever it takes for us to win. So it doesn’t matter. I’m a ballplayer. I’m not a point guard, I’m not a shooting guard, a small forward, power forward or a centre. I’m just a ballplayer. You put me on the floor, and I can make things happen with whoever is on the floor. So I’m just looking forward to getting out there with my teammates because it’s exciting. It’s fun.”
With Kyle Kuzma (foot) injured to start the season, the team won’t be able to use him as a floor-spacer in a big frontcourt with Davis. The Lakers will just have to do with AD, one of the best bigs in the NBA, on his own for the time being. There’s literally nothing that Davis can’t do. Former weaknesses – outside shooting and passing, for example – have become strengths. He can lock down and defend against any position on the court. It wouldn’t at all be a stretch for the the 26-year-old Kentucky product to earn his first Most Valuable Player Award as he heads into free agency next summer.
And it will be imperative for the team to make sure that Davis’s stay with the Lakers will be longer than one year. Around James and AD, Pelinka has constructed a motley crew of capable players with tantalizing upside. Danny Green and Quinn Cook arrive with championship pedigree to provide shooting from the bench. Jared Dudley and Avery Bradley come aboard as veterans with reputations as dogged defenders. They join incumbents Alex Caruso, Kentavious Caldwell-Pope, JaVale McGee and Rajon Rondo.
And then there’s Dwight Howard. The man once called Superman makes his return to the team older, wiser and with completely different expectations. When he was acquired from the Orlando Magic in 2012, he was very much in a similar situation to the one Davis is now. Living up to being the heir apparent to Shaquille O’Neal and the next great centre in the Lakers’ pantheon wasn’t in the cards for Howard, whose tenure was marked by infighting with Kobe Bryant and never earning the adulation of the Lakers’ faithful.
He came back to L.A. following the season-ending injury to DeMarcus Cousins and will be asked to match up with some of the conferences most bruising centres to allow for Davis to play at power forward. Make no mistake – though he isn’t the 20/14 a night monster that he once was, Howard remains a more than capable big who can be counted on to average a double-double...provided that his lingering gluteal injury – and his historically troublesome back – are kept at bay. Considering that Howard only appeared in nine games a season ago with the Washington Wizards, it’s far from a sure thing.
When talking about the Lakers’ fortunes, it would be remiss without a note on Vogel. Out of the league last season after being fired by the Magic the prior spring, Vogel brought the Indiana Pacers to a pair of conference finals where they ultimately fell to James’s Heat in 2013 and 2014. Vogel was not the team’s first choice to coach, with the Lakers unable to come to an agreement with former Cleveland Cavaliers head coach (and Lakers player) Ty Lue. Whether or not, he’s the man for this job should become evident as soon as this team struggles. More than a few observers have noted that the presence of Kidd seems to suggest that the leash for Vogel will be a short one and the legendary point guard could find himself in the big chair sooner than later if things go awry.
Though Los Angeles supremacy will be on the mind of both the Clippers and Lakers this season, it will provide cold comfort if ends up that bragging rights are the biggest available prize for either team. Nobody is going to remember that the Clippers finished ahead of the Lakers if they ultimately fall short in the playoffs. A return to the postseason for the first time in eight years isn’t why James and Davis are in town.
It might not exactly be championship-or-bust for the Clippers and the Lakers – it’s damn near close to it, though. So get ready for a very real Battle of Los Angeles this season, but if that’s the only lens through which the Clippers and Lakers are relevant this season, consider it a disaster.