There’s no question that right now, the Los Angeles Clippers are a better team than the Los Angeles Lakers. Just take a look at the standings. If current trends hold up, the Clips will almost certainly prove that when they run up against the Lakers on Jan. 4.
But as everybody knows, the NBA season is a long one, and the best teams in the first couple of months aren’t always the ones left standing in the end.
So, with that in mind, we’re going to take a look at which club from L.A. is most “dangerous.” By that, we mean to lay out the comparative strengths and weaknesses of the Clippers and Lakers with an eye toward the immediate and distant future.
In comparing what each team has already done and what they project to do in the season’s remaining months, we’ll be able to determine if the Clippers figure to remain the best team in L.A., or if the Lakers have a shot at overtaking them at some point this year.
Let’s break things down.
At present, the Clippers have the league’s fifth-most efficient offense, averaging 107.4 points per 100 possessions. Thanks to Chris Paul’s masterful orchestration and plenty of scoring from a deep stable of versatile wings and skilled bigs, the Clips offense has been humming all year.
But the Lakers aren’t far behind.
Despite playing under three head coaches, integrating a ton of new players and muddling through a couple dozen games without Steve Nash, the Lakers have still scored an impressive 106.4 points per 100 possessions this year. That figure is good enough for sixth best in the league.
Logic would certainly dictate that the Lakers have much more room to improve their offensive output than the Clippers do, considering Kobe Bryant and Co. are still learning how to play with one another.
Chemistry hiccups aside, the Lakers have dealt with injury and slow recoveries to three of their Big Four. If, at some point, Pau Gasol and Dwight Howard start to look like themselves again, the Lakers offense could quite easily move into the league’s top three.
There’s another factor that could eventually help the Lakers surge past the Clips in the offense department, and it’s pretty obvious.
Paul’s brilliance this year has him somewhere within the top five of everyone’s imaginary MVP ballot, and his statistical impact on the Clippers offense reflects that. When he’s on the floor, his team scores an astounding 114.8 points per 100 possessions. That’s ridiculous, and a testament to what an offensive genius Paul truly is.
But when CP3 is on the bench, the Clips' scoring sputters, dropping nearly 10 points per 100 possessions to 105.2, according to 82games.com.
We know the Lakers can still score at an elite level with Nash out and Gasol struggling, but if the Clippers ever lose Paul for an extended period, their offensive struggles will be immense. That indicates that the Clippers’ offensive superiority is at least a little fragile.
Because the Lakers have found ways to score without their full complement of stars and because the Clippers haven’t proved they can do the same without Paul running the show, there’s plenty of reason to believe that the Lakers are the more dangerous offensive team in Los Angeles.
This will require much less analysis than the offensive section. The Lakers are a bad defensive team, while the Clippers are one of the very best.
Pretty simple, right?
Per 100 possessions, the Lakers defense has surrendered about 5.4 more points than the Clippers defense has this year. Numbers aside, the Lakers’ painfully slow rotations and failure to help the helper are visually obvious issues that even casual fans have noticed all season long.
Worse than that, the Lakers simply never slow down penetration from quick guards, and their overall perimeter defense has been downright awful. Check out this inexcusably lazy rotation:
It’s possible that Howard will return to something close to his formerly dominant defensive form, but between his inconsistency, Gasol’s total loss of lateral quickness and Bryant’s ball-watching habits, the Lakers seem unlikely to enjoy a substantial improvement.
On the other hand, there’s every reason to believe the Clippers will continue to be a terrific defensive team. They’re younger, more active, deeper and capable of covering every type of offensive player opposing teams throw at them. Matt Barnes and Eric Bledsoe, in particular, have been nightmares (in a good way) on the defensive end.
The Clippers have a huge edge over the Lakers on D, but their advantage on the bench is even bigger.
Between Darius Morris, Jordan Hill, Jodie Meeks and the almost totally forgotten Antawn Jamison, no Lakers sub has provided anything close to consistent production off the bench this season. As a result, the Lakers bench has produced the fifth-fewest points of any reserve unit in the league.
Meanwhile, the Clippers bench mob is magnificent, averaging 42 points per game and sitting right alongside the San Antonio Spurs’ excellent reserves as the best in the NBA.
As Lamar Odom has shed weight and Eric Bledsoe has embraced his role as one of the Association’s pre-eminent defensive pests, the Clips have seen their reserves extend leads on a consistent basis.
And we haven’t even mentioned Jamal Crawford, who averages 16.3 points per game (and at least one highlight) in just 28.9 minutes.
Going forward, the age of the Lakers’ stars is going to require even more minutes from the bench, which isn’t a good thing for the team’s success. By contrast, the Clippers will be able to continue keeping Paul and Blake Griffin’s minutes at career lows, which will help save their legs down the stretch.
One key area in which the Lakers enjoy an advantage over the Clippers is on the boards. So far this season, Dwight Howard and Pau Gasol have allowed the Lakers to have a seven-footer on the court almost all the time, which has certainly helped on the glass.
Overall, the Lakers have been the NBA’s second-best rebounding team.
The Clippers aren’t doing poorly in this department by any stretch; they’re No. 10 in rebound rate through the season’s first two months.
Looking ahead, it stands to reason that the Lakers should at least sustain (and possibly improve) their already excellent rebounding numbers. We’ve already mentioned how Gasol and Howard have been playing at less than 100 percent, so even a slight uptick in their mobility and lift could pay dividends on the boards.
It’s not a huge edge, but between the Lakers’ current head start and the likelihood that as they get healthier, their numbers could improve and there’s a strong argument that the Lakers will continue to be more dominant on the glass.
Overall, the early part of the 2012-13 season has shown us that the Clippers are an elite NBA team. Right now, they’re neck and neck with the Oklahoma City Thunder and San Antonio Spurs at the very top of the Western Conference. They’ve had a massive win streak and currently possess one of the NBA’s biggest point differentials thanks to terrific defense and dominant bench play.
We’ve also seen the Lakers struggle mightily. Age, chemistry issues, bad defense and a worse bench have all contributed to a wholly disappointing season so far. But while the Clippers have played their very best this year, there’s reason to believe the Lakers have a ton of room to improve.
Maybe Steve Nash really will kick the offense up another notch and perhaps Howard will reclaim his status as the league’s best defender. Who knows?
The point is that the Lakers have played just about as poorly as they possible could have, and they’re still just one game under .500.
The Clippers are a better team right now, and barring a massive turnaround from the Lakers, CP3 and friends will remain the most dangerous team in L.A. But when the dust settles at the end of the year, there’s a good chance the Lakers make a race of this thing.
Overall Advantage: Clippers