As has been the case for decades, there's an enormous difference in the quality of the L.A. Clippers and L.A. Lakers. But for the first time in a long while, it's the Clips who are the class of Los Angeles.
This monumental flip in fortune seems to have happened overnight, yet the truth is that the Lakers' decline didn't happen all that suddenly. In the same way, the Clippers didn't snap their fingers and abruptly turn themselves from a perennial laughingstock into a legitimate contender.
As far back as 2008, signs of the Clippers' impending rise were visible.
The team drafted DeAndre Jordan with that year's No. 35 pick and followed it up in 2009 by selecting Blake Griffin. Griffin would miss his rookie season with a knee injury, but the Clips seemed to know that their front line of the future was intact. Confident in their bigs, the Clippers turned their team-building attention toward the backcourt.
In 2010, they took advantage of one of the only mistakes Oklahoma City Thunder GM Sam Presti has ever made. With the 18th pick in the 2010 draft, OKC selected Kentucky point guard Eric Bledsoe. And though he had made few blunders before and wouldn't make many after, Presti dealt Bledsoe to the Clips for a protected future first-round pick.
Bledsoe was raw, but the potential was there. And he'd have a mentor soon enough.
In 2011, the Clippers brought in a pair of gritty veteran leaders in Caron Butler and Chauncey Billups. And the biggest turning point in franchise history would soon follow.
But before we get to that critical point, we have to address the simultaneous decline that was subtly taking place in Lakerland.
While the Clippers built through the draft and stockpiled assets, the Lakers were taking a different tack. Back-to-back champs in 2008-09 and 2009-10, the Lakers were happily getting by with an experienced core of vets. Kobe Bryant, Pau Gasol and Lamar Odom were in their primes and Andrew Bynum represented a potential future cornerstone.
But Phil Jackson departed after L.A.'s disappointing 2010-11 season. Jackson's club had entered that year's postseason as the No. 1 seed, but an emotional collapse against the eventual champion Dallas Mavericks signaled the end of an era for the Lakers. Andrew Bynum clubbed J.J. Barea, and the Lakers had no answer for Dirk Nowitzki and Co.
With the Zen Master gone, the Lakers looked to make a big move under new coach Mike Brown before the 2011-12 season.
And now we've reached that same critical moment in time, the turning point for both L.A. franchises.
With a deal in place to land Chris Paul for Pau Gasol and Lamar Odom, the Lakers thought they had secured their future in December of 2011. A potential core of Bryant, Bynum and Paul figured to keep the Lakers' championship window open for a few more seasons.
But David Stern and the NBA, which technically owned the New Orleans Hornets at the time, ruled that Paul's club was better off not doing the deal. In a virtually unprecedented move, the trade was vetoed and the Lakers had to pick up the pieces of a few shattered egos.
More importantly, the other L.A. team, forever playing second fiddle, landed Paul on Dec. 14, 2011. Apparently, the commissioner was satisfied with a deal centered around the Hornets acquiring Eric Gordon instead of Lamar Odom.
Paul's arrival shifted the power dynamic in Los Angeles. The move that made him a Clipper tipped the balance between two teams that had been headed in different directions for some time. The Clips were the new hot team in Hollywood.
But the two teams were still relatively comparable from a talent perspective.
The Clippers were better than they'd ever been, but the underwhelming leadership of coach Vinny Del Negro and the difficulty of integrating so many new pieces made for slower-than-expected growth in 2011-12.
The Lakers, still a veteran crew, actually won more games than the Clips last year by a narrow margin (41 to 40).
In an effort to rejuvenate the franchise, the Lakers swung for the fences last summer. They signed then 38-year-old two-time MVP Steve Nash and traded Bynum for Dwight Howard. Meanwhile, the Clippers sought role-players to fill out their roster.
Matt Barnes, Grant Hill, Odom and Jamal Crawford joined CP3 and an emerging crew of athletic, young players to form the league's deepest team.
The Lakers, by contrast, fell apart. Bitten by the injury bug, the ancient Lakers bumbled through a couple of coaches and twice as many offensive systems on the way to one of the most disappointing starts in NBA history. What was once a team many felt was sure to contend for a title now has to catch fire to make the playoffs.
On Feb. 14, the Clippers trounced the Lakers 125-101, beating them for the second time in as many tries in 2012-13. Howard continued to suffer from a bad back and injured shoulder, Nash looked every bit of his 39 years and Gasol missed the game altogether because of injury.
Only Bryant battled, but his fury wasn't enough to match the Clippers' superior talent, chemistry and depth.
The CP3 trade in 2011 irreversibly changed the courses of both franchises, and the most recent contest between the Lakers and Clippers drove the reality of their disparate trajectories home.
But by looking over the past few seasons, it's clear: The rise of the Clippers and the fall of the Lakers had been in the works for years. We're only just now seeing the end results.
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