The history of the NBA in L.A. reads more like A Tale of Two Cities than it does the sort of rivalry that the city's basketball hotbed deserves. More often than not, it's been the best of times for the Los Angeles Lakers and the worst of times for the Los Angeles Clippers.
It took 30 long years for the Clippers to finally flip the script. Even last year, when the Clips swept the Hallway Series for the first time in franchise history, the fates seemed to favor the Purple and Gold. Despite the apparent disparity in turmoil between the underwhelming, injury-riddled Lakers and the 56-win, Pacific Division-champion Clippers, both clubs were wrestled into offseason submission during the first round of the playoffs.
There will be no second-hand opportunities for smugness in Lakerland this time around. If Lakers fans want to taunt their Clippers counterparts, they'll have to rely on the tired trope of trumpeting the past while conveniently ignoring the present and, for now, the future.
They can wax poetic about 16 championships and a 144-54 record against the Clips in the all-time series, including a 98-34 mark since the latter hauled its operations up the Interstate 5 freeway from San Diego to L.A. in 1984—smack in the middle of the "Showtime" era. They can even cling to their 116-103 win over the heavily-favored Clippers in the season opener, when what was then the Lakers bench went bonkers to the tune of 76 points.
But the Clips have proven, with relative ease, to be the better outfit by far since then. In January, the Clippers avenged their opening-night embarrassment by lampooning the Lakers like never before, 123-87. That 36-point margin of victory was the largest ever by the Clippers over their crosstown tormentors.
They may well pull a similar trick on Thursday, when the Lakers play host and dim the lights over the Staples Center crowd accordingly.
That old, theatrical trick, while distinctive, can't mask the reality of which team is the hotter ticket in town right now. Just days after the Lakers bade farewell to their 320-game sellout streak this past November, the Clippers hit the Century Club on their own.
It doesn't have to be this way, though. Quality basketball in Tinseltown doesn't have to be an "either-or" proposition, like the game of Hot Potato that the football gauntlet between UCLA and USC has been for decades. There can be an honest-to-goodness, evenly matched rivalry in downtown L.A., one whose participants are both battling for precious real estate atop the NBA's mountain, one befitting of this city's deep roundball roots.
The Clippers' Climb
Of course, that would require something that'd make long-suffering Clippers fans cringe: the Lakers rising out of the ashes of oblivion and back into the good graces of the basketball gods for the umpteenth time.
And, really, who could blame Clipper Nation for scoffing? Success has been fleeting for this flummoxed franchised, to say the least. Assuming the stretch run of the 2013-14 season doesn't devolve into an unmitigated disaster, the Clips will crack the postseason for just the 10th time in franchise history, dating back to their founding as the Buffalo Braves in 1970.
A trip to the playoffs would also mark L.A.'s third in a row. That'd be a first for the team since it relocated to the City of Angels in 1984 and only the second time ever after the Braves qualified for the playoffs three times between 1974 and 1976 behind the likes of Bob McAdoo and Ernie DiGregorio.
Compare that to the Lakers, who, at a worst-in-the-West 21-40, are practically guaranteed to miss out on the postseason for just the sixth time in the organization's 66-year history. Not since the 1975-76 season have the Clippers/Braves participated in the playoffs while the Lakers stayed home.
And it's not as though the Lakers went home empty-handed that year, either. They improved by 10 wins from the season prior, thanks largely to Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, who took home the fourth of his six MVP trophies in his first campaign as a Laker.
The Clips can only hope that their own blockbuster acquisition (Chris Paul) yields anywhere near as many spoils for them as the Captain did for the Lakers. A mere utterance of the words "basketball reasons" will evoke either a violent, Voldemort-esque response or unending prayers of appreciation, depending on which fanbase is within earshot.
Paul's change of destinations from Marina del Rey (where the Lakers practice) to Playa Vista (where the Clippers practice) accelerated the Clips' rise from exciting, young squad to playoff powerhouse in an instant. His presence alone has been enough to both attract veteran players (i.e. Jamal Crawford, J.J. Redick, Matt Barnes, Darren Collison) and convince notoriously thrifty owner Donald Sterling to empty his pockets accordingly.
That same persistence from CP3—along with the rest of the talent on hand and the prospects for success going forward—was enough to attract Doc Rivers, one of the premier coaches in the NBA (and the one with the highest salary of his peers), to abandon the Boston Celtics' sinking ship for decidedly greener pastures this past summer.
Purple and Old
Meanwhile, David Stern's intervention on behalf of the then-New Orleans Hornets on that fateful fall night in 2011 spelled the beginning of the end of the Lakers' three-decade stranglehold on Southern California. The Purple and Gold appeared to have found a workaround to the situation when they snagged Steve Nash and Dwight Howard in a six-week span during the summer of 2012.
But that star-studded squad famously flamed out almost as quickly as it came together. Nash succumbed to nerve problems that plague him to this day and that will likely sideline him for the remainder of the 2013-14 season. Howard struggled to fit in while battling through the aftereffects of major back surgery before fleeing to friendlier climes with the Houston Rockets last June.
Injuries to nearly every Laker of any significance—but especially to Bryant, who missed the first month-and-a-half of the season while recovering from a torn Achilles and may lose the rest to a fracture in his left tibial plateau—all but assured that the feel-good story of their 11-10 start would dissolve into the 10-30 mess they've since become.
At this point, the Lakers could register their second-lowest win total in team history. They'll need five more victories to better the 1959-60 edition, which doubled as the Lakers' last as Minneapolis' home team; owner Bob Short moved the Lakers to L.A. the following season, making theirs the NBA's first outpost on the West Coast.
That team, though, participated in the playoffs, if only because the NBA was so small. Back then, six of the league's eight teams qualified for the postseason, with the top seed in each division sitting out the best-of-three series in the first round.
This year's Lakers will have no such luxury. They're currently 14.5 games back of the final playoff spot out West. If anything, the Lakers will spend the remainder of the schedule evaluating the fringe players they have on hand—which should put them in position to land a plum pick in what's expected to be a loaded 2014 NBA draft.
Which slot the Lakers land via the lottery and how they use said slot will play an enormous role in the franchise's future, short term and long.
Should the Lakers wind up picking in, say, the top five or six of this year's draft, they could conceivably walk (or skip joyously) away with a surefire star-in-the-making.
Whether that's Canadian sensation Andrew Wiggins, tantalizing titan Joel Embiid, polished point-scorer Jabari Parker, prototype power forward Julius Randle or Australian import Dante Exum (who may or may not try to steer himself to L.A., per Sporting News' Sean Deveney) will depend as much on the Lakers' draft-day position as on their personal preferences.
Whomever the Lakers choose to be their next prodigal son will be tasked with contributing to a rapid turnaround. The Purple and Gold will have every incentive to bounce back from their abysmal season in a big way, from the Phoenix Suns' ownership of their 2015 first-round pick (via the Steve Nash sign-and-trade) to Bryant's losing fight with Father Time to, well, the Clippers' own rise to power.
L.A.'s options for doing so in a hurry could be slim. Former Lakers coach and Buss family in-law-to-be Phil Jackson described the upcoming free-agent class as "limited," via USA Today's Sam Amick, and even that's putting it lightly.
Assuming those stars with opt-outs (i.e. LeBron James, Dwyane Wade, Chris Bosh, Carmelo Anthony, Rudy Gay and Zach Randolph) don't ditch their current digs for new ones in July, the cream of this year's free-agent crop could consist of Gasol, Luol Deng, Lance Stephenson and Kyle Lowry among the unrestricteds, and Eric Bledsoe, Greg Monroe and Gordon Hayward in the restricted pool.
None of those players projects as a franchise-changer, per se. Bledsoe comes closest to that, but the Suns seem keen to keep him at all costs, and his history of knee injuries may be worth avoiding anyway.
A savvy veteran like Deng could do wonders for the Lakers. His offensive skill and defensive acumen would add considerably to the Lakers' equation on their own while relieving a twilight Bryant of some of the pressure to perform he'd otherwise endure.
The same could be said of Stephenson. His erratic play is far from ideal, but his age (he doesn't turn 24 until September) makes him a perfect fit for the Lakers' future, particularly with a freewheeling coach like Mike D'Antoni to unleash his on-ball abilities. Ditto for Lowry, though the Toronto Raptors might want to keep him around, given the impact he's had north of the border.
The Lakers should have ample cap space at their disposal with which to attract at least one souped-up role player. Bryant, Nash and Robert Sacre are the only players currently in L.A. whose contracts are guaranteed to be on the Lakers' books beyond this season.
Don't expect general manager Mitch Kupchak to spend it all at once, though. According to Bleacher Report's Kevin Ding, the Lakers aren't planning to splash their cash just yet—with at least one exception:
Everything goes out the window if LeBron James opts out of his Heat contract and is interested in the Lakers this summer, but otherwise the Lakers plan to piece a roster together again next season around Kobe Bryant and save their cap space for 2015 free agents such as Kevin Love, LaMarcus Aldridge, Rajon Rondo, Marc Gasol and maybe James.
One of those potential acquisitions would go a long way toward setting the Lakers up for a return to respectability in time for what's presumed to be Bryant's last go-round in 2015-16. Throw in a blue-chipper from this June's draft and—voila!—the Lakers could return to title contention in short order.
A Rivalry's Roots
The Clippers and their fans would probably prefer that the Lakers not turn things around so quickly, even if such a swing seems inevitable. Paul, Griffin and company are just getting used to being in the championship chase now that they're being led by a coach who knows how to navigate his way through the choppy seas that often attend their expectations.
Surely, the Clips would love to have L.A. all to themselves for a while—to siphon off Lakers fans, to make headway with other casual observers and to solidify their standing as much more than just co-tenants operating in another team's shadow. To that end, Rivers acted before the start of the season to have the Lakers' championship banners and retired jerseys covered up during Clippers home games.
"It's the Clipper court and that's the way we feel," Rivers told Melissa Rohlin of the Los Angeles Times back in October. "Again, it's not a disrespectful thing at all, it's not intended that way at all, it's more that when we play our game it should be about us and only us."
No amount of redecoration can completely wipe away either team's past in the Clippers' favor. If Doc's team wants to rewrite L.A.'s hoops history, it'll have to earn that right on the court—and not against a sad-sack squad like the one that D'Antoni is due to run out there on TNT.
The Clips won't truly be the basketball kings of L.A. until they've taken down a Lakers bunch that's similarly worthy of the throne. Otherwise, the "rivalry" will be as empty and undeserving of the term as it was when the Lakers regularly romped and stomped all over the Clippers.
John Wooden's UCLA dynasty would have been plenty memorable on its own merits, but USC's basketball excellence at the time made those Bruins an even more indelible part of the city's sports fabric.
It was the Trojans, not the Bruins, who first owned the hardwood in L.A. Under legendary coach Sam Barry, USC won nine division titles in 12 years and beat UCLA a record 40 straight times, all the while turning out game-changing Hall of Famers like Tex Winter and Bill Sharman.
Even during the height of the Wooden era, the Trojans regularly competed with the Bruins for city supremacy. At that time, it was commonplace for USC to finish its seasons undefeated, save for the blemishes on its record delivered by the Bruins.
The Lakers and Clippers won't likely duplicate that dueling excellence in the NBA, much less sustain it. The league's rules regarding team building and player salaries, along with the aging and accompanying degradation of the athletes themselves, makes competing with the elite, year in and year out, a difficult proposition without a singular superstar to shoulder the load.
Kobe was on that level as recently as last April, before the Achilles tendon in his left foot snapped. The Lakers could have themselves another talent (or two) like that if they play their cards right in both the draft and free agency over the next 16 months or so.
The Clippers, on the other hand, don't need to wait around. They already have one (Paul) in his prime and another (Griffin) who's well on his way.
But when you're as good as the Clippers are now, there's always urgency to win right away. That's especially true in light of CP3's outlook. He'll turn 29 in early May, and with his diminutive stature and history of knee problems, his best years may soon be behind him if/when time saps him of his signature quickness.
In truth, these next few months and the season or two to follow may be the best chance the Clippers will have to bring home a crown of their own. According to Sham Sports, they're capped out until 2016 and probably won't have flexibility enough to add another player of great consequence until the summer of 2017. By then, Griffin will be at the peak of his prime, Paul will be well into his 30s and both will be entering contract years.
Let's not get too far ahead of ourselves, though. The point is, there's no better time than the present for the Clippers to strike. They're pretty much "stuck" with their current core for the next two-and-a-half years, for better or worse, unless Rivers completely restructures the roster before then.
And that isn't out of the question, if any of the recent scuttle, per ESPN.com's Brian Windhorst and Ramona Shelburne, regarding the Clips possibly piquing LeBron's interest has merit.
Short of that, the Clips we see now are the ones Rivers will have to roll with for the foreseeable future. That's no knock on them whatsoever, given how close they are to legitimate title contention.
City and Colors
Whether they claim the biggest prize in pro basketball or not, they're almost assured of going where no Clippers team has gone before. Remember, this franchise has never so much as sniffed the conference finals or even spent the better part of a decade within striking distance of doing so.
These Clippers will undoubtedly be branded a disappointment if they don't achieve even that much. This organization may be in better shape than it's ever been, but if the Clips want to belong among the elite— as the Lakers have for the vast majority of their existence—they'll need to expect greatness, which comes at the cost of dissatisfaction when said greatness isn't realized.
And if the Clippers do live up to their billing...well, that'll be the day, won't it? One championship won't turn the tables entirely in their favor, but it will grant them their fair share of high ground from which to reign over L.A.
Still, what better way for the Clippers to get there than to do so at the Lakers' expense? Wouldn't that milestone mean more if the Clips had to overcome a Lakers squad worthy of the Purple and Gold, rather than one comprised of scrubs and D-Leaguers?
Which team will win a championship first?
If nothing else, doesn't L.A. deserve for every meeting between its two NBA cornerstones to be a clash of titans?
Say what you will about the city's sports fandom, but its basketball heritage is beyond reproach.
Even New York and Chicago would have a tough time competing with L.A.'s lineage, from its homegrown heroes and local legends (Marques Johnson, Baron Davis, James Harden, Paul George) to those who fashioned formidable legacies around town (Magic Johnson, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Kobe Bryant, Jerry West); from its storied high school gyms and nationally renowned summer pro-ams to its decorated collegiate programs and star-powered NBA pillars.
L.A. wasn't always a basketball town, but with the 20th anniversary of the NFL's vacation nearing and baseball's pastoral charm succumbing to the march of modernity, it's certainly become one.
A truly competitive rivalry between the Lakers and the Clippers would solidify the sport's primacy in town and remind the world that while New York may talk a big game about being basketball's Mecca, L.A. has the resume to back up its own claim to that name—and then some.
This isn't to suggest that Clippers fans must act against their collective conscience and pull for a Lakers renaissance outright. If anything, too much buddy-buddy business between the bases would diminish the rivalry.
Rather, a distaste for the Lakers that's laced with respect, for both the opponent and the city of whose fabric they're an integral part, would put the Charles Darnays and Sydney Cartons of L.A. on similar footing and liven up a rivalry whose quality and ferocity isn't yet commensurate with what basketball means to this place, but certainly has the potential to be.
Tweet me your L.A. pride!