The Basketball Gods couldn’t have envisioned it coming to this.
DeAndre Jordan’s outstretched arms skied in the air as his 6'11" frame exuded maximum energy output to save the game that had been slipping away in an all-too familiar way for his Los Angeles Clippers.
Attacking Jordan in the precious few seconds before the buzzer sounded is the Los Angeles Lakers’ seasoned but diminutive 6'1" point-guard Derek Fisher. Judged solely off the tangible factors of basketball, this matchup seems to secure an unsavory end for the mighty Lakers and a much needed victory for the long-suffering Clippers.
With a threat of equilibrium breaking, the Basketball Gods intervened.
Despite the 10-inch disadvantage in height, Fisher’s lay-up poetically glided inches above Jordan’s flailing arms and nestled comfortable into the hoop as the buzzer sounded and secured another breathtaking victory for Goliath and another heartbreaking setback for David.
The game statistics look very much as any disgruntled Clippers fan would expect to see them.
Lakers win 87-86. The Clippers blow a 12 point lead in the second half to fall yet again to their Staples Center brethren, the two-time defending champions of the basketball world. The Lakers record improves to a strong 16-6 and the Clippers fall to an unsightly 5-18.
Sanity is restored.
After the game, Jordan said of his near-miss on the blocked shot “my fingertip hit it. I just wasn’t up high enough.”
Close, but not close enough.
Throughout the Clippers 40-year history as an NBA franchise, few have the unfortunate distinction of playing with such a futile track record. Zero Division Championships, zero Western Conference Championships, zero NBA Championships and one playoff appearance in the past 13 seasons.
The gap between the Clippers and an NBA franchise with even modest historical success (think Phoenix Suns or Orlando Magic), is quite disparaging.
However, there is no greater disparity then a comparison with the opponent that broke the Clippers heart that fateful night: the Los Angeles Lakers.
One only needs to see the numbers 16 (NBA Championships), 30 (conference championships) and .747 (Lakers winning percentage in head-to-head match-ups with the Clippers) to know which team has dominated the Los Angeles basketball scene since the inception of the NBA.
All of the above makes this forthcoming statement appear to be pure lunacy in every regard. No historical perspective supports it. Very few, if any, relevant statistics even point to an existence of it. Those same Basketball Gods laugh dismissively at the mere mention of it.
Yet, after a thorough and comprehensive analysis of all the facts, there is an emerging reality that cannot be ignored after watching the back-and-forth drama that took place on that December night in the Staples Center:
The Los Angeles Clippers, as they are currently constructed, are the future of professional basketball in Los Angeles.
The head shakes and the smirks are sure to come from such a seemingly ludicrous statement.
But before initial emotional shock starts to set in and override judgment on the issue, a breakdown and comparison of each team’s roster, (coaches as well as players by position) will provide understanding of how the Clippers may break loose from the shackles of four decade’s worth of irrelevancy and step outside the shadow of the Lakers once and for all.
Without further adieu:
Los Angeles Lakers: Phil Jackson
Los Angeles Clippers: Vinny Del Negro
Even the most die-hard Clippers fan would never even entertain the idea that Clippers head coach Vinny Del Negro is in the same coaching universe as 11-time NBA champion Phil Jackson. Actually, unless your name is Red Auerbach, no one is even in the same stratosphere as Jackson.
Which team do you believe has a brighter future?
Both Del Negro and Jackson are former head coaches of the Chicago Bulls, but the similarities end there. As the Bulls head coach for nine seasons, Jackson won six NBA Championships lining up arguable the greatest player ever to the play game at shooting guard (Michael Jordan) and arguably the most destructive defensive force of the 90’s at point-forward (Scottie Pippen).
Del Negro lasted two years as the Bulls head coach before getting fired with an 82-82 record and two first-round playoff exits. As a head coach, Jackson’s career winning percentage is .705 over a career spanning 1,558 games. After 200 games as a head coach, (including this season), Del Negro’s is .497.
At this point, the argument seems mute. There’s no way that the Clippers could ever have an edge in coaching in comparison to the Lakers.
But, since we’re dealing with the future of both teams, this is where the debate gets interesting. Jackson has stated many times that, even if he captures a third straight and 12th overall championship ring on his finger, this is his last year as the Lakers' head coach.
With Jackson done after this year, where do the Lakers go from there?
There will be no shortage of top-notch coaches applying to be in charge of the two-time defending champions, but can anyone ever succeed Jackson? After Jackson’s departure from the Bulls in 1998, Chicago has never been the same.
True, Jordan and Pippen also left, but there’s something to be said for the fact that in the 12 years since Jackson stepped down as coach, the Bulls have never made it past the first round of the playoffs.
This pales in comparison to the disaster the Lakers endured after Jackson left for the 2004-05 season.
After coaching for the Lakers to three NBA Titles in five seasons, Jackson retired. The aftermath: a 34-48 record as the Shaq-less Lakers floundered under new coach Rudy Tomjanovich, which prompted owner Jerry Buss to successfully plead Jackson into returning the following season.
There are reasons that teams have found little success after Jackson leaves the club and it boils down to two words: Triangle and Coaching.
Jackson’s system of offense is known as the Triangle, a complex system that is utilized by very few other coaches at any level of basketball. Despite all of Jackson’s success with the system, the complexity and unique features of the Triangle ensure a tough transition for any player who goes from playing in the Triangle to any other system of offense.
Secondly, there have been less than a handful of coaches who have successfully juggled the magnitude of egos that Jackson has in his career. The list of coaches who failed to reign in the cantankerous personalities of Michael Jordan and Kobe Bryant are endless (Doug Collins, Rudy Tomjanovich, and Del Fisher just to name a few). Only one coach was able to successfully placate each superstar guard while cultivating a winning culture: Jackson.
This unfortunate soon-to-be reality is what hovers over the future of the Lakers organization, how do you replace Phil Jackson when it has never been successfully done before?
This is a perfect lead-in as to why the future looks bright from the coaching bench of the Los Angeles Clippers. Although Vinny Del Negro’s coaching record is far from stellar, there have been indications that Del Negro’s teams take on the tenacity and smarts he himself exuded as a former NBA player.
In the first round of the 2009 Playoffs, his Chicago Bulls lost to the defending champion Boston Celtics in an epic seven game series in which a record four games were decided in overtime.
The next year, after making a late charge to get into the playoffs, the Bulls pushed the LeBron James-led Cleveland Cavaliers before finally falling in five games. In addition, Del Negro is still considered a relatively young coach at age 44, which means his best days have yet to materialize.
Better outlook for the future: Clippers
Los Angeles Lakers: Starter- Derek Fisher. Bench- Steve Blake
Los Angeles Clippers: Starter- Baron Davis. Bench- Eric Bledsoe
Fisher's merits as a clutch player have been well documented, and for good reason (off-balance three-pointer with 0.4 seconds left to clinch Game 5 of the Western Conference Semi-Finals against the Spurs, go-ahead three pointer to clinch the 2009 NBA Finals for the Lakers in Game 6).
For all the accolades allotted to Kobe Bryant for his ability to come through with the game on the line, Fisher quietly has asserted himself as an equally feared shooter late in the fourth quarter as well.
However, at age 36 and 15 seasons under his belt, Fisher's best days are clearly behind him. In no other area is this more apparent than watching Fisher struggle on the defensive end against young, quick point guards.
In the 2010 NBA Finals, the Lakers feared that Boston Celtics point guard Rajon Rondo would embarrass Fisher so badly that they had him guard Celtics shooting guard Ray Allen instead, putting the 6-6 Bryant on the 6-1 Rondo. Though this matchup worked in the Lakers favor, it illustrated the defensive liability Fisher had become in guarding his own position.
In the offseason, knowing they needed to give Fisher some backup help at the point, they acquired former Clippers point guard Steve Blake. A nine year veteran who is now playing for his sixth different team, Blake is currently shooting a lowly 38 percent from the field this season while averaging just under 20 minutes per game.
In addition, Blake has struggled at times this year in doing what he was brought to the Lakers to do: stop quick point guards on the defensive end. With his extremely low shooting numbers, combined with his suspect defense, Blake provides little stability for the present or future that the Lakers desperately crave at the point guard position with a rapidly declining Derek Fisher.
He's been known for his lethargic attitude as much as his undeniable talent as a player, but when healthy and motivated, Baron Davis is an exceptional player. This was solidified when, as the point guard for the eighth seed Golden State Warriors in the 2007 Western Conference Playoffs, he led the Warriors to statistically the largest upset in NBA playoff history.
Through Davis’ leadership, the underdog Warriors defeated the number one seeded Dallas Mavericks in five games. For the series, Davis averaged 25.3 points, 6.5 assists, 2.9 steals and 4.5 rebounds per game in a remarkable all-around performance that goes down as one of the most spectacular in Warriors history.
Though his production has dropped since joining the Clippers last season (he's averaging 12.5 ppg and 7.1 apg this season), he is an integral factor in facilitating the rise of young Clippers stars such as Blake Griffin and Eric Gordon.
As a rookie, Eric Bledsoe has easily outperformed the lofty expectations set for him when he arrived in Clipperland from Kentucky.
Bledsoe ranks second among all rookies in assists-per-game and fourth in steals-per-game all the while averaging nearly 26 minutes per-game. Whereas Davis provides strength in posting up smaller point guards, Bledsoe's entry into a game provides a change of pace with his blazing speed and quick hands.
Looking to the future, there is little doubt about which team is in better shape at the point guard position.
Better Outlook for the Future: Clippers
Los Angeles Lakers: Starter- Kobe Bryant. Bench- Shannon Brown.
Los Angeles Clippers: Starter- Eric Gordon. Bench- Randy Foye, Willie Warren.
As with the Coaches section, the historical perspective tells us that any comparison of Kobe Bryant and Eric Gordon is an utter waste of time and space. We've seen Bryant's game winning shots. We know the five NBA Championship rings and two Finals MVP's that Bryant has hanging proudly in his trophy case. We're all awed at his statistical production (27,112 points career points, 25.3 ppg career scoring average).
I get it. All of this overwhelmingly supports a clear advantage for the Lakers.
But, before you laugh at the thought of this being a point of conjecture, remember what our focus is here: a hypothetical look to what the future will hold.
As unfathomable as Bryant's scoring statistics may be (and many of them rank in the Top 10 all time), there are even more pertinent statistics that may be a better predictor of Bryant's future production.
In his career, Bryant has logged (including both regular season and playoffs) 1,265 games and 46,698 minutes in 14 seasons. That is some serious mileage to be putting on one player's motor, no matter how driven Bryant might be
How does this all affect Bryant and the Lakers' future? As former NBA player Jalen Rose stated, "Father Clock is undefeated." Meaning that, after this type of production over such a prolonged period of time, the wear and tear of an 82 game regular season will result in the breakdown of the superhuman scoring machine that is Kobe Bryant.
This is all music to the ears of Clipperland residents.
In fact, Father Clock may already be working his magic sooner than expected.
This season, the statistical comparisons between Bryant and Clippers third year shooting guard Eric Gordon are almost dead even. Bryant holds a surprisingly minuscule edge in points per game (25.4 to 24.1) and assists per game (5.0 to 4.5). Even more shockingly, Gordon actually holds the edge in shooting percentage (.468 to .460) and a commanding edge in three point shooting percentage (.359 to .315).
Yes, you read that correctly. Eric Gordon is putting up similar numbers at a more productive level than Kobe Bryant.
It must be noted that Bryant's affect on the Lakers goes far beyond the numbers. He is constantly guarded by the opposing team's best defender, and he works in the shadow of double teams throughout the game; an inconvenience that Gordon has yet to consistently encounter.
However, this doesn't minimize the fact that Bryant's best days are clearly behind. This just so happens to be corresponding with the rise of Eric Gordon, a young player who is not even close to scratching the surface of his prodigal talents.
Even a comparison of the shooting guards on the bench for the Clippers and Lakers doesn't reveal any edge. Bryant's main backup (Shannon Brown) and Gordon's main backup (Randy Foye) are nearly even in points per game, shooting percentage, rebounds and assists.
All of this statistical analysis and career judgment brings us to a crossroads in this discussion of the future of both Bryant and Gordon. Would you rather have the future Hall-of-Famer who may be one of the 10 greatest players of all time trending downward in his career? Or the youthful, budding guard who has the potential to develop into a perennial All-Star?
With the future as our guide, the answer that seemed so preposterous a few paragraphs ago is starting to sound...dare I say it...correct?
Better Outlook for the Future: Slight edge to the Clippers
Los Angeles Lakers: Starter- Ron Artest. Bench- Matt Barnes, Luke Walton.
Los Angeles Clippers: Starter- Ryan Gomes. Bench- Craig Smith, Rasual Butler.
Game 7 of the 2010 NBA Finals provided the biggest stage that Ron Artest ever encountered in his professional career. In response to this, Artest knocked down arguably the series-clinching three-pointer in an overall clutch performance.
What a difference a season makes.
Long gone is the memory of that Game 7 clutch performance, replacing it are these headlines "Artest wants out of L.A," and "Artest producing at the lowest point of his career."
Not only is Artest scoring at the lowest clip of his career by far (this season: 8.2 ppg, career: 15.0 ppg) he's also not nearly the defender we've come to expect from Ron Ron. In the Lakers' January 30th home loss to the Celtics, Artest was torched by Paul Pierce, who put up 32 points on 11-for-18 shooting. This is the same Paul Pierce that, a mere seven months ago, Artest largely held in check throughout the NBA Finals.
Luckily for Artest, in regards to this article, he is matched up against one of the weaker components to the Clippers' starting lineup, Ryan Gomes.
The fifth year forward out of Providence has flashed moments of brilliance, but has yet to contribute in a consistent manner in his first year as a Clipper. A career 11.1 ppg scorer, he is currently averaging his lowest points per game (8.1) since his rookie season. Behind Gomes awaits two young players (Craig Smith and Rasual Butler) who have yet to play serious minutes or significantly figure into the Clippers rotation.
So, despite a large drop-off in Artest's production, the Lakers are bolstered by two veterans (Matt Barnes and Luke Walton) who, despite advancing age, provide different looks for Los Angeles.
Walton, a key component for the Lakers in his seventh year with the team, has never wowed anyone statistically but has always provided defensive energy and effort off the bench. In addition, the Lakers' newest addition, Matt Barnes, has given the Lakers 7.5 points per game while just averaging around 20 minutes per game.
All of this points to a clear advantage for Lakers, finally.
Better Outlook for the Future: Lakers
Los Angeles Lakers: Starter- Pau Gasol. Bench- Lamar Odom, Devin Ebanks, Derrick Caracter
Los Angeles Clippers: Starter: Blake Griffin. Bench- Brian Cook, Ike Diogu.
Let's get the obvious out of the way early, there’s no one at any position on the Clippers bench that can compete with Mr. Kardashian himself, the Lakers sixth man Lamar Odom.
Odom's ability to play all five positions at 6'10" is unmatched around the league. What he brings to the table: three point shooting, rebounding, clutch shooting and ball-handling gives the Lakers a huge boost off the bench.
Not that the Lakers really need it.
In the 2008 NBA Finals against the Celtics, Pau Gasol was decried as "soft" in the post and didn't have the killer mentality needed to keep up with his hyper-competitive counterpart, Kevin Garnett.
Fast forward two years later to the 2010 Finals rematch against those same Celtics and that deafening criticism now constitutes a barely perceptible whisper. Gasol redeemed himself by outplaying Garnett and averaging a crisp 18.6 points per game and 11.6 rebounds per game.
In addition, Gasol has established himself as arguably the best offensive post player in the entire league.
Not bad for a 1-2 punch right? No way the Clippers could compete with that production right? And, given that both players are barely over thirty years old, is there any way that their future outlook could be overshadowed by the Clippers?
For those of you asking those questions, Clippers fans have two words: Blake Griffin.
Quick, how many rookies in the past 20 years have ever averaged 22 ppg, 10 rpg and 3 apg for an entire season? The answer: no one. Unless Griffin goes off the deep end in terms of production, Griffin will not only achieve those numbers, he will obliterate them. Currently, Griffin is averaging 22.6 ppg, 12.7 rpg and a solid 3.5 apg.
Did I mention this guy was a rookie?
Griffin's numbers compared to other rookies is almost as unfair as it would be unleashing Dwight Howard in AAU tournaments at center. Griffin is currently 8 ppg ahead of the second place scorer, John Wall.
In terms of rebounds, Griffin is a whole 5 per game ahead of Kings center DeMarcus Cousins. In terms of P.A.R. (points +assists+rebounds) per game, Griffin's is 38.9. The next closest? John Wall at 28.0
Now that, my friends, is what I'd call a runaway Rookie of the Year candidate.
So, bringing us back to the crux of this question, how do you gauge which team is better positioned for the future with their current makeup of power forwards?
Really, there is no wrong answer.
Do you prefer the best sixth man in the league coming off the bench to replace the most polished scorer in the post? Or is the most exciting and explosive young star in the game your taste of choice? But, each time you catch yourself leaning towards the Odom/Gasol duo, just remember this, do you really want to bet against Blake Griffin?
If Griffin is averaging numbers of historic proportions at 21 years old, what can he accomplish in the future? When his younger teammates like Eric Gordon, Eric Bledsoe and DeAndre Jordan (we'll get to him) start to catch up to his level; won't that allow Griffin to thrive without the pressure of having to be "The Man" every night?
I'm willing to take the leap of faith that what we're seeing now will pale in comparison to the Blake Griffin we will see in the years to come.
Better Outlook for the Future: Slight edge to the Clippers
Los Angeles Lakers: Starter- Andrew Bynum. Bench- Theo Ratliff, Joe Smith
Los Angeles Clippers: Starter- DeAndre Jordan. Bench- Chris Kaman.
Contrary to popular opinion, the toughest call in this debate may be right here at Center. How do you pick a side when both players are young, have similar skill sets, similar limitations and have yet to reach their potential?
The first thing that is at the forefront of every Andrew Bynum discussion is his health. In his five seasons as the Lakers starting center Bynum he has only started 213 games, an average of 42.6 games per season.
That is definitely a problem.
In contrast, in Jordan's third season he has yet to sustain a serious injury that has derailed him for a significant portion of the season. Jordan has played in over 70 percent of games since being drafted by the Clippers out of Texas A&M.
However debilitating Bynum's injuries have been, there is no question who has flashed greater brilliance.
When healthy, Bynum is as effective a low post player offensively and defensively that there is in the NBA. This is evidenced by his presence in the Lakers lineup last season where in his 65 starts, he averaged 15.0 points and 8.3 rebounds per game. In the Lakers run to the championship, Bynum played terrific defense on opposing big men and took much of the offensive pressure off of Kobe and Gasol.
But the question remains, will Bynum's injury history begin to take its toll and break down his body? Bynum's endless amount of injuries is frightening considering he is still only 23 years old.
This is where Jordan has the edge.
In his three seasons, Jordan has yet to dominate the game statistically (career: 5.2 ppg, and 5.4 rpg) but there are signs that the future holds a brighter day.
Jordan is currently shooting an impressive 67.3 percent from the field, which illustrates how effectively he uses is 7'0" frame on the block. In addition, he has been the perfect complement to Blake Griffin on the defensive end. Jordan can hold down the low post defensively, allowing Griffin more freedom to roam the high post and get out in transition off of turnovers.
Jordan's defensive prowess has been essential as the Clips have made, albeit very slow, progress from one season to the next.
With a bright future ahead, and no significant injury history to date, Jordan's potential is the deciding factor.
Better Outlook for the Future: Clippers
After such a painstakingly thorough and comprehensive look at the coaching staff, starters and bench players of the Los Angeles Clippers and the Los Angeles Lakers, here are the final totals.
Coaching Staff: Clippers
Point Guard: Clippers
Shooting Guard: Clippers
Small Forward: Lakers
Power Forward: Clippers
I understand many of you, even after spending close to half your day reading this article (hey, you couldn't have a short breakdown of something of this magnitude, right?) may still scoff at the results.
Of course, players like Kobe may keep playing at a higher level longer than expected. Eric Gordon and DeAndre Jordan may never materialize into the players we think they will become. Andrew Bynum may stay healthy for the rest of his career. Who really knows?
But one thing is for sure, as the Clippers and Lakers walked off of the floor that contentious December night, the outcome may have been expected. The status quo may have reigned.
But we always have the future.