B/R NBA Staff: Do Los Angeles Lakers or LA Clippers Have the Brighter Future?

Bleacher Report NBA StaffFeatured ColumnistMay 7, 2020

B/R NBA Staff: Do Los Angeles Lakers or LA Clippers Have the Brighter Future?

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    With the 2019-20 NBA season still on hiatus, all 30 teams have unanswered questions. But when looking at the league's landscape and asking which franchises have the most long-term intrigue, few are matched by the Los Angeles Lakers and Los Angeles Clippers. 

    It's Rivalry Week here at Bleacher Report, so we've asked five NBA writers to look at the futures of the teams that share Staples Center (for now). We start with the would-be 2020 postseason, end up asking "Who ya got?" three years down the road and hit some important topics in between. 

    If you could only pick one of these teams with the future in mind, which would it be? 

    Hit the Bleacher Report App with your take on the Battle for L.A. 

Who Wins a 7-Game Playoff Series?

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    Before the season was suspended, my answer would have been that I liked the Clippers' depth more but that I couldn't bet against this year's MVP-level version of LeBron James.

    In a shortened, fan-less postseason tournament, well, I think my answer would be the same, but for different reasons.

    Just as last spring's extended break helped rejuvenate LeBron after he made eight straight Finals, this unexpected time off in the lead-up to the postseason will benefit him at his age more than anybody else. I also have similar concerns from before the shutdown about the Clippers' best players having relatively little time logged on the court together due to Kawhi Leonard's load management and Paul George's injuries.

    Will a shortened second training camp after months away from each other be enough to get their chemistry back to where they hoped it would be by the start of the postseason?

    It's tough, but I still find it hard to pick against LeBron.

    Sean Highkin

If Bucks Win East, Are Clippers or Lakers More Ready for 2020 Finals?

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    LeBron James and the Los Angeles Lakers have had more success against Giannis Antetokounmpo and the Milwaukee Bucks this season, but it was Kawhi Leonard who orchestrated the upset of the No. 1-seeded Bucks in the playoffs last year.

    The L.A. team best suited to beat Milwaukee in a seven-game series actually won't be determined by James or Leonard, but rather by one of their star teammates.

    Anthony Davis is the key to knocking off Giannis and the Bucks as his 6'10", 253-pound frame and 7'6" wingspan represent one of the few defensive challenges in the league for Antetokounmpo. Davis is a Defensive Player of the Year candidate and possesses the length and quickness to make Antetokounmpo work on both ends of the ball.

    Davis is also averaging 33.0 points in two games against Milwaukee this season, with the Lakers and Bucks splitting the series at a win apiece. Antetokounmpo will have to guard either Davis or James, and that could wear him down offensively as the potential series progresses.

    James would also bring the experience of nine prior trips to the NBA Finals, a stage Antetokounmpo has yet to reach. As good as the Bucks are, they're not at the level of the previous Golden State Warriors teams he faced in his last four championship rounds.

    The Clippers showed no signs of slowing down Milwaukee in their only meeting that featured Leonard and Paul George, losing 119-91 on Dec. 6 while the two stars combined for just 30 total points. While they may be the deeper team, the Lakers are better constructed to match up with the Bucks in the Finals thanks to Davis.

    Greg Swartz

Which Star Duo Are You Building Around?

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    If this question pertained only to this season, I'd take LeBron James and Anthony Davis. James is no worse than the silver medalist in the MVP race, and Davis might snag a top-five finish. Kawhi Leonard is in that discussion, too, but Paul George, who had his debut delayed by offseason shoulder surgery and then had trouble shaking a hamstring problem, is nowhere near it.

    But in the Association, the big picture is never boiled down to a single campaign. Factor the future into this debate and the Clippers become the clear-cut choice.

    Leonard is a two-time Finals MVP and two-time Defensive Player of the Year who's in a perpetual state of improvement. Throw out his bizarre nine-game season in 2017-18 and he has elevated his offensive output every year, often while simultaneously boosting his shooting efficiency. He's in the best-player-on-the-planet conversation, and I'm not sure we've even seen his best.

    George might have sputtered some this season, but he was the league leader in ESPN's all-encompassing real plus-minus metric last year. He also took bronze in the MVP voting. When he's right, he's on a very short list of basketball's top two-way talents.

    Leonard is 28 years old. George turned 30 this month. James, on the other hand, will celebrate his 36th birthday before the year is finished.

    Even cyborgs can only outwit Father Time for so long. How many more seasons can we reasonably expect him to star in a dominant duo? Not enough to nudge this debate in the Purple and Gold's favor.

    Zach Buckley

Who Is Better Set Up for 2020 Free Agency?

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    Neither the Los Angeles Lakers nor the Los Angeles Clippers project to have any cap room this offseason.

    That might change for the Lakers if Anthony Davis chooses to opt out of his contract and leaves as an unrestricted free agent. They also have four additional players with options who will dictate the team's spending power: Kentavious Caldwell-Pope, Avery Bradley, JaVale McGee and Rajon Rondo.

    Outside of a trade, the Clippers have no path to cap room.

    Both franchises will need to be cognizant of the luxury-tax threshold (around $139 million). The Clippers can pay Marcus Morris Sr. up to $18 million in his first season to stay via his non-Bird rights. Montrezl Harrell is eligible for a max contract and is believed to be looking for something in the $20 million range. Upon re-signing both, the Clippers will be limited to the taxpayer mid-level exception of roughly $6 million. 

    Even if Davis re-signs with the Lakers and everyone chooses to opt in, the franchise should still have its full mid-level (roughly $9.8 million) and bi-annual (approximately $3.8 million) exceptions with a hard cap at $145 million. They have more upside this summer, perhaps shopping players like Kyle Kuzma and Alex Caruso, but keeping Davis is everything.

    The Clippers don't have the obvious means to replace Morris and Harrell, but they would gain the full mid-level and bi-annual exceptions if they left.

    Neither team has much to offer in draft considerations. If the Lakers are able to fashion a strong Kuzma trade, they may be able to get more out of the offseason than the Clippers can by maintaining their status quo.

    Eric Pincus

How Are They Set Up for the 2021 Offseason?

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    The 2021 offseason may be the Summer of Giannis, assuming Antetokounmpo doesn't first sign an extension with the Milwaukee Bucks, but it may also be the Summer of Kawhi or even the Summer of LeBron once again.

    The Los Angeles Clippers stunned the league last July, landing both Leonard in free agency and Paul George in a trade with the Oklahoma City Thunder. Their next challenge: Both Leonard and George can opt out ahead of the 2021 free-agency period.

    So too can James, though if the working assumption is that Anthony Davis will opt out in 2020 to re-sign, the Los Angeles Lakers may be in a more stable position than the Clippers. James, who shares an agent with Davis in Rich Paul of Klutch Sports and has his children in L.A. area schools, may even be open to staying at a discount to enable the Lakers to swoop in on Antetokounmpo.

    Meanwhile, the Clippers have to appease both Leonard and George. If one decides to move on, the other may also choose to relocate. Leonard, in particular, has been harder to track over the course of his career, pushing for a trade away from the San Antonio Spurs and then leaving the Toronto Raptors after winning the title in 2019.

    Outside of Davis, assuming he re-signs in 2020, and the final $5 million payment owed to Luol Deng, the Lakers have cleared their books. Even without either superstar, they have close to maximum flexibility.

    Without Leonard and George, the Clippers only have about $22 million locked up in Patrick Beverley and Ivica Zubac. Neither team has much to offer other franchises by way of draft picks based on previous obligations to acquire Davis and George.


Who Ya Got in 3 Years?

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    The Lakers and Clippers are both led by absurdly talented top twos: Kawhi Leonard and Paul George for the Clippers and Anthony Davis and LeBron James for the Lakers. But in three years, the only one who'll still be in the first year of his 30s is AD, so consider my Lakers pick an endorsement of his prime and LeBron's continued agelessness.

    Yes, LeBron will be in his age-38 season by then, but he's already transitioning to a different form that will allow him to maintain a high impact through 2022-23.

    In 2019-20, LeBron has fully embraced the Magic Johnson side of his hybrid game. He's averaging a career-high and league-leading 10.6 assists and often preserving his body from the smashing and crashing that resulted from his early-career drives. Plus, he's setting a new career high for three-point-attempt rate (32.4 percent of his attempts came from downtown).

    As he continues to age (odd as that sounds when describing LeBron), he can lean even further into his evolution toward becoming a traditional point guard.

    And having Davis as his current No. 2 helps this transition. AD is already talented enough to be the top option, and he'll take on that mantle over the next three years. The chemistry between these two simmered from the get-go, as well. There was no adjustment period, but time will make it even better.

    The other factors here relate to the Clippers. Kawhi is already the face of load management, and PG has had multiple shoulder surgeries. Questions about health and the fact that both can opt out after next season makes LAC's future a bit more tenuous than many could've imagined when this roster first came together last summer.

    Andy Bailey