LOS ANGELES — The Lakers and Clippers, for better or for worse, will always be linked with each other. It’s a consequence of sharing the same city, the same building, and competing for much of the same fanbase.
It sometimes feels like the two franchises are on a seesaw; while one rides high, the other is experiencing the lowest of the lows. The Lakers used to be the darlings of the league under Jerry Buss, while Donald Sterling was universally reviled, making the Clippers a punchline. Now, the Lakers are mocked for their decision-making and instability while the Clippers receive plaudits for their front office. This season, the Clippers have been one of the league’s best feel-good stories as the Lakers have squandered promising preseason expectations.
The contrast between the two teams is always readily apparent, and no more so than in 2018-19, when each of the Lakers’ failures became magnified by the Clippers’ deft handling of similar situations.
A roster full of free agents and a front office eager to upgrade for the future? That may have led to locker room dysfunction for the purple and gold, but not for their counterparts.
Trade deadline angst? Not for the team that presently employs Ivica Zubac.
Head coaching tension? Doc Rivers shut down Lakers interest and doubled down by agreeing to an extension with the Clippers.
Even one of the Lakers’ most enjoyable moments of the year — the pitch-perfect bench reaction to Lance Stephenson crossing over Jeff Green on Mar. 26 — stood in stark relief to a more momentous occasion for the Clippers that night, as they celebrated clinching a playoff berth.
So with the Lakers and Clippers facing each other in the last week of the season, it seemed like another opportunity for the Clippers to assert their current status as the team-to-beat in Los Angeles as they prepare for the postseason.
Instead, the seesaw teetered in the other direction.
The Lakers’ performance Friday typified so many Clippers characteristics, starting with simply being ready to play. Luke Walton and Alex Caruso acknowledged that the hallway rivalry is fun for both teams, and JaVale McGee credited the matchup for giving the Lakers more intensity.
“Obviously the game against the Clippers is always exciting because it’s the Battle for LA,” Caruso said.
“A lot of guys had a lot of energy just because it’s the Battle of LA,” McGee added. “It’s kind of fun for us, so I feel like a lot of guys were playing hard, and we had a lot fun.”
The Lakers had a strong showing from their bench, namely the continued magnificent exploits of recent signee Jemerrio Jones, on their way to outplaying the presumptive Sixth Man of the Year Lou Williams and the Clippers second unit. The Lakers were the team who came through in the clutch, who hit their free throws, and continued to outperform their talent level. Over the past couple of weeks, the Lakers are starting to resemble the upstart team who is figuring things out ahead of a defining offseason.
And therein lies the most interesting part of the Clippers-Lakers dichotomy as we move forward into 2019-20. The prevailing theory is that the Clippers’ success this season and their general blissful existence in a time of Lakers melodrama will make them a more attractive team for star free agents during the summer. For most of the season, the younger franchise has made its case.
But the Lakers are picking the perfect time to stem that tide, and in the process, maybe take their neighbors down a peg or two.
The team has found value in trying to win every game while showcasing young players, demonstrating to stars the promise of the future in addition to the existing prize of LeBron James. It’s another attitude that relates back to the Clippers, who have refused to dignify tanking by even speaking of the “t-word” this season.
None of this is to say that the Lakers are now better than their neighbors, or that they have surpassed the Clippers in future power rankings. The Clippers are still playing with real stakes, while the Lakers derive motivation from playing the spoiler. But you don’t have to go too far back to remember the Clippers were the lovable losers, and they’ve come a long way since then.
“It’s crazy, it’s like a reversal of probably 15 years ago when the Clips beat the Lakers,” Rivers said postgame. “That’s how you felt, they got up, they were excited to play us.”
For years, the Lakers were the model franchise that other teams in the NBA aspired to become. Now, they have an opportunity to learn from their Staples Center co-tenants and regain the high ground as they head into the offseason with something else in common — a free-agent wish list.
To borrow a word from Rivers, it is kind of crazy that the Lakers can look to the Clippers for guidance on how to complete their rebuild. The way the balance of power has shifted between the two teams over the last decade is genuinely surprising, even if max cap room and the presence of LeBron could change things around rather quickly.
Still, the Lakers should try to absorb every drop of institutional wisdom from watching the Clippers, particularly if success for the Los Angeles basketball teams remains mutually exclusive. The Lakers may have shown for one night that they can prevail over their L.A. counterparts, but the coming months will show if that can become a permanent change, and not just a temporary swing of the Staples Center seesaw.