Over the last year, the Los Angeles Lakers have preserved their cap space in hopes of landing another superstar free agent to pair alongside LeBron James.
Last year, they were hoping Paul George would be that player, but he opted to re-sign with the Oklahoma City Thunder on a four-year, max deal.
This summer, their primary target was Kawhi Leonard, but after a week of deliberating, Leonard snubbed both the Lakers and Toronto Raptors for the Clippers, who gave up an unprecedented combination of young players and draft picks for George and formed one of the most formidable two-way duos in the league.
On Wednesday, both Leonard and George were introduced by the Clippers, and they pushed all the right buttons to set the stage for what promises to be an exciting rivalry in Los Angeles.
At the beginning, Leonard wasn’t taking direct shots at the Lakers, but his comments about the togetherness of the Clippers organization can’t help but feel like a verbal subtweet after how free agency went.
“I just felt like with Doc being a championship head coach, that’s something that I wanted — an experienced coach. And the front office is just really transparent with me. They want to win... and it’s just an opportunity for us to just build our own (history), you know what I mean? To make history. They haven’t been to a Finals, they haven’t won a Finals. That was something big and exciting for me to make my decision.”
It’s no secret that the Lakers have had more than their fair share of issues over the last few months, from Magic Johnson’s abrupt resignation to Luke Walton’s firing. It’s also well-known that they were unable to reach an agreement with Tyronn Lue, who led LeBron James and the Cleveland Cavaliers to a championship in 2016. In other words, the Lakers could have given Leonard everything he was looking for, but because of the many missteps they’ve made over the last year, they couldn’t.
Granted, the Lakers still managed to pair LeBron James and Anthony Davis together, but their mistakes may have cost them an opportunity to add Leonard to the fold. C’est la vie, I suppose.
Later on in the press conference, Leonard went straight for the throat, saying the Clippers have been the better Los Angeles team for a while now but haven’t been given the recognition they’ve deserved.
“As far as the last few years, as far as a basketball standpoint, the Clippers have been better, but it’s just media. They’re going to get the attention. They’re the Los Angeles Lakers, they been winning championships for a long time … it’s just a media aspect. Even if we do win, who knows how the coverage will change over?
“If we go to the championship and win we’re not getting no coverage, that’s fine with me. I’m good.”
In Leonard’s defense, this is undeniably true.
The Lakers haven’t finished with a better record than the Clippers since 2012, and even then it was only by one win. The Clippers have also won 16 of their last 20 matchups with the Lakers. Last season, they split the season series 2-2.
George was a little more political with his answer when he was asked about getting the Clippers out of the Lakers’ shadow, but given his history with the Lakers, it didn’t sting any less.
“Lakers is Lakers. We got our own identity; we chasing something else. We not looking at ‘The Battle of L.A.’ We’ve got bigger things in mind and bigger goals to accomplish other than ‘the shadow.’ None of that really means anything. They got to come out and perform the same way we got to come out and perform. I think for us, at the end of the day, we want to be holding that trophy and that’s all that matters. We’ll build our legacy and our Clipper Nation up along the way.”
Leonard’s final blow to Lakers fans came in response to a question about how important it was to him that the Clippers kept their negotiations with him under wraps.
“A lot of things are made up now in today’s world of NBA. You can start a website or blog and push that out and say, ‘Kawhi’s doing this, Kawhi’s doing that.’ But it’s always important to me to have a mutual understanding between everyone to be transparent, good or bad, and I feel like that builds a great relationship. Once we had our meeting, they were true to their word; nothing really got out.”
Over the last few weeks, several people have reported that Leonard was turned off by the fact that details about his conversation with Magic Johnson were leaked to the media, presumably by Johnson himself. The most interesting detail that came out of Leonard’s meetings with the Clippers was the fact that they had a meat and cheese platter.
Unfortunately, there’s nothing the Lakers can do about the decisions George and Leonard made. Now, it’s their job to show they’re still the best basketball team in Los Angeles when they see the Clippers four times during the regular season and — if L.A. basketball fans are lucky — in the postseason.
The Lakers might not be the perfect organization, but at least they have James and Davis. We’ll see how Leonard and George measure up.
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