One of the weirdest things about the summer of 2019 has been how far out of their way the Lakers and Clippers — and their fans — have gone to pretend like they don’t care about each other. If the opposite of love is apathy, then both of Los Angeles’ teams have been in a stand-off to prove who loves each other less.
But while the two teams have mostly tried to push the idea that they’re focused on being the best team they can be, not just the best team in L.A., the signs have been simmering that for the first time in Los Angeles sports history, their might be a genuine, two-way rivalry here.
Leonard and George couldn’t help but point out at their introductory press conference that the Clippers have actually been the better basketball team for a few years, even if they aren’t the most popular one. And given how heavily connected to the Lakers both players were over the last several seasons, their choice to force a team-up on the Clippers felt like a shot across the purple and gold’s bow.
But what if none of that had happened at all? What if Leonard had chosen the Lakers instead? The Clippers would have been without Leonard and George, and without much support in a city they were suddenly sharing with the arguably the best big three of all time, playing on the league’s biggest franchise.
That would have been a doomsday scenario for the Clippers, something head coach Doc Rivers can admit now that it’s over (via “The Rich Eisen Show”, emphasis mine):
“If (Kawhi) was going to the Lakers or Toronto, we weren’t going to get him. That’s all we thought about. And then when we thought we had a chance to get him and Paul. And add them to Pat (Beverley), and Lou (Williams), and (Montrezl Harrell), and to that group, we clearly knew if we could pull this off, then we’d have a shot. We’d have a shot. And that’s what you want.
“But I would say that absolutely came up... I can’t say the name, but if they got him, that would be hard. That would be tough. It would be tough to be in L.A. (laughs) I can tell you that. It really would have been.”
This isn’t a phrase we use a ton on this blog, but Doc Rivers has a point. “Tough” is honestly probably an understatement. Leonard signing with the Lakers would have been a complete destruction of any momentum the Clippers were building in the city, a tombstone-esque final statement that no matter how well-run they were, they’d always be little brother in L.A.
The Clippers will still always be that in the eyes of most fans in the city, but now they’re a little brother that has grown up and can take their older brother in a fight. The Clippers at least have an argument to being the best team in Los Angeles currently, but while there is a precisely zero percent chance that the aforementioned reality shifts the fandom dynamics in the city right now, the Clippers are playing the long game here.
With Leonard and George, they might just be able to build some memorable success as a team. Add in a deep-pocketed, billionaire team governor in Steve Balmer — who is trying to move the Clippers to their own arena while making historic contributions to the community to slowly win over the city’s youth — and a stellar front office featuring Lakers legend Jerry West with a solid supporting cast for their two stars, and the Clippers are as dangerous to the Lakers’ supremacy in Los Angeles as ever, both on and off the court.
Is that going to win over the majority of Lakers fans? No, and definitely not in the short term. Lakers fans aren’t raising their kids to be Clippers fans in nearly any case, either. But if the Clippers keep this up, they will make small inroads, which is a massive difference than the backslide they would have taken had Leonard did what Rivers and the rest of the team feared and chosen the Lakers.
But he didn’t, and when you add all of these ties to each other and inter-city dynamics, a genuine rivalry between the two teams to at least prove who owns L.A. on the court feels inevitable, especially with so many incredibly competitive players on both sides.
The NBA seems to expect as much, scheduling the two teams to face off both on Christmas Day and on opening night. Lakers forwards Kyle Kuzma and Anthony Davis have both said they’re excited about the potential rivalry with their cross-hall co-tenants. And at least some fans seem to be ready for such a rivalry too, most notably the coffee shop that banned George and Leonard from its establishment.
So let’s stop beating around the bush. This is the potential inter-city rivalry that could never be delivered upon when the Clippers were incompetent and the Lakers had Jerry Buss, one of the greatest franchise stewards in any sport, ever.
But a lot has changed, and for the first time both teams seem to be on a level playing field. Now we wait and see if the Lakers can show Doc that they’re good enough to still make it difficult to be in L.A., and if Lakers fans can make Clippers “home” games feel just as tough as they would have been without their massive summer free agency haul.