When the Lakers paired LeBron James with Anthony Davis last summer while the Clippers formed their own dynamic duo with Kawhi Leonard and Paul George, the stage appeared set for a historic Western Conference Finals showdown between the two NBA teams that call Staples Center home.
The Clippers looked like they had the edge early on, winning their first two games against the Lakers, but the Lakers tied up the season series with the next two wins, and finished the regular season with the best record in the Western Conference. The team just behind them in the standings? The Clippers.
The two sides seemed destined to meet in the playoffs first time in NBA history. Then, the unimaginable happened. After leading the Denver Nuggets 3-1 in the Western Conference semifinals, the Clippers lost three consecutive games and were eliminated in the second round once again. No one saw it coming — not even James.
“I couldn’t believe it,” James said during a recent appearance on the “Road Trippin’” podcast. “To this day, I still can’t believe it. Obviously the better team won, that’s what happened, but still: all the shit talking they were doing all year — exclude Paul and exclude Kawhi, even exclude Trezz’ ... okay, Trezz’ might have said a lil bit because he was part of that crew.
“They put themselves in a position to get what they’ve been talking shit about all year. I just couldn’t fathom the part, or come to the realization that they did not seek that opportunity when it was right there. Up 3-1. And just seeing the team that they had, they were built for that, I believe. They were coached for that, I believe. Obviously they got our championship head coach on their bench in T. Lue.
“I just did not see them losing, just like everybody else in the basketball sports world did not see them losing that series besides one of my favorite coaches, Mike Malone, and his group.”
The part of that exchange that raised a few eyebrows earlier this is when James referenced how much shit the Clippers talked last season. Generally speaking, Clippers fans have been adamant that their team wasn’t as boisterous as James believes they were, but there are plenty of examples that prove the opposite, starting on the day the Clippers acquired Leonard and George.
Along with the Clippers and Toronto Raptors, the Lakers were hoping to land Leonard in free agency, and for a while it seemed like they were going to. But then the Clippers put together a monster trade package for George, who Leonard had reportedly been in contact with throughout free agency. Once the Clippers completed their double-play for Leonard and George, the shit-talking immediately began, according to Brian Windhorst of ESPN:
“And so the deal actually gets done. [Adrian Wojnarowski reports] that Kawhi has not only agreed to sign with the Clippers, but the Clippers are trading half their future for Paul George, it’s a stunning development. And it all goes down while those players are at the same restaurant in various private rooms.
“The story that I heard was that Patrick was making a beeline down the hallway of private rooms—sticking his head into all the rooms gloating about the Clippers’ giant haul—including into LeBron’s room.”
To Beverley’s credit, he began talking shit long before he had Leonard and George on his team. In 2018, Beverley famously proclaimed that the Clippers were the best team in L.A., and he ended up being right: the Clippers made the playoffs in 2019 and the Lakers didn’t, despite having James on their roster.
With Davis, things were obviously going to be different for the Lakers, but that didn’t change Beverley’s attitude, nor should it have. After all, he plays for the Clippers.
Were people expecting him bow out on behalf of his team and congratulate the Lakers on their championship? Of course not, which is why I also don’t fault George for saying he and Leonard were the best duo in Los Angeles at media day last year, or Leonard for bringing up that the Clippers had been better than the Lakers for the last several years. It’s also why I don’t fault Beverley for saying the Lakers weren’t the team to beat in April.
Additionally, it’s probably worth noting that James was likely talking about on the court trash talk as much as stuff that has been documented in the media, something the Clippers did to such an unceasing degree that it led actual active NBA players to drag them after their collapse.
But in the end, the real mistake the Clippers, as an organization, made was to form their identity around this silly idea that they were the most grounded and hard-working basketball team in Los Angeles.
They put up billboards across Los Angeles with sayings like “snarl over style,” and “driven over given,” and “street lights over spotlights.” The idea was that the Lakers weren’t a team: they were just a collection of stars.
That messaging, in addition to the shit the players talked, is what got them in trouble. And the ironic thing is that it was the Clippers had the issues with getting their superstars on the same page as the rest of the team. “We over me” was actually “me, me, me.”
The Clippers have closed the gap between themselves and the Lakers over the last decade, and they deserve a ton of credit for that. But the gap is still large, and that gap doesn’t exist because they’ve been playing on an uneven field.
The Lakers are what they are because of their history of success in the postseason. Until the Clippers can at least make the Western Conference Finals, it would probably be best in their best interest to let their game do the talking.