Is the new-look NBA now a battle for L.A. between the Lakers and Clippers?
Talking about earthquakes and Los Angeles in the same sentence is generally a very bad idea. Yet the only way to describe the dizzying opening of free agency in the NBA was the equivalent of a tectonic shift. Nearly 40% of the league’s players hit free agency, and some of the biggest names in the game changed zip codes.
The impact reshaped an NBA landscape that is coming into focus now. Sure, Chris Paul and Andre Iguodala could still be on the move in the coming days and weeks, and there’s still a number of free agents yet to sign.
Yet as the dust clears, so do the storylines for the upcoming season. And somehow it feels safe to predict the lead drama we will be talking about above all others:
Los Angeles. Namely, the battle for its basketball soul.
If Kawhi wins a title with the Clippers, he and MJ would have the greatest winning resumes in the NBA over the last 30-40 years #FTFin60
— First Things First (@FTFonFS1) July 18, 2019
The fight for supremacy between the Lakers and Clippers is something that we are not going to be able to take our eyes off of. The fluctuations of the offseason cycle have landed four of the top 10 players in the world under the same roof, just a few steps down the corridor and each with designs to not only dominate the city, but the entire league.
“The battle for L.A. is by far the most compelling storyline for me entering next season,” FOX Sports NBA expert Chris Broussard said via text message. “With reigning champion Kawhi Leonard joining the Clippers, is LeBron James still the best player in his own arena, let alone the world?
“I believe the Clippers and Lakers have the best duo and the best teams in the league. Which one comes out on top will have the basketball world on the edge of its seat from October through June.”
If you took an ultra-long nap about six weeks ago and are just emerging from your slumber, here is an ultra-quick primer on how this all happened. First, Anthony Davis pre-empted free agency by managing to push through his trade from the New Orleans Pelicans to the Lakers. At that point, the balance of power was tinted heavily with purple-and-gold.
Watch out, league. He’s here. pic.twitter.com/0BUDIFYgEf
— Los Angeles Lakers (@Lakers) July 13, 2019
But then Clipper-time arrived, spectacularly so, as the window of free-agent madness opened up. Amid a slew of blockbuster moves the Clippers pulled off the granddaddy of them all, tempting not only Leonard, but also pairing him with Paul George to instantly manufacture a team of terrifying defensive prowess and an instant title contender.
Oddsmakers instantly installed the Clippers as championship favorites, with the Lakers nipping at their heels.
“Now that we have these incredible stars on both teams, it just makes the rivalry bigger and better,” L.A. Times basketball Brad Turner said.
On Twitter, Kevin Love was paying attention. “That LAL-LAC rivalry gonna be 🔥🔥🔥,” he wrote.
The Lakers-Clippers slugfest contains plenty of subplots to carry through the season. As Broussard said, the Leonard v. James tussle alone will offer near constant fodder for debate.
Leonard’s efforts in winning the Finals MVP and taking the Toronto Raptors to their first crown indicate a player at the very peak of his powers. James’ caliber is up there with the all-time greats, but circumstance and injury prevented him from showing it to the maximum level last season.
But the side questions are never-ending. Will Davis emerge as the next great Lakers big man? Will he or George be the better No. 2 piece? Or wait, are they even the No. 2 guys at all? Can a new coach in Frank Vogel outsmart Doc Rivers, a decade into his Clippers tenure? Who did better summer business? Forget the regular season, who is better set come playoff time? And if a true Staples Center rivalry kicks off, will it provide impetus or a distraction?
Don’t think for a moment that these teams don’t pay much attention to each other. How could they not? The Lakers hang 16 championship banners in Staples Center, but those are obscured when the arena transforms as the Clippers home court.
— First Things First (@FTFonFS1) July 17, 2019
ESPN’s Adrian Wojnarowski reported that a key part of the Clippers’ push for Leonard and George was because of fears that Leonard would otherwise join the Lakers, and that he, James and Davis could combine to bring about a new era of dominance.
“The Clippers became the last line of defense for the balance of power in the NBA,” Wojnarowski wrote. “Never mind the franchise’s own future. Had Leonard joined the Lakers, they would have been overwhelming title favorites and it perhaps would have thrust the Clippers back into the franchise’s dark ages.”
That’s why Lakers fans are bitter. And the simmering tension between the franchises, actually enhanced by their varied histories, makes this all the most special.
Naturally, there are storylines aplenty around the league. The James Harden/Russell Westbrook arranged marriage in Houston. Kevin Durant’s partnership with Kyrie Irving and the Brooklyn Nets. Golden State in the aftermath of Durant’s exit, Klay Thompson’s injury and the arrival of DeAngelo Russell.
Yet while those tales all have appeal, the story in L.A. shapes up as an all-action blockbuster. Fireworks lit up the NBA during free agency, now they are showering down upon Staples Center.
The season is three months away and this is a showdown we are already talking about. And we may not stop, all the way to next summer.