LeBron vs. Kawhi and the Lakers-Clippers showdown has been worth the wait
“Opening night is great,” LeBron James said recently, before immediately dispelling any notion that the NBA’s biggest superstars aren’t just as excited as the league’s global fan base for perhaps the most intriguing campaign in its history.
“For me, it’s like the first day of school; going back to school. Laying your clothes out the night before. Just that excitement of getting the things back, (getting them) going.”
James’ schooldays were pretty good to him — he became a national brand and graced the cover of Sports Illustrated while still working on English essays as a high school junior — so it’s fair to say he’s nicely fired up ahead of Tuesday’s big tipoff.
He’s not alone. Metaphorically at least (and in some cases literally), NBA supporters have been getting busy: laying out their jerseys, warming up their vocal chords and generally salivating at the prospect of a potentially extraordinary campaign.
Having emerged from a summer that was wild with free agency and trades and politically weird over the last couple of weeks, the league begins with a bang tonight, as its two chief presumptive title contenders butt heads at Staples Center.
The Lakers dueling with the Los Angeles Clippers, their cross-corridor rivals, is the narrative to end all narratives heading into the new season, as both teams arrive at the starting gate laden with talent following a breathless summer arms race.
James, frustrated at the lack of high-quality parts around him last season, now gets to form a two-headed monster with Anthony Davis, who orchestrated a trade to Tinseltown in a move that showed just how much power modern NBA players wield.
‘‘Twas the Night Before Christmas feeling right now! Excitement on high beams 🤯😱😤🤩😁👑
— LeBron James (@KingJames) October 22, 2019
And yet, on any given day this season, the Lakers may have to contend with the reality that there is another roster that may be stronger and deeper, just a few steps down the hall.
“The battle for L.A. is by far the most compelling storyline entering next season,” FOX’s NBA expert Chris Broussard told me recently. “With reigning champion Kawhi Leonard joining the Clippers, is James still the best player in his own arena, let alone the world?”
Ah yes, Leonard. It’s hard to stay under the radar when you’re undeniably more skilled at basketball than virtually every other person on the planet, but that doesn’t stop him from trying.
Leonard has never been a fan of the hoopla that surrounds the league and will never be an outrageous self-promoter. He lets his game do the talking, and those talents are loud enough to pierce eardrums.
After deciding to leave the Toronto Raptors (having just led that organization to its first championship), Leonard could have followed Davis and jumped aboard the Lakers juggernaut. Instead, he picked the blue-collar Clippers, on the proviso that they could also add Paul George, who signed on but will not begin his season for several more weeks due to shoulder surgery.
“I’m sure Kawhi wants to take the challenge of winning independent of playing with LeBron,” Lakers legend Kobe Bryant told The Los Angeles Times. “I don’t think it was a slight at the Lakers.”
Bryant is probably right, but it does set up a fascinating dynamic. Leonard is not talking big — that’s not his way — but his decision was one of the most significant personnel moves in recent NBA history and utterly shifted the landscape of the entire league, taking the Clippers from being a tireless and cohesive playoff team without a single superstar and catapulting them to would-be title contenders.
“Start of a new season,” Leonard said. “New team, just the start of our journey. First game.”
Everything's changed, but nothing's different. pic.twitter.com/qCNW1kcgvQ
— LA Clippers (@LAClippers) October 21, 2019
Leonard is a master of understatement, but there is no downplaying this one. The NBA doesn’t do “shy” when it comes to its scheduling and jumps straight into it on Tuesday. Zion Williamson’s untimely injury takes some sparkle off the other game of the night — the New Orleans Pelicans visiting the Raptors — but the Staples showdown is the opening round in what may be a season-long heavyweight slugfest.
FOX Bet has the Clippers as favorites to win it all, with a league-best +375 odds to emerge NBA Champions. The Lakers are very close behind, at +400 on the morning before the NBA season officially tips off. The Eastern Conference follows as favorites to win the NBA Finals, with the Milwaukee Bucks at +550 and the Philadelphia 76ers at +700.
Let’s be clear, the Lakers and Clippers are far from being the only loaded rosters in the NBA. Virtually all the chatter around the Houston Rockets recently has involved general manager Daryl Morey’s Tweet about Hong Kong, but let’s not forget that by re-teaming Russell Westbrook with James Harden, they have a dynamic one-two punch of former NBA MVPs.
Giannis Antetokounmpo will be on a mission to atone for the Bucks’ playoff disappointment from last season, while some are tipping the cohesive, ultra-organized Denver Nuggets to sneak to the top of the Western Conference.
For that to happen, the L.A. teams will need to trip over each other’s feet — which, given how much is at stake, is not entirely implausible. Yet after all these months of waiting and anticipation, you still can’t shift the sense that in some way or another, the destiny of this season’s outcome will hinge on the happenings in L.A.
In Davis, James finally has the foil he was pining for through those frustrating months of last season. Leonard, willingly contrarian, has the situation of his dreams before him — the chance to upset the established order.
Something has to give, and the struggle begins now.
NBA IS BACK!
— NBA (@NBA) October 22, 2019