Clippers may have brighter future than Lakers

On Friday night at Staples Center, the Lakers and Clippers will face off for the second time this season, and Los Angeles’ long-time second-tier franchise is in a position to take a 2-0 series lead over its more glorious, more celebrated neighbor.

That alone makes the game a must-watch.

But it’s the fact that the Clippers are poised to compete over – and perhaps win – the future that’s the most startling fact in their now very real rivalry.

Since moving to Los Angeles in 1984, the Clippers have been mostly an NBA doormat. That lowly reality has only been more acutely felt by Clippers fans because of their team’s proximity to one of the league’s shiniest, brightest objects: the Lakers of Kareem and Magic, of Shaq and Kobe, of Kobe and Phil.

The Lakers have won eight titles since the Clippers arrived in the city of stars and could-have-beens. The Clippers, by comparison, have made the playoffs only five times during that stretch

There are a lot of reasons for that discrepancy, but one is that the Lakers have always been able to win the present while knowing they can just as easily own the future.

Now, though, the Lakers sit at 15-16, with Kobe Bryant calling out his team seemingly every week for something new (this week it’s that they’re an “old damn team”), Dwight Howard seeming a mismatched part and the purple-and-gold brand feeling a little the worse for wear.

Even Magic Johnson, Lakers legend and maestro of Showtime, has dubbed the 25-8 Clippers the bearers of that legacy.

If that’s not enough of an upside-down basketball world, try this one out: As much as the Clippers are poised to dominate the Lakers in the present, they’re equally well-positioned to own the future as well.

The Lakers are locked into “old damn” guys like Kobe Bryant, Pau Gasol and Metta World Peace for this and the next season, as well as Steve Nash through 2014-15. The cap space they’ll have after that will presumably go to Howard, whom they hope to entice into a max contract after this season.

That’s a roster, obviously, that isn’t working particularly well.

But the Clippers, fresh off a 17-game winning streak, have young star Blake Griffin under contract through 2014-15, as well as DeAndre Jordan, a very affordable Jamal Crawford (less than $6 million per year) and the utterly cheap Eric Bledsoe (peaking at $3.6 million). That’s a pretty good nucleus, one that should be firmed up even better if they can entice their star, Chris Paul, to sign his own max extension after this season.

The Clippers also get Lamar Odom’s onerous $8.2 million contract expunged after this season, and Caron Butler’s $8 million deal is done after 2013-14.

The Clippers also have an advantage in retaining Paul that the Lakers don’t have in keeping Dwight, a huge chess piece in the battle for the future: the situation of each team’s respective head coach.

For the Clippers, the fact that Vinny Del Negro’s contract is up at the end of the year couldn’t be better timed. They can offer Paul a huge voice in who the next coach is as part of his decision to remain a Clipper. If he likes Vinny, sure, why not, Vinny stays. But if Paul wants someone else, well, the Clippers can give it to him with a minimum amount of drama.

That, and the fact this is a team already built to CP3’s expectations, means the future looks rosy in Clipper land.

The Lakers’ situation is more complicated. Mike D’Antoni is under contract, so any say Howard would have in the head coach after this season in exchange for his services would be ugly – a political and publicity nightmare for a player who already has had his fill. Howard would have Steve Nash to deal with, to say nothing of Kobe’s say in the matter. And this team, at least right now and with this coach, is decidedly not built around Howard and only Howard.

This isn’t to say Howard won’t stay, or that Paul won’t go. But the Clippers have an advantage in retaining their future stars that the Lakers don’t.

The other interesting point for the future is that the Lakers have no one under contract in 2014-15 other than Nash, who will be 40 when the season begins and 41 when it ends.

That means the Lakers are banking on a free-agent haul, and there are certainly free agents to be had that year: LeBron James, Carmelo Anthony, Dwyane Wade, Chris Bosh, Zach Randolph and Danny Granger are among those who could decide it would be cool to be a Laker. And Kobe Bryant will also be available, probably at a discount, if he still wants to play and chase championships.

But that’s a tricky proposition, betting the future on the idea the past will repeat itself. The Lakers have always been able to attract talent. And two of the team’s linchpins for greatness – Magic Johnson and Kobe Bryant – have been with the team throughout their careers.

For the Lakers to compete against the Clippers going forward, they have to hope that for the next two years this “old damn team” gets younger, gets better and gets to it. And, starting in 2014-15, they have to hope they can attract the right players to line up with (presumably) Howard.

There’s no doubt that a team featuring LeBron James, Dwight Howard, an older Kobe Bryant as a role player and assorted parts would be a fierce force in the league. But there are a lot of ifs in there.

There’s also this. If the Lakers, and LeBron, have learned anything, it’s this: Even with great talent it takes time – a season, or two – to learn to be great together.

So while the Lakers hope to speed up their learning curve this season, and then do it all over again in 2014-15, the Clippers are poised to have the same nucleus year after year, learning, together perhaps, the alchemy it takes to turn a team into a champion.

Yes, Friday night’s game will be a good one indeed, a real testament to how far the Clippers have come in their battle to dominate the Lakers in the market and the Western Conference.

But look closely, and you’ll see a fight for the future going in their direction as well.

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