State of the Lakers: Losing their grip on L.A.

LOS ANGELES — Throughout the years, the Lakers-Clippers matchups have been anything except a rivalry.

Since moving from San Diego to Los Angeles in 1984, the Clippers have been on the wrong end of the final score 67 more times than the Lakers, who have posted a 97-30 record against their Staples Center mates. No matter where the Clippers are located — in Buffalo as the Braves or as the Clippers in San Diego and L.A., the Lakers have owned them, beating them 143 times while losing just 50.

But times have changed — drastically — and the tenor of the clashes has become a lot more dramatic. That’s because the Clippers — by far — are the best pro basketball team in Los Angeles. The Lakers and their 16 NBA titles have the history, but the Clippers and their 25-8 record are dominating the present.

For the first time in their less-than-storied history, the Clips are legitimate championship contenders, and should stay that way barring a serious injury to Chris Paul or Blake Griffin. And for one of the few times in their amazing history, the Lakers are a mediocre team.

If you go back to October, it wasn’t supposed to turn out this way.

The Lakers pulled off two of the biggest moves of the summer — any summer — by trading for Dwight Howard and persuading Steve Nash to participate in a sign-and-trade deal between the Lakers and Phoenix Suns. They also picked up one of the league’s premier scorers in Antawn Jamison. With Kobe Bryant and Pau Gasol already on board, predictions of a 17th championship were abundant.

On the other hand, the Clippers were thought to have too many old and injured players to be able to make a serious run. Sure, they already had two of the game’s top players in Paul and Griffin, and they picked up Jamal Crawford, Grant Hill and former Lakers Lamar Odom, Ronny Turiaf and Matt Barnes to strengthen their bench. But team leader Chauncey Billups was still recovering from a torn Achilles’ tendon, Hill has been hurt often during his career, and Odom was coming off the worst season of his career playing in Dallas. Yes, the Clippers would be good if they could overcome the injuries and get a rebound-season from one-time Sixth Man of the Year Odom, but they weren’t the Lakers.

Lucky for the Clippers.

It’s now the Lakers who are an old team with lots of injuries, going 15-16 so far. And it’s the Clippers who are the team with all eyes on the prize.

“They’re definitely one of the top contenders,” Bryant said after Thursday’s practice. “For sure they are.

“I think a lot of people expect them to blow us out. But we have all the motivation in the world, so it should be interesting.”

It’s already been interesting for the Lakers and their fans.

Following a coaching change from Mike Brown to Mike D’Antoni, the team hasn’t improved as quickly as many had predicted. Lakers great Magic Johnson has been pummeling the Lakers and their management during interviews and on his Twitter account. But recently he probably broke a few Laker hearts when he blasphemed, comparing the Clippers to his iconic “Showtime” Lakers teams.

“They are,” Johnson said, “and I should know. I ran those teams.” And to dig the knife in a little deeper, Bryant agrees with his predecessor.

“They’re spectacular and they’re fun to watch,” Bryant said about the Clippers. “There’s no doubt about that.”

The Lakers are anything but fun to watch — slow in the transition, slow and lackadaisical on defense and completely inconsistent. But point guard Nash said they don’t have to be like the Clippers — they just have to win the game.

“We don’t have to go sprinting up and down the court all the time,” he said. “We just have to move the ball at a quick pace and play more consistent basketball. The inconsistency has really hurt us, and we can’t afford it against a Clipper team which is obviously one of the best teams in the league.”

Just like the Lakers used to be.

Who’s Hot: Bryant, who else? He continues to confound the experts, leading the NBA in scoring (30.3) in his 17th season. He’s also shooting a career-best 47.9 percent from the field. Happily for the Lakers and scarily for the rest of the league, he seems to be improving with age.

Who’s Not: Antawn Jamison. The power forward is no longer in the mix — even for garbage time minutes. He hasn’t played one second in the past six games. Friday night against the Clippers should make it an unlucky seven.

Three Thoughts

1. How much more bizarre can the Jerry Buss-Phil Jackson-Mike D’Antoni situation become? With the just-announced engagement of Jackson to Buss’ daughter Jeanie, apparently a lot more. Phil will now be an official member of the family, and just a family dinner away from coaching the Lakers again if this team doesn’t turn it around. Seems like poor D’Antoni can’t catch a break early in his Lakers career.

2. Look for a Metta World Peace verbal explosion any moment. After every loss, he’s asked why it happened, and he responds with an “I really don’t know” or “I don’t have anything to say.” That’s Metta being on his best behavior. History tells us that this won’t last all season, and maybe it will take a dose of reality from the former Ron Artest to shake the Lakers out of the inconsistency that has plagued them all season.

3. When the media is let into the Lakers’ practice gym with a few minutes left in the workout, GM Mitch Kupchak is usually watching the team from a perch high above the practice court. Special Assistant Bill Bertka can often be seen with him. Looking up there, it occurs to me Kupchak must look down on the floor and wonder if this team that he put together can possibly be as mediocre as is has looked for most of the season?

Quotes of the Week

“Actually, we take two steps forward and one step back; still, it needs to end.”

D’Antoni correcting a reporter’s analogy about the team taking one step forward and two steps back.

“Cause we’re old as s—. I don’t know how else to put it. We’re just slow and we were stuck in the mud. We all have to figure out how to get ourselves ready each night to have a high-level game. When you’re starting to age it’s tough, and it takes a lot of commitment.”

Bryant on why the Lakers had a lack of energy and urgency in a loss to a bad Philadelphia 76ers team.

“I can’t answer that. I’ve tried to answer that question for the last three years. That’s a hard one to answer.”

Metta World Peace when asked why this team has such a hard time putting together consistent games.

News and Notes

*Bryant continues to lead the NBA All-Star Game voting with 1,176,456 votes in the latest balloting results. Dwight Howard is second among frontcourt players in the Western Conference — remember, there’s no center position on this year’s ballot. Pau Gasol is fifth.

*Backup point guard Steve Blake is working out a bit, but still appears to be at least two weeks from returning. He had abdominal surgery Dec. 3 and was listed as being out a minimum of six weeks, possibly eight. Chris Duhon should be available to back up Steve Nash against the Clippers after missing the Sixers’ debacle with a sore back.

*The Lakers ended their media session early after Thursday’s practice for what was being called a “Team Awareness” meeting. Supply your own punchline.

What’s Next: Friday night at Clippers. Sunday vs. Denver. Tuesday at Houston. Wednesday at San Antonio. The game against the Clips starts an important five-game stretch, which includes meetings with the Spurs and Oklahoma City. A few wins could lower the volume of Laker criticism by their fans and the media. “Then we’d lose a game or two and it would jump right back up,” Bryant said, laughing.

Tower of Power? Who, the Clippers? Definitely. The Lakers? Well, they’re still a great story…