There's a lot of talk about the a burgeoning NBA rivalry in Los Angeles, about a battle for LA, between the mighty Lakers and the lowly Clippers. There's little question that the Clippers have had an outstanding off-season, adding three different All Stars to their roster, while the Lakers have lost Sixth Man of the Year Lamar Odom while adding Josh McRoberts.
But other than the contest for the services of Chris Paul, let's bear in mind that the Clippers haven't beaten the Lakers at anything yet.
Predicting the demise of the Lakers has proven an impossible task for decades now. Call it a conspiracy, or luck, or a great front office, or the self-fulfilling prophecy of a marquee franchise attracting marquee players, but the Lakers have never fallen far from Championship contention at any point since moving to LA more than 50 years ago, a standard of excellence unequaled by any other franchise. Astoundingly, the Lakers have only missed the playoffs four times in those 51 seasons, and almost more astoundingly, only once did they miss the postseason in consecutive seasons - that being way back in the mid 70s.
The Lakers have had eight 60 plus win seasons since the Clippers moved to LA in 1984, and 19 50 plus win seasons. The Clippers have never won 50 games as a franchise; not in LA, not in San Diego, not in Buffalo.
As Blake Griffin and Chris Paul and Chauncey Billups will tell you, the Clippers' past has nothing to do with the Clippers' future, and we are very likely on the cusp of the best season in the team's history. But I personally am going to try to be content with a Clipper rise, and not feel that it also has to be accompanied by a Laker fall.
After all, we've been here before. In 2006, the Clippers advanced further in the playoffs than the Lakers did. For the three seasons ending in 2007, the Clippers had a combined record of 124-122, while the Lakers were 121-125 over the same period. That's hardly a dominant run for the Clippers in the battle for the city, but combined with some external factors, there was every reason to believe early in the 2007 off-season that an era was dawning in which the Clippers would be the top team in LA.
In May 2007, after failing to escape the first round of the playoffs for the third straight season, Kobe Bryant was a very unhappy Laker, and demanded to be traded. You may recall the infamous quote, "At this point, I'll go play on Pluto." At that point in time, the Lakers appeared to be in the same position as the Hornets were with Chris Paul as of last week - a mediocre roster with a single mega star that was determined to force a trade. Meanwhile, the Clippers, despite a step backwards in the 2006-2007 season, still appeared to be a young team on the rise. Elton Brand was 28 and playing All NBA level basketball, Chris Kaman was 25, and together they gave the Clippers one of the best front courts in the NBA. As of May 2007 when Kobe made his trade demand, it seemed inevitable that the Lakers were bound to enter an extended malaise, while the Clippers were surely going to be a playoff team for the foreseeable future.
We all know what happened next. Elton Brand ruptured his Achilles tendon during an off-season workout in August, which coupled with Shaun Livingston's career-altering injury from February sent the Clippers spiraling back into the depths of the lottery. The Lakers held on to Kobe, and in February 2008 traded for Pau Gasol in the most obviously lopsided trade in NBA history. In the course of six months, from August 2007 to February 2008, the universe realigned along its traditional axis - the Lakers were once again great, and the Clippers were once again terrible.
So you'll understand if I'm hesitant to predict a precipitous decline for the Lakers, or even a Pacific Division title for the Clippers. Let's wait and see how much of the Staples Center crowd is chanting M-V-P for Kobe during a Clippers home game before we declare that this is a Clippers town. For now, I'm going to focus on the Clippers rivalry with their own history, and not of the one with the Lakers. If the Clippers play as well as I think they can this season, I'll be happy - it doesn't matter to me what the Lakers do.
Tonight's meeting between the teams is what it is - a pre-season game. The Clippers have had all of three practices with Chris Paul and Chauncey Billups, and are now integrating three new starters as well as a center who missed part of camp as a free agent. I'll watch with great interest of course, and I'd much rather the Clippers win than lose, but it's more important to see how the pieces are fitting together, and maybe to get some sort of an idea of just how thin the team is up front.
It's time for the Clippers to be good. It doesn't matter if the Lakers are also bad.