The Big Picture
The Los Angeles Clippers are looking to take care of business against the Los Angeles Lakers in the third meeting this season between the two teams. The Clippers are only one game behind the Utah Jazz in the loss column in the Western Conference standings, and they play the Jazz for the final time this season on Saturday March 25 at Staples Center. All other games aside, a win against the Lakers tonight would put the Clippers in an ideal position to pull even in the loss column, paving the way to potentially pull ahead of the Jazz in the standings with a win on Saturday, and clinching a season-series tiebreaker which may very likely determine which team receives the fourth seed and the home court advantage bestowed upon the prestigious recipient of it.
There was much deliberation about all the ways in which the Clippers should consider strategically resting players in order to snipe for the six or seven seed. It was a crowd funded affair in which it was determined that—by any measure necessary—the Clippers needed to land on the bracket opposite of the Golden State Warriors. A proverbial wrench was thrown into these plans when Kevin Durant’s oh-so-fragile leg was the recipient of some inadvertent friendly-fire, an injury which has sidelined him for the remainder of the regular season. The subsequent loss of four out of six games by the Warriors allowed San Antonio to pull dead-even in the loss column. Suddenly holding down the four or five seed looked to be ideal, as it would give the Clippers the desired first round opponent of Utah, and would allow the Clippers to handle the venerable-yet-beatable San Antonio Spurs in a theoretical second-round match-up. Suddenly—it would seem—we’re not sniping for the six seed, but rather unintentionally just losing games. Frustratingly, Golden State has won four in a row and is a full two games ahead of San Antonio. The takeaway is that there are too many moving parts here for the Clippers to control playoff match-ups.
The overarching narrative here is that the Clippers aren’t necessarily playing well enough for strategic seeding sniping, and need to use this final stretch of the season to focus on establishing a comfortable rhythm, optimizing their playoff rotations, and getting prepared for any opponent that may come. A win against a motivated Lakers team tonight will extend the Clippers’ winning streak to three games, and just as importantly, allows the Clippers to step on the fingertips of a Lakers team hanging from the edge of the building trying to establish some semblance of progress. So, seeding, rhythm, Lakers bad.
We should all be fairly up to speed on the Lakers. Their front office experienced a recent shakeup with Magic Johnson replacing Jim Buss as the President of Basketball Operations, and Rob Lowe replacing long time “I-just-want-what’s-best-for-the-team” General Manager Mitch Kupchak. Jim Buss was a disaster in there as he oversaw the worst four year span in team history. The subsequent power play in which he tried to oust his sister for managing control of the team’s affairs was not a good look for a team that’s desperately trying to get back to winning. Look, the Lakers have won only 85 games in four years. They also haven’t won a single playoff game since 2012. Having finished in last place or second to last place in the Western Conference in each of the last four seasons, the Lakers are struggling not return to relevance, but to even begin the upward slope from conference bottom-feeder to maybe-competing-for-the-8-seed-in-a-few-years. Their genuinely charming fan base has accepted the youth movement thing.
The problem is that there’s other Western Conference youth movements in Utah and Minnesota who are already further along in that process. Youth doesn’t equal future success, and while the Lakers have enjoyed a series of top 10 and even top 2 picks recently, at some point all of this young talent has to start turning into actual wins. The Lakers have bizarrely finally “settled” (as in, like, just this week) on the backcourt of D’Angelo Russell and Jordan Clarkson. NBA experts are still trying to figure out why they wasted any time trying to make Nick Young happen instead of developing chemistry and experience between players who will actually be on the team in two years … In any case, the Lakers have some decisions to make this summer. Believe it or not, Julius Randle is a RFA this summer (time flies …). It will be very interesting to see if Mr. Randle gets a max offer this summer (Dallas is always good for making a weird offer the incumbent team has to match …) and if the Lakers indeed match the offer. It would be a weird / bizarre situation if they didn’t max him out. Can you very well give Mozgov 64 but quibble with Randle about a max deal? Randle is an interesting player. He appears to possess qualities and skills that kind of resemble a bit of Blake Griffin and kind of resemble a bit of Draymond Green. The problem? He’s literally a worse version of both of those players in every regard. A just as good hybrid forward of Draymond and Blake? That would be sick. But he’s not. Keeping in mind he missed his entire rookie season with a broken leg, his progress was hindered. But also keeping in mind that Blake had pretty much the same stunted rookie year with a similar injury, and that by Randle’s age Blake was all-star and all-NBA on a playoff team, and Draymond was an NBA champion, it seems like a risk to max out a player who just recorded his first ever 32 point game last week. Just sayin’.
Matchup to Watch
Blake vs. Julius.
For the reasons stated above. The Lakers need Julius to get to where Blake is now when he’s healthy, and the Clippers need Blake to stay a clear tier above Randle for the next few years. Blake has been putting up the super sick stat line of 22 / 8 / 5 this year—every other player putting that line up is a top 5 MVP candidate. Julius is going to try to out hustle Blake, and Blake is going to exercise patience, dissect Julius in the post, draw fouls, and score efficiently. Blake’s got this.