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LA Role Reversal

The Clippers and the Lakers find themselves in unfamiliar territory as the season winds down

NBA: Los Angeles Lakers at Los Angeles Clippers Jayne Kamin-Oncea-USA TODAY Sports

In a couple of weeks, the Clippers will be making their seventh straight trip in the NBA playoffs, extending their franchise record for consecutive postseason appearances. The Lakers meanwhile will miss the playoffs for the fourth straight season, also a franchise record.

It’s often said that the Clippers vs. the Lakers is not a rivalry, and there are good reasons for that. But the fact that the Lakers have been so much better than the Clippers for most of their shared history is only part of the problem. The fact is, for more than just the last half decade, when the Clippers have been at their best, the Lakers have been at their worst. The two teams have almost never been good at the same time.

In fact, there are only two teams in the Western Conference in its current form that the Lakers have never met in the postseason: the Grizzlies and the Clippers. The Clippers have been infrequent postseason participants, but when they have, the Lakers have been bad enough to either miss the playoffs completely or to lose in the first round. It’s too bad really; a decent rivalry could be fun,

But beyond the win-loss records, the Clippers and Lakers find themselves in unfamiliar territory for other reasons. After years of experience, Clipper fans became adept at focusing on the future; whether it was Ron Harper or Darius Miles or Eric Gordon, the fan base was always fairly certain that the team had a future All Star on the roster — maybe two or three. And then of course there was the draft, that perennial moral hazard keeping hope alive while killing late season competition.

The Lakers’ particular circumstances somehow kept them and their fanbase from behaving like a normal “bad” team for a long time; until now that is. This is despite the fact that they’ve been plenty bad. As long as Kobe Bryant was in purple and gold, the Lakers and their fans were still about the past. Now, at long last, it’s all about the future — as it was for the Clippers for so many decades.

Meanwhile, in this the sixth season of the partnership of Griffin and Paul and Jordan, the Clippers are facing the real possibility that their window is really and truly closing. “Should the Clippers blow it up?” stories have been around for several years — but in the past they were just stupid. To be clear, the answer is still no in my opinion, but I’m willing to admit at this point that it really is an opinion, and not an empirical fact.

So it’s not just that the Clippers are good and the Lakers are bad; the fact is, the Clippers are good but worried about being bad, while the Lakers are bad, but dreaming about being good.

Now the truth is that the Lakers never worried much about being bad. They always figured that divine providence or something like it would step in and deliver to them a dominant center. It is truly remarkable that this team had only missed the playoffs FIVE times in their history prior to the current run of ineptitude. They don’t know how to act like a bad team simply from lack of practice.

As their fourth straight sub-30 win season draws to a close (they’d literally had zero of those in their 53 year LA history prior to the current run), they’re sort of settling in to the “lies we tell ourselves about our team” mode. Brandon Ingram is going to be a star. Ivica Zubac is the steal of the draft. We’re going to win the lottery and draft Lonzo Ball and he’s going to be the new Magic Johnson.

They’re also going all in on that lottery. The team shut down the perfectly healthy Timofey Mozgov and Luol Deng IN FEBRUARY. It’s arguably a good decision, but it does raise the question of why they signed those guys in the first place. If you’re so concerned about the veterans impeding the development of the young guys, why pay them $34M? And of course with top three protection on their first round pick this season, the Lakers have much more than the usual incentive to be bad.

They’ve got some intriguing young talent, I’ll grant them that. But with several of their future draft picks heading elsewhere no matter how the ping pong balls bounce, they’ve still got a tough road back to the playoffs. A major free agent could expedite the process, but that’s a vicious cycle: major free agents want to play for good teams, but the Lakers won’t actually be good without a major free agent signing.

The Clippers find themselves in the reverse position. Stars Chris Paul and Blake Griffin will be free agents this summer (along with most of the rest of the roster), but there’s little chance the team can surpass the Golden State in the near future. Meanwhile, both Paul and Griffin are getting to the age where the next contract could very well see them overpaid by the end of the deal.

The Clippers don’t have much choice of course. Starting over isn’t easy, and there’s no guarantee that it will work. (There sure is a lot of smug coming out of Philadelphia these days, considering it’s a team that has averaged 19 wins over the last 4 seasons. Yes, you’ve got a lot of talent on the roster now. But at what cost to your self esteem?) Steve Ballmer is the richest owner in sports and he’s had little chance to flaunt it in his tenure as owner to date. So I feel pretty certain that he’s going to open up the check book and re-sign the stars and run it back.

Which might be good for second best in the West in the next few years, if the team gets a few breaks.

So the Lakers are dreaming of lottery balls, while the Clippers are hoping against hope that they can get a Hollywood ending that will allow them to compete against the most talented roster in the history of the NBA. And neither fanbase really knows what to do in this situation.