Growing up in Los Angeles, it would be hard to say that the Clippers and the Lakers really had a rivalry. The Lakers were one of the preeminent franchises in all of the NBA while the Clippers had to deal with the indignity of Donald Sterling. Among non-diehard fans, it wasn’t all that uncommon to root for both teams except for when they played each other.
Those niceties are long gone. Ever since David Stern’s veto sent Chris Paul to the Clippers instead of the Lakers, the Clippers were no longer the lovable losers to the Lakers behemoth. They were a real-life contender that demanded real attention, and that meant drawing some fault lines between the two team’s fanbases.
For much of the Lob City era, though, the Lakers weren’t a contending team, so that prevented the two franchises from having a real rivalry. Even last season, when the Lakers’ fortunes were supposed to change, they failed to make the playoffs, leaving the Clippers to continue their long-running California feud with the Golden State Warriors rather than really engaging with the Lakers. (To be clear, I’m not forgetting Patrick Beverley, but he engages with everyone.)
Now, everything has changed. The Lakers and the Clippers have the two best superstar duos in the NBA, and both teams expect to contend for a championship this season. This may not have been a real rivalry in the past, but it is now.
The Clippers closed the deal with Kawhi Leonard
The Clippers and the Lakers were two of the three teams in the hunt for Leonard in free agency, and being in direct competition for the hottest star on the market is a great way to start a feud. Both teams have been targeting Leonard for nearly a year — the Lakers believed they were Leonard’s top choice when he asked for a trade from San Antonio during the 2018 offseason, and the Clippers had meticulously put together a year-long pitch by rebuilding their front office and culture, and also just being present around Leonard, a lot. Ultimately, the Clippers won, and they get to lord that over the Lakers, who were forced to scramble for lesser free agents in the aftermath of Leonard’s decision.
The Clippers also got Paul George
It hurt the Lakers to lose out on their primary free-agent target, but it stung like no other when the Clippers pulled a rabbit out of their hat and paired Leonard with Paul George. As discussed on the latest TLTJTP, Leonard to the Clippers had been considered a done deal for most of the season. The Lakers got in on him late but were always fighting an uphill battle.
The coup of landing George, who loudly proclaimed that he wanted to go the Lakers when he demanded his trade from Indiana and then didn’t even give the Lakers a meeting in 2018 when he was a free agent — that will resonate through the tunnels in Staples Center. The Lakers were dumbfounded when George didn’t want to join the team last summer, and to see him demand a trade yet again, but this time to the Clippers, adds a whole new level to this rivalry.
Kawhi/LeBron and PG/LeBron have great playoff history
On the court, the matchups at play between these two teams are tantalizing. George and LeBron James had great playoff battles in the Eastern Conference, even if James always emerged as the victor. George made James sweat, and the pain of losing to him so many years in a row was arguably what sent George out west. These are two of the greatest wings in the game, and they make each other work for everything.
Meanwhile, George won’t even have to handle the burden of guarding James full-time because his new teammate is literally the best wing in the game, or at least the most recently-decorated. Leonard has gotten the best of James in the postseason, as the two are 1-1 in NBA Finals meetings, and his breakout during the 2014 Finals forced James to leave Miami and form a new superteam in Cleveland. It arguably would have been too hard for either George or Leonard to team up with LeBron, but they are ready-made antagonists.
The Laker great consulting for the Clippers
When the Lakers cleared out their front office in 2017, they brought in a former legend, Magic Johnson, to run operations. They didn’t even reach out to Jerry West, their former executive who eventually ended up coming to Los Angeles to work for the Clippers. Looking back at the two teams’ fortunes over the past two years, that seems like a fateful decision that proved to be a seismic shift in this rivalry.
Danny Green vs. Kawhi Leonard
Green and Leonard have been teammates for the entirety of Leonard’s NBA career, until now. The other guy in the trade to Toronto chose to join the Lakers after Leonard signed with the Clippers, and though this projects to be a friendly rivalry between the two players, it will be fun to see both players on opposite sides. Maybe not so much fun for Green, who will presumably now have to guard Leonard.
A number of players who have been on both sides
Beverley was drafted by the Lakers but immediately traded and then waived. That clearly still sits with him, as does the fact that he was waived by LeBron James’ Miami Heat. Lou Williams signed a three-year contract with the Lakers in 2015, but was traded halfway through that deal. He had thoughts about retiring before finding a home with the Clippers. Ivica Zubac was also drafted by the Lakers and essentially dumped to the Clippers at last year’s trade deadline, even though he had started to break out for his original team.
On the other side of the aisle, the Lakers just signed Jared Dudley, who was famously dissatisfied in his Clippers tenure because he thought he was asked to play hurt. They also agreed to a contract with Avery Bradley, whose brief Clippers career was similarly marred by injury. When he did play, he was miffed about his role in the offense. Suffice to say, there is plenty of bad blood both ways.
For much of their respective histories, the Lakers and Clippers have been on opposite trajectories, something I wrote about at our sister site. Now, after an offseason of competing for the same players, the Lakers and the Clippers are finally fighting for the same prize. The Battle for Los Angeles is alive.