The 2019-20 season has felt like a slow march towards the inevitable Clippers-Lakers Western Conference finals, a playoff series that will finally cement the Staples Center neighbors as true rivals.
As scripted as the Battle for Los Angeles is — and on paper, it truly seems destined to end in some epic showdown — the Lakers haven’t seemed like a rival for most of this franchise’s history. The Lakers occupy a different plane of existence than the Clippers, and even four regular-season meetings a year haven’t created the sort of enmity necessary for a true rivalry.
That’s why, when thinking of the Clippers’ chief rival, the Lakers aren’t the top option: that would be the Houston Rockets (even though the Rockets don’t appear to feel the same way). To be clear, this only reflects the team’s current rivalry and not who the Clippers have battled with historically — we’ll get to that later in the week. This may not be who fans think of as the Clippers’ rival, but the Rockets are certainly the team that incites the players, and Doc Rivers, more than any other squad in the NBA.
The basis for the Clippers-Rockets rivalry dates back to the 2017 Chris Paul trade. In that deal, L.A. sent Paul to Houston in exchange for way too many players to count, but a core of Lou Williams, Montrezl Harrell, and Patrick Beverley. Paul technically could have become a free agent, but the Clippers and Rockets negotiated a trade instead that allowed Houston to keep Eric Gordon and L.A. to receive the Paul Haul.
Williams took the trade from Houston pretty personally and thought he might be on his way out of the league. A heart-to-heart with Rivers convinced him and the Clippers that he was in the right place, but it didn’t sit well with him that the Rockets dealt him just a few months after trading a first-round pick to the Lakers to acquire him.
Harrell and Beverley didn’t necessarily harbor ill will towards Houston; after all, the Rockets had drafted Harrell and given Beverley a second chance in the NBA after years in Europe. That didn’t mean that both players didn’t have an extra chip on their shoulders.
The first time the Clippers played the Rockets with Paul after the trade, pandemonium ensued. Blake Griffin and Mike D’Antoni got into it, followed by Griffin and Paul going at it, and culminating with Griffin and Trevor Ariza getting ejected, leading to an all-time great Griffin deadpan postgame:
“He (Ariza) asked me if I was still coming to his birthday party and I said, `Yeah, I’m going to try,” Griffin said, smiling.
The drama wasn’t limited to action on the court, as members of the Rockets reportedly attempted to accost the Clippers, specifically Austin Rivers, in their locker room by utilizing Paul’s in-depth knowledge of the Staples Center layout. It was truly one of the most ridiculous nights in NBA Twitter history, between Clint Capela reportedly being sent as a decoy to the Inside the NBA guys uncontrollably laughing as updates came in. The actual story that surfaced a couple days later was far less entertaining, but the opening salvo of the rivalry had been fired.
The two teams were mostly on their best behavior the following season, as Paul was suspended for the first meeting, and the other two were Rockets blowouts. The most important development in the rivalry was that Austin Rivers made his way to Houston, which would pay dividends later.
During the offseason, Paul George was traded to the Clippers, paving the way for Russell Westbrook to be traded to the Rockets. Now, each team has its own pair of superstars hailing from southern California, with years of familiarity adding to the rivalry. George and Westbrook claimed to still be on good terms after two years of being teammates in Oklahoma City, and that has mostly proven to be true, but Westbrook’s move to Houston introduced a significant element into the equation: the Beverley/Westbrook beef.
This drama has been going on since 2013, and it was just the extra level of spice the two teams needed to re-engage their feud.
The first meeting of the 2019-20 season ended with three Clippers technical fouls in the final minutes, including Austin Rivers hilariously egging on the referees to eject his father. It really doesn’t matter which side of this rivalry you fall on — that moment was objectively hilarious, as were Austin’s postgame comments.
The Clippers responded with an exhilarating comeback win the following week at home, finishing the game on a 10-2 run in the final minute. The Rockets responded by staging a huge rally of their own to beat L.A. in Staples Center a few weeks later, this game punctuated by a fourth-quarter ejection to Williams and double technicals for Beverley and Westbrook.
The Clippers had the last laugh this season — one that Doc lorded over Austin during a quarantine podcast — by dismantling the small-ball Rockets right before the hiatus.
Every good rivalry needs postseason theatrics, and though the two teams met in 2015 in the conference semifinals, only Doc Rivers and Harden remain in their roles from that series. A playoff matchup this year would surely produce fireworks and confirm what is already clear: these two teams do not like each other.
Is that enough for the Rockets to be the Clippers’ primary current rival? Let us know.