LOS ANGELES — They never got a call or an email or even a text, and certainly not a meeting last summer. When LeBron James chose Los Angeles as the place to re-root his family and build his side hustle in entertainment and yes, contend for NBA championships, he never bothered to explain why he chose one L.A. team over the other.
And most likely, you never bothered to wonder. You knew.
Such is life here, where the blue sky is repainted purple and gold, where the basketball statues out front of Staples Center all share the same uniform, where the track record for success and rich hoops history leans too far in the direction of the Lakers, crushing the Clippers in the process.
So when the season began the Clippers merely moved forward once again in the shadows of the nearby circus, far under radar and beyond the glare, sharing the same arena as the Lakers but not the same platform, and this is why today feels so … what’s the word … gratifying? … for the L.A. Team Not Fit For A King.
The Clippers are actually doing this, aren’t they? They’re about to keep the Lakers and LeBron from making the playoffs.
The teams played Monday in what became the unofficial sign-off for the Laker season after the Clippers grabbed a shovel and buried the body, 113-105, at Staples. Not only did the Lakers deal with boos from the home crowd, but they played without Brandon Ingram and his bum shoulder and then lost Kyle Kuzma with six minutes left to an ankle sprain.
The Clippers’ resident pit bull, Pat Beverley, stayed chippy from the tip to set the tone for his teammates, giving away four inches and 75 pounds while checking LeBron, yet keeping that same intensity to the buzzer; by then, half the crowd was beating traffic. With 18 games left, a five-and-a-half deficit for the West’s final playoff position and losses in seven of their last nine, the Lakers have checked out and packed up.
And oh, it’ll get even sweeter for the Clippers if they have a better summer than the Lakers, too, when it will be Jerry West vs. Magic Johnson.
Suddenly, any and all is possible, because these are not your Donald Sterling Clippers, and based on three-fourths of evidence this season, you wonder if and when these will ever be your Jerry Buss Lakers.
“I knew coming into this year it would be different from the previous year,” said James, almost resigned to watching the playoffs from home.
A decade ago, if you knew a team in LA had a coach on the hot seat, a star player feeling beleaguered, suffered from a string of embarrassing losses and was cloaked in controversy, there would be no question which L.A. team that was.
But welcome to the 2018-19 season, where there’s been a twist of fate and the Clippers are frisky and free and staring at an upcoming offseason that might become a launching point for the franchise if all goes well.
They don’t have LeBron, and yet they also don’t have the LeBron-created climate that has the Lakers on edge and in serious jeopardy of missing the playoffs, which seemed like a given when James brought his talents to L.A. last summer. That decision supposedly signaled a new renaissance for the team with 16 championships and continued a parade of superstars to migrate to L.A. to join the Lakers, which started with West and Elgin Baylor some 60 years ago.
Well: Life comes at you fast, and LeBron found himself dealing with distracted teammates he tried to send to New Orleans in a failed coup for Anthony Davis and a coach in Luke Walton he doesn’t appear to enthusiastically endorse, along with a first season with the Lakers that’s going up in smoke.
“We didn’t take care of business tonight,” James said. “But you keep playing to the end and see what happens. At the end of the year, the chips will fall where they may. We’re in a results league. You take the good with the bad and keep pushing forward.”
Missing the playoffs will be an ego blow for the Lakers, and for LeBron, his first early exit since his second season in the league. Yes, there are circumstances. The Lakers wouldn’t be in this position had LeBron not missed a month with a groin pull, and this team has never been fully healthy since Thanksgiving. Yet that doesn’t forgive losses to the Knicks, Grizzlies, Suns, Hawks, etc., etc.
It would come as doubly depressing should the Lakers sit home this spring while L.A. throws its support behind the Clippers in the postseason, especially since the Clippers were all but left for dead — and tanking — after trading Tobias Harris, their best player, at the trade deadline.
But the Clippers, unlike the Lakers, play hard for their coach and smartly as well, and that’s why they’re currently a top-eight team despite lacking a franchise player. They’ve won seven of 10 since the trade.
About the tanking subject, Doc Rivers said the locker room never gave that any serious thought.
“That was never going to happen,” he said. “We may have lost (games) but we weren’t going to tank. I think people didn’t believe we couldn’t do it even if we wanted to. That talk helped us, because that was a challenge. This is a group that takes pretty well to challenges.”
The Clippers weren’t on LeBron’s radar last summer but maybe their free agent judgment day is coming. They’re smartly position to take advantage of the market without sacrificing their core. Get this: It’ll be tough for an A-list free agent to say no to the Clippers.
They’ve got a secure coach in Rivers who constantly ranks high in player popularity polls. They have a good supporting cast, all on team-friendly deals: Lou Williams, Montrezl Harrell, Landry Shamet, Shai Gilgeous-Alexander and Beverley. If the Clippers were to find a taker for Danilo Gallinari’s contract, it could create room for two max free agents.
Also, they have an owner worth billions in Steve Ballmer who wants to crank up the noise, so neither money nor the luxury tax will be an issue. Finally, the Clippers can offer a free agent all the charms of LA without dealing with any of the runoff that often comes with being LeBron’s teammate.
You don’t even need to examine his history closely to know that the great Jerry West, now an adviser for the Clippers, usually gets his man. And this summer will be an interesting backroom competition between The Logo and Magic, who’ll be under pressure to fix the Lakers, given this season’s collapse and also the dwindling time remaining (three years) on LeBron’s contract and body.
This raises an important question for the Lakers: How will perspective free agents view the idea of playing next to LeBron? It won’t matter in the event of a trade for, say, Anthony Davis, who must go wherever the Pelicans send him. But a free agent?
It’s best not to suddenly diminish the Lakers on that front, because this franchise remains a destination, especially if they have money to spend, which they will. Free agents won’t care about how the Lakers stumbled the year before. In this situation, money talks first and foremost. Just the same, placing too much emphasis on this season and projecting something deadly similar for the Lakers next season — assuming of course, good health for LeBron — is done at your own risk.
But that’s in the distance. For now, the Lakers are the No. 2 team in town, and all that’s left is to observe LeBron’s body language for signs of surrender as he plays out the meaningless string. LeBron gave no definitive answer about how much, if any, he’ll play once the Lakers’ demise is official.
“I’ll continue being a professional and great as I can be every single night no matter the circumstances,” he said.
Meanwhile, the other team in L.A. is fully activated, to borrow a LeBron term, for the next step.
“There were seven people here to see us media day,” said Beverley. “I remember like it was yesterday. Like I said then, we’re the best team in L.A. A lot of people didn’t believe me. Probably still don’t.”
“That’s fine. That’s who we do it for, the people in the back. The blue collar people who don’t have anything given to them. Who work for everything they deserve. And we’re getting ready for the playoffs.”
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