Saturday night the Lakers (8-4) and the Clippers (5-3) will officially tip-off their renewed rivalry at Staples Center. As we know, these meetings have drawn little to no attention in the past. Smug Lakers’ fans never used to take match ups with L.A.’s other team seriously, and rightfully so. Since the Clippers came to town in 1984, the Lakers have won 95 out of 123 meetings between the two teams. During this time the Lakers have celebrated eight championships and have become one of the world’s most popular and valuable professional sports teams. Beginning with Kobe and Shaq’s first championship in 2000, the Lakers have certainly been America’s team in the NBA. While the Lakers have enjoyed this unmatched success, the Clippers have never even made it out of the first round of the playoffs. They had become a minor after thought in the city of Los Angeles and all but forgotten on the national stage. All of that is about to change.
It all started on December 8th when the Lakers botched the trade that would have made New Orleans Hornets superstar Chris Paul the team’s new point guard. Adding Paul no doubt would have perpetuated the Lakers’ dominence of the Western Conference, let alone basketball in L.A. However, in an unprecedented move, David Stern used his authority as the Hornets’ de facto owner to veto the deal. For the first time, the spoiled child didn’t get what they wanted for Christmas. While most NBA fans didn’t like seeing the commissioner block a trade, I think Stern made the right move in the interest of everyone except the Lakers and their fans. Not only did the Hornets eventually get more in return for Paul with the Clippers deal, but the dramatic improvement of the Clippers created a new contender in a weak and less interesting Western Conference. Thanks to Stern the Clippers have become more popular than ever. They’ve gone from fourteenth in attendance last year to seventh so far this year (the Lakers are eighth) while, Chris Paul and Blake Griffin jerseys are selling better than ever. Basketball fans will always want to watch the Lakers, but now they want to watch the Lakers and the Clippers.
So while the Clippers begin the season with excitement and championship aspirations, the Lakers begin with a team significantly less talented than the one that was embarrassed by Dallas in the playoffs last year. So far Kobe Bryant has done everything he can to keep the Lakers relevant. Lezbehonest, he’s been an absolute monster thus far. However, I think anyone who isn’t a Lakers fan will agree that he can’t keep this up for the entire season. Eventually, Kobe’s scoring will taper off and the team’s astonishing lack of depth will become a significant problem. Here’s an idea towards how bad the Lakers’ role players are right now, the following is a list of players who average over twelve minutes a game (excluding starters): Darius Morris, Jason Kapono, Devin Ebanks, Metta, Troy Murphy, Matt Barnes, Steve Blake, and Josh McRoberts. Those championship seasons of the past decade seem a long way away with a roster like the aforementioned. Even if Kobe can keep playing at this level, I don’t think the Lakers have enough to hold off the Clippers in the Pacific Division. In his article published Friday on ESPN.com, J.A. Adande explores this scenario asking, “If the Clippers did win the Pacific, would they dare to hang a banner up among the bevy of banners for the Lakers’ 16 championships?” Yes Adande, I think they would dare.
I see this year’s Clippers ending up a lot like last year’s Miami Heat. I’m not surprised that like the Heat of last year, the Clippers have started the season a bit slow (despite beating the Heat Wednesday night). With all the star power and dramatic change, it’s going to take a little while for the Clippers to get going. Also like last year’s Heat, I don’t see the Clippers earning the number one seed in the West (OKC) and I don’t see them winning the championship (Miami or Chicago). Right now my main problem with the Clippers is their logjam of talented point guards: Paul, Chauncey Billups, and Mo Williams. Head coach Vinny del Negro has decided to start Billups at shooting guard alongside Paul and so far Billups has put up mediocre numbers shooting just 34% from the field. Since Billups is a talented veteran, I think the Clippers’ strategy will get them through the regular season. However, come playoff time opponents will exploit this match up. In fact, it will be interesting to see how this strategy works out Saturday against the Lakers. Presumably, small forward Caron Butler will have to guard Kobe, leaving Billups matched up against the much bigger Matt Barnes or Metta World Peace. That being said, I think the Clippers will beat the Lakers on Saturday. I’m predicting a close game, 95-90 Clippers with big games from all the stars.