A Tale of Two Cities
This year, Los Angeles produced two completely different teams, with two completely different makeups, and two completely different ideologies. One, the Lakers, is riding high after an emotional game winning shot in game 2 of the Western Conference Finals against the Denver Nuggets, leading to a dominant five game victory and a berth in this year’s NBA Finals. The other? A team that experienced the biggest collapse and fall from grace, potentially in NBA History, the 2020 LA Clippers. Analysts mouths watered at the thought of a battle of LA headlining the Western Conference Playoffs, but only one team answered the bell. The Clippers demise gave way to another demonstration of the Lakers dominance, often over them.
The Lakers have run LA since they got here, this is no secret, never has been. The early 2000s bore witness to the latest Lakers dynasty, and they’d have five championships by the time that decade ended. It’s been more of a shocker to NBA fans that it took this long for them to even be a playoff team again. However, for the last five years or so, the Clippers were the exciting upstart. Following the arrival of Chris Paul, and a trade for Doc Rivers, they were Lob City, the new, younger version of Showtime, which the Lakers enjoyed in the 80s. From that point, every year was a history making year record wise, they just had to get the job done soon. Down at the other end of the Staples Center hallway, the Lakers finally fell into mediocrity, including the last years of the Kobe Bryant era. They suffered through the absolute worst seasons of their history. Even a move for LeBron James didn’t yield immediate results, though it did produce immediate expectations. These expectations gave way to team division, trade rumors, resignations, and eventually, reshaping their roster. Last year’s Clippers were rebuilding yet still good enough and gritty enough to make the playoffs and force the Golden State Warriors to a tough six game series. With no perceived superstars, they were a great underdog story that many people were excited about.
This year was the offseason when it all changed. We all knew the move the Lakers would make, they telegraphed it the year before. Yet, they worked in silence to get the player they wanted. They got Anthony Davis, filled the roster, and went to work. Basketball work. But the clippers had some stealth moves of their own to make, bringing in two of the best two-way players at their positions in Paul George and finals MVP Kawhi Leonard. Two homegrown Los Angeles stars were coming home to play for the “little brother”. From that point, every billboard featured the two of them. Commercials about L.A. being their city now would play every day. Showtime was back. But they took a back seat all season, as the #1 seed, to the Clippers. The best way to describe it was the narrative between the two teams had switched. The Lakers were the B-show, while the Clippers had become box office, if only because basketball fans wanted to see if they were as good as they were claiming to be. Every Laker loss, analysts tore them apart, saying this wouldn’t be the year they get a championship. They wondered aloud whether or not LeBron was washed up and had won his last championship. It’d take 2 or 3 Clipper losses for those same analysts to preach patience and say they just haven’t learned to play together yet. Anyone who watched basketball enough to know how to use the eye test would know their problems ran deeper than that. Too many headlines were written asking what’s wrong with the Lakers, while the Lakers played with cohesion and actually seemed to enjoy playing together, while the Clippers regularly looked stiff, tense, and disjointed, but bragged about coming together and getting closer in the bubble.
Well, one team is still playing for a championship. That championship would give them 17, tying the Celtic’s NBA record. The other? Probably the biggest disappointment in NBA history. The Clippers blew a 3-1 lead, after leading by double digits in games 5-7. Any ounce of respectability that they’d built up last year is gone now, and they’re the laughingstock of the league again. While the Lakers are full steam ahead, as their perceived toughest challenge for a championship is sitting at home now.
So, what’d we learn? Greatness isn’t spoken. It’s earned. All of the attention this year went to the Clippers, and I think the Lakers enjoyed having a season out of the spotlight, a year to focus solely on basketball and incorporating new players. The Clippers endured chemistry issues and concerns all year, and most of the season was played out in the media. Calling yourself the kings of LA means nothing when THE KING of LA is out working you at every turn. As a fan, I remember the game these 2 teams played on Christmas Day, and the clippers won on a last second, game saving block by Pat Beverly. The celebration was as if the championship had already been won. In December. Definitely premature. But the peak would have an even lower valley, as even their peers got in on the jokes.
As a cautionary tale, make sure you do the work, and let the work do the talking. There’s nothing wrong with playing from the underdog position, everybody loves an underdog. But everybody loves attacking a loud dog, to see if they can back that up. The Clippers talked an amazing game, all year long. The Lakers PLAYED an amazing game, all year long. The two are not the same. Like the Clippers, when trying to be great, you’re gonna get punched in the mouth sometimes. You’re gonna get ran over sometimes. How will you respond? You can’t stay down too long. Get up, and rebuild. Leaders don’t stay down too long, they get back up and lead. And the good ones, can still lead in silence. So which side are you on? The Clippers will be back…hopefully. But by then, we may find ourselves in the middle of another Lakers dynasty.