The Lakers have been in Los Angeles for almost six decades. The Clippers moved to town 35 years ago. And yet all that time, the two teams have only made the playoffs in the same season six times, and the two LA teams have never met in the playoffs. As such, this has never really been a rivalry.
Usually, the Lakers are competing for titles (eight rings since the Clippers moved to town) and the Clippers are fighting for relevance (four playoff series wins since 1984). The last several years, it’s been flipped on its head: the Lakers have a six-year playoff drought while the Clippers have made seven out of the last eight postseasons.
Finally, this season, both teams are at the top of the preseason NBA mountain. The Clippers are the Vegas favorite to the win the title. The Lakers are No. 2. Finally, this season, we can have a real Los Angeles rivalry ...
... assuming, of course, both teams live up to their end of the bargains. Given the Clippers’ snakebitten history and the Lakers’ recent dysfunction, that’s not quite a guarantee. But there’s never been a time in the last 35 years in which Los Angeles hosted two NBA teams that the potential for a rivalry has looked more promising.
Consider the players involved. On the Lakers side, you have LeBron James, one of the three best players ever and still considered by some the best player in the world, and Anthony Davis, a generational two-way talent capable of some of the most gaudy numbers in the league. On the Clippers, you have Kawhi Leonard, a defensive juggernaut with uncanny shotmaking ability who some consider the best player in the world, and Paul George, a defensive juggernaut with uncanny shotmaking ability.
Both Kawhi and PG-13 have histories with LeBron, the latter as a part of the peak Pacers who really, truly challenged James’s Heat teams early this decade and the former as a Spur who actually beat LeBron’s peak Miami squad in the NBA Finals. Kawhi is a dynastic disruptor who now functions as the foundation of a potential dynasty. LeBron is a walking dynasty who is now positioned as an underdog in his own city, with a chance to disrupt Kawhi’s best-laid plans.
There’s so much in these players, these franchises that will unfold over the course of the season, hopefully culminating in a long-awaited playoff clash. It all begins Tuesday as the teams face off to open the NBA regular season (10:30 p.m. ET, TNT).
Something George and Leonard learned quickly this summer is that while the Clippers are ascendant this decade and the Lakers have been moribund, Lakers fans far outnumber Clippers faithful in Southern California. Every match-up between the two teams will be a Lakers home game, even if the Clippers’ colors are on the floor and their banners are hanging from ...
... Uh, banners? The Clippers? Never mind.
Anyways, the Lakers will technically be on the road on Tuesday night. Kawhi and PG will almost assuredly get booed during the introductions at their first regular season home game as Clippers. Welcome home, guys.
Meanwhile, just about every neutral fan on the continent will be rooting for the Clippers in this rivalry, even if the Clippers are nothing like an underdog at this point. The Lakers have a legacy of success in most fans’ memories. 2010 wasn’t that long ago. The Clippers have never really had sustained success until the last few years, and that’s come with only very modest postseason success. People love to see long-suffering fans rewarded, even if those fans are drowned out by non-suffering fans.
What an interesting dichotomy that will create: the Clippers might be everyone’s favorite NBA team everywhere but in their home city.
Of course, the Clippers could become so good they become villains, like the Warriors of recent years and LeBron’s Heat before them. But Kawhi is rather beloved for being an oddball superstar who goes against the stream, and Doc Rivers is a perfect spokesman for a fake underdog. The Lakers are hated by most Americans with sports opinions who aren’t Lakers fans. Davis poisoned public opinion of himself by suplexing the Pelicans into a trade. LeBron kicked an own goal this fall with his China comments.
All of the ingredients are there for the Clippers to be beloved and the Lakers reviled everywhere but the city where they play.
This is all scene-setting and window dressing around the basketball, of course, which we’ll start to unwrap on Tuesday. George is still out, recovering from shoulder surgeries. Kyle Kuzma, a critical piece of the Lakers’ shallow depth, is out, too. So some amount of the on-court element of this rivalry will remain cloaked, and the loser will have valid excuses regardless.
Hopefully, though, this isn’t just one of four games between the teams, a blip on a season defined by others. Hopefully it’s the first chapter in an incredible story of a new rivalry 35 years in the making.