Both Los Angeles Lakers, LA Clippers in midst of trying times

NBA.com Global on Jan 09, 2018 07:53 AM
Both Lakers, Clippers in midst of trying times
Los Angeles Clippers guard Lou Williams, left, tires to dribble past Los Angeles Lakers guard Kentavious Caldwell-Pope during the first half of an NBA basketball game, Friday, Dec. 29, 2017, in Los Angeles. (AP Photo/Mark J. Terrill)

By David Aldridge, TNT Analyst

The Lakers and Clippers couldn’t combine forces, one guesses. But the present is grim, with each franchise facing significant short-term and long-term challenges.

Both L.A. teams are struggling mightily this season. Neither is in the top eight in the Western Conference at present, with the Clippers two games behind the Pelicans for the last playoff berth in the West. The last time neither the Lakers nor Clippers made the playoffs was 2004-05, which happened to be the season after the Lakers traded Shaquille O’Neal to the Heat, and finished 34-48.

The latest ignominy was Blake Griffin’s frightening fall and concussion suffered in Saturday’s (Sunday, PHL time) blowout loss to the Warriors after being inadvertently elbowed in the head by JaVale McGee. Griffin left the game and did not return and there’s no word how long he’ll be out, though the early word is he was feeling better Sunday (Monday, PHL time).

It was the latest in an unbelievable stretch of injuries for the Clippers, which has already claimed Patrick Beverley (right lateral meniscus surgery) for the season, Danilo Gallinari (torn glute) just before Christmas, Milos Teodosic (plantar fasciitis) and Austin Rivers (heel/Achilles’) for the past week and for at least two more to come. Only Lou Williams has been capable of staying both healthy and productive most of the season.

The other NBA tenant at Staples Center isn’t faring any better.

First-round pick Lonzo Ball’s return from an injured shoulder last week didn’t bring immediate improvement, and his father is ranting and raving about the direction of the team and the abilities of Coach Luke Walton from 11 time zones away. The son’s struggles shooting the ball and making an impact have not been worth the father’s outbursts, which have continued even as team president Magic Johnson and General Manager Rob Pelinka told him earlier in the fall to knock off the public verbal shots.

The post-Chris Paul era for the Clippers was already complicated, with Doc Rivers losing his title as president of basketball operations last summer, and owner Steve Ballmer overseeing a restructuring of the front office that included Ballmer bringing in Jerry West as a consultant. One does not bring in Jerry West to consult and then ignore his ideas and suggestions, which a lifetime of success has entitled West to have.

Add to that DeAndre Jordan’s potential free agency this summer -- he has a player option for next season that would pay him $24.1 million. The sense that everybody is auditioning for their jobs next season is palpable.

“With that, it’s a positive, too,” Jordan said last week. “Everybody’s playing for something, playing with a chip on their shoulder. When you’ve got a group of guys like that, it’s great. I don’t know (what’s going to happen). That’s out of my control. I’m just focusing on playing right now and winning as many games as we can, and individually, focusing on being a better player.”

Even the unexpected successes of some of the Clippers’ young players has been double-edged.

For example, the Clippers are caught between a rock and a hard place with guard C.J. Williams, the 27-year-old rookie who’s been playing solid ball for them in the absence of all the guards. But Williams is on a two-way deal, and getting dangerously close to the 45-day limit placed on teams who sign such players before they have to give them NBA veteran minimum deals.

But Los Angeles is hard-capped this year and definitely is not going to make itself susceptible to repeater taxes by going into the luxury tax to keep Williams. Other teams know that, and aren’t willing to trade for him, knowing the Clippers will have to release him soon. Someone will scarf him up in a second.

Meanwhile, the Lakers ended their franchise-record home losing streak Sunday night at Staples by beating Atlanta, but it was a small salve. At 12-27, they’re tied for the third-worst record in the league with Memphis, but while they plummet to earth faster than Skylab (kids! Ask your aunt and uncle what Skylab was), they won’t get the benefit of a high Lottery pick as compensation in June.

Their first-round pick, sent long ago to Phoenix as part of the Steve Nash trade, will either be going to Philly (if the Lakers win the Lottery, or if the pick falls between 6 and 30 in the first round) or…Boston, which will get it if the Lakers’ pick fall between 2 and 5 in the Lottery. So either the Celtics or Sixers will add yet another young, dominant piece to their roster, on a rookie contract lasting for several years, while the Lakers get nothing.

The Lakers buoyed that disappointment with the hopes of adding two max players in free agency in July. Paul George, likely their chief target (and an expensive one, after the team was fined $500,000 by the NBA in August for what the league said was improper contact between Pelinka and George’s representatives at CAA). The league’s investigation, launched after the Pacers filed tampering charges against the Lakers, did not uncover any implicit or tangible evidence that there was already a deal in place between the Lakers and George.

George got a warm ovation from the crowd at Staples last week when he and the Thunder visited. But let’s just say the Lakers’ play so far this season isn’t making any of the prospective difference makers who’d be available this summer believe the team’s young core is ready for any type of serious postseason run.

At any rate, before they can sign anyone, the Lakers will need to find a taker for guard Jordan Clarkson, who has two years and $26 million left on his deal through 2020 to clear enough room for two maxes. And it’s hard at present to see that happening; Clarkson does not currently carry high value around the league.

Meanwhile, Julius Randle, the Lakers’ 2014 first-round pick, is playing the best basketball of his career, averaging 13.2 points and 6.7 rebounds off the bench in 23 minutes a night. He’s shooting a career-best 56 percent from the floor. He has earned Sixth Man of the Year consideration. In a normal year, that would be cause for celebration.

But since the whole idea was to clear cap space for the Summer of 2018, the last thing the Lakers want is to tie up room in Randle, a restricted free agent. They weren’t looking to re-sign him at all, but now that he’s playing great, the idea of letting him walk for nothing doesn’t seem like a good resolution, either.

The Lakers’ nosedive has stifled the initial excitement the team had with the emergence of rookie Kyle Kuzma and the offensive development of second-year forward Brandon Ingram. The team had a players’ only meeting in late December, and it couldn’t be encouraging to hear Kuzma say after in the last week that the team “quit” against the Thunder Wednesday, and that he needs to play harder.

“We’re just not getting into our identity consistently,” Kuzma told me in December. “We’re supposed to be a defensive team, and I feel like some nights we take nights off from that. When we do that, we’re not the best shooting team, so we definitely have to improve on shooting threes. That’s such a big part of the game. That will help our whole game out, if we can start knocking down open threes.”

The Lakers retired Kobe Bryant’s jersey last month, offering a last tribute to their iconic player. The hope was that by now, almost two years since Bryant’s last game as a player, that the team would have moved past his greatness, and decline, and that its young core would have started to establish its own identity.

Unfortunately, the Mamba’s presence is still larger than life, and still defining his franchise’s inability to move past what he accomplished, and the standards for excellence he set.

Longtime NBA reporter, columnist and Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Famer David Aldridge is an analyst for TNT. You can e-mail him here, find his archive here and follow him on Twitter.

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