Balance of power in L.A. to be decided in July

NBA.com Global on Dec 29, 2018 07:54 AM
Balance of power in L.A. to be decided in July
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By Shaun Powell, NBA.com

The Friday (Saturday, PHL time) game at Staples Center is one of 82, in a sense. The two L.A. teams who share the building will meet for the first time this season. The young Lakers will be without their superstar leader -- LeBron James, still nursing a strained groin -- and the Clippers bring a scrappy group that’s resourceful without a true star.

Those are the credentials that give each a measure of pride; the Lakers are suddenly vibrant again since LeBron’s arrival while the Clippers’ nearly identical record gives them a sense of satisfaction and pride for doing more with less.

Their first “contest,” however, must wait until next summer, when victory will go deeper than the standings. The Lakers and Clippers will each have massive room under the salary cap and, therefore, ample chances to chase A-list free agents in what will be a limited market for superstars, surely pitting one team against the other in most if not all cases.

Lakers vs. Clippers?

Is this the one-sided arm wrestle that it appears to be strictly from a historical standpoint, or will the Clippers make this more suspenseful than anyone would’ve imagined?

Yes, a decade ago in such a situation, the only glance that a franchise player would shoot in the direction of the Clippers would be a side-eye. Former Clipper Ron Harper once joked that whenever strangers asked which team he played for, he’d answer “Los Angeles,” which meant he wasn’t lying, and also meant he probably wouldn’t be heckled.

But those Clippers, long the butt of jokes, constantly mismanaged, perpetually dealing with doses of bad luck and ruled by the one and only Donald Sterling, are six feet under. Whether they’re still dealing with the ghosts of the past and outdated images of buffoonery will be determined by their skill in free agency.

In fact, the case could be made that the franchise is in better shape, from an all-around standpoint, than at any time in their history. Yes, that’s quite a statement, considering the Clippers had Chris Paul, DeAndre Jordan and Blake Griffin all in their prime and for over half a decade, and that crew was coached by Doc Rivers, who’s still at the helm.

But those Clippers, mayors of Lob City, mainly teased. They never went anywhere special (no conference finals, no NBA Finals) and arguably underachieved from a bottom-line standpoint. Entertaining and interesting? Sure. Box office? Yes. Successful from October through April? Absolutely. Yet, in the end, duds. Plus, with all due respect to Rivers, who also handled the personnel duties until two summers ago, the Clippers never pulled off a franchise-changing move to supplement their All-Star core and give them a leg up on the competition.

These Clippers are in good shape on the court and great shape on the salary cap, which is bringing the flexibility of a gold medal gymnast. They don’t have LeBron to entice free agents, and maybe that’s not such a bad thing. Maybe that actually works to their advantage.

Clippers to A-lister: Why play next to LeBron when you can be our LeBron and help put your own team together?

The Clippers have enough room to sign two lead singers if they rescind their "Bird rights" on leading scorer Tobias Harris, who's only 26: For example, imagine Kevin Durant and Kawhi Leonard to get the conversation started. And what’s best is they wouldn’t have to gut the team. They have enough players either on team-friendly contracts or rookie contracts to stick around: Montrezl Harrell, a worker bee who’s improved; Shai Gilgeous-Alexander, a wise point guard at age 20; and Lou Williams, a scorer who’s comfortable coming off the bench. They could also exceed the cap to re-sign Harris.

To recap, the Clippers have money, Rivers as coach, good players to surround a star, a loaded owner in Steve Ballmer, all the LA perks enjoyed by the Lakers. Everything except tradition and Jack Nicholson. Is that necessarily a deal breaker? And wouldn’t the Clippers qualify as a bolder challenge for a superstar than riding shotgun with LeBron for a franchise already with 16 titles?

You could picture someone like Durant, searching for a team to call his own, anxious to add something special to his legacy, taking the bait. Maybe Leonard, too, who’s from the Pasadena area. And also Jimmy Butler, who spends his offseasons in LA.

However, the Lakers’ footprint in LA is so massive that it must be respected.

Hard to say no to Magic Johnson and LeBron, a pair of certified winners and all-timers. LeBron is the most unselfish scorer the game has ever seen. He dominates the ball but doesn’t overwhelm it. Every major co-star, from Dwyane Wade to Chris Bosh to Kyrie Irving, won championships next to LeBron. And in this late stage of his career, he’d probably be more willing than ever to share the ball, the wealth, the load, whatever, just to grab another ring before walking out the door for good.

Plus, the Lakers have assets on rookie deals: Kyle Kuzma and Lonzo Ball. Brandon Ingram’s contract comes up for renewal next summer, so that’s trickier. No matter; point is, any incoming free agent will have help besides LeBron.

The wild card is Anthony Davis and whether he forces his way out of New Orleans next summer by refusing to extend his current deal, which runs through 2019-20, with a player option for 2020-21. The Pelicans would either keep Davis until the contract is up, hoping his changes his mind in the process, or trade him. Short of squeezing the Pelicans for Davis, the Lakers will be anxious to add help because LeBron, who turns 34 in a few days, is on the clock even though it doesn’t reflect in his play right now.

So those are the choices for the impatient free agent star looking for a change of scenery and wanting to relocate to Los Angeles. It’s Lakers or Clippers, the chance to be next to LeBron or be away from his shadow, start a new legacy for a franchise or add to a franchise that’s already rich.

Two Los Angeles teams meet Friday in a game, months before the “contest” that will dictate their future and direction. Next year’s first game between these two will tell us how their summer went.

Veteran NBA writer Shaun Powell has worked for newspapers and other publications for more than 25 years. You can e-mail him here or follow him on Twitter.

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