Battle Los Angeles: Lakers, Clippers Rivalry Heating Up Once Again

Last season was the first time in my lifetime that I can remember ever feeling as though the Los Angeles Clippers could be mentioned in the same breath as the Los Angeles Lakers. Yes, I remember the 2005-06 season where the Clippers (47-35) made a decent run into the Western Conference Semi-Finals before losing in seven games at the hands of the (Nash-led) Phoenix Suns, but the sub-.500 W/L record LAC followed that season with has been far more of the norm. Fact is, with a 1,247-2,149 (.367) franchise winning percentage, I’m not being cruel in saying the organization (by and large) has been deservedly the butt of endless jokes. I assure you, that isn’t intended as a disrespect, as (as I mentioned) last year marked a complete and total change in Clipper-philosophy.

While it is normally the Lakers that make the big splash in free agency or the significant dealings, it was the Clippers that swooped in and snagged last year’s most coveted asset. In the wake of “basketball reasons” former GM Neil Olshey capitalized on the Lakers’ misfortune by completing a deal for point guard Chris Paul and paired him with veteran addition Chauncey Billups in the back court. Already in possession of an exciting front court of Blake Griffin, Caron Butler, and DeAndre Jordan, the Clippers seemed poised to make a serious run at a Pacific Division banner.

If we’re being honest, even though the Lakers ultimately prevailed, heading into last season, the organizations appeared to be traveling in opposite directions. What a difference a year, and a highly competent front office and ownership can make. Out goes a combination of Andrew Bynum, Josh McRoberts, Matt Barnes, and Troy Murphy (among others), and in walks Dwight Howard, Steve Nash, Antawn Jamison, and Jodie Meeks (among others). Talk about a roster makeover. The 2012-13 Lakers roster will only feature three players (Kobe Bryant, Pau Gasol, Metta World Peace) from the NBA championship squad of just three seasons ago.

The Clippers, to their credit, have also made some key additions over this off-season: Lamar Odom (returning), Matt Barnes (returning), Jamal Crawford, Grant Hill, Ronny Turiaf. While they still haven’t addressed what I believe was their greatest weakness in interior offense/defense, a strong argument could be made for LAC currently possessing one of the more talented bench units in the NBA.

Regardless of whether the rumors surrounding a mutual interest between the Lakers and free agent combo-guard Leandro Barbosa are true, all of the sudden, the Lakers’ second unit is nothing to dismiss, either. What was once a much-maligned and deficient bunch is now actually looked upon as a potential team strength. Be honest, how many of us cringed at the though of Bryant, Bynum, or Gasol going out of the game last season? Well, that won’t be nearly as much of an issue anymore. For as much as the Clippers’ addition of Crawford’s scoring punch was key, Jamison’s offensive arsenal (17.2 points, 6.3 rebounds in 2011-12) may actually be one of the more welcomed additions. Jodie Meeks is also precisely the backup to Bryant the Lakers have needed for several seasons.

Meeks is a career 37 percent three point shooter, and just under 89 percent from the line. Combined with the shooting  prowess of Nash (49/43/90 percent), and the Lakers have more viable shooters than they’ve had in years. It should also be mentioned that Jamison’s best shooting year of his career (54 percent FGs, 40 percent 3pt) came in a season where he played as a reserve for a Nash-led Mavericks team.

For as much as both teams want to downplay the budding rivalry between the Staples Center building mates, anyone that has watched the past 3-4 seasons has witnessed plenty of chippiness and hotly contested matches. Although overall health will likely determine which team will win more regular season games, the Lakers remain the better roster on paper. Both teams look ready to take the next step, and I (for one) would love to finally see the oft-mentioned “Hallway Match-up” in the postseason.

Hypothetically speaking, I think the Lakers would win an L.A. series 4-2, but it would still be fantastic to see the match-ups between Paul/Nash, Griffin/Howard, and Bryant vs. 1-on-1 defense. Not to mention, the added intensity of Odom/Barnes returning to Staples in the Clipper-red.

And, no offense, Clipper Darrell or Billy Crystal, but I’ll still take Jack Nicholson and Ice Cube as the face of my fan base any day.

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