If the last shall be first and the first shall be last, that day seems to be coming for this city’s two NBA teams. Of course, the passage is biblical where the time frame is eternal, which was how long it seemed it would take the lowly Clippers to match the Lakers, local lords of all they surveyed.
But that challenge now seems to be under way, with Chris Paul on the Clippers and sending shivers down the spines of local fans, and the Lakers’ arch-competitive Kobe Bryant conceding that his team might no longer be the marquee entertainers in town.
“If we’re the boring team, we’re the boring team, as long as we get results,” Bryant said.
This has been a brutal couple of weeks for Bryant and the Lakers. Commissioner David Stern rejected the Lakers’ trade with New Orleans after they thought they had landed Paul, only to see him become a Clipper while they turned their attention to Orlando’s Dwight Howard. Then the Magic pulled Howard off the market. Then Bryant hurt his right wrist; a torn ligament may keep him out of the season opener on Christmas.
The Lakers fumed when the Paul deal was vetoed – “We did the best we can to express our displeasure,” Lakers general manager Mitch Kupchak said – and the players fussed when Lamar Odom and his $8.9-million (all currency U.S.) salary were later dumped on Dallas for a No. 1 pick and a trade exception. “I don’t like it,” Bryant said.
Amid all this, there was basketball to be played between the two rivals. On Monday, the Clippers romped 114-95 in a dunk-fest worthy of their new reputation. On Wednesday, the Clippers made it a sweep, winning 108-103 in a game overshadowed by Bryant’s injury.
The role reversal was instant; whether it lasts is another question.
The Lakers have so long been a league favourite that Stern, trading lines with Dan Patrick on ESPN radio, once acknowledged as much, joking that the NBA’s ideal matchup would be “the Lakers vs. the Lakers.”
Even the basketball gods seemed to favour the team, dropping a seven-foot star in its lap almost every decade – Wilt Chamberlain in 1968, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar in 1975, Shaquille O’Neal in 1996, Pau Gasol in 2008.
The Clippers, meanwhile, were aliens, having sued the NBA for the right to move here from San Diego and prevailing when the case was settled. In Donald Sterling’s three decades as the team owner, the Clippers have made the playoffs three times.
A self-made billionaire known for thrift and hard-nosed business tactics, Sterling was hawkish enough to confront Stern at an owners’ meeting a year ago in Las Vegas. Several people in the room, none of whom wanted to be quoted in describing a closed-door interaction, said Stern asked Sterling for his view of the league’s labour situation, prompting this exchange:
Sterling: You don’t want to hear what I have to say.
Stern: Yes, we do.
Sterling: Okay, I would fire you. You’re great at marketing but you’re not tough enough with the union.
The Lakers, darlings of A-list celebrities, got $2,750 for each of their courtside seats at Monday’s exhibition game at Staples Center. On Wednesday, at the same arena, the Clippers were the designated home team and the same seats cost $1,100.
But rooting interest can change quickly; it actually did once before. In an overlooked anomaly in the 2006 postseason, the Clippers’ second-round series against the Phoenix Suns drew higher television ratings in Southern California than the Lakers’ first-round loss against the same opponent.
Jack Nicholson, a Lakers regular at courtside, even flew to Phoenix for Game 5 of the Clippers-Suns series. But the next four seasons fell apart as quickly as Clippers players were hurt, until the team hit the jackpot when the No. 1 pick overall in the 2010 draft became Blake Griffin.
Now, the Clippers have Paul, too.
After years with minimal supporting casts, Paul found star teammates everywhere he looked on Monday – “like you’re at Baskin-Robbins and you get to pick whatever you want,” he said.
Griffin, the NBA’s top dunker from the moment he entered the league, threw down his trademark hesitation tomahawks. DeAndre Jordan, another great dunker, fielded lob after lob from Paul, blocking four shots, including one on Bryant in which Bryant fell to the floor and suffered his injury.
Chauncey Billups, who went from the semi-confusion of the Knicks to a Clippers assignment he might be able to fulfill from a rocking chair, took six three-pointers and made four.
Looking merely human, the Clippers still made it two in a row on Wednesday. And Paul is exultant.
“I tell you, from Day 1, it’s been unbelievable here with the Clippers,” he said. “I don’t care what anybody else says, I love it. I’ve called my friends who played with the Hornets and told them about it. David West, my closest teammate that I ever played with, I was on the phone talking with him when I walked into the arena, telling him how much I’ve enjoyed being here.”
Not that the Clippers are a finished product, or one that has even started an NBA season.
“It’s not going to be as easy as everyone thinks it is,” coach Vinny Del Negro said.
Still, be it only preseason, the Clippers have never had one like it.
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