The thought, as soon as the Los Angeles Clippers pulled off a deal for All-Star point guard Chris Paul last December, was that the Clippers and Los Angeles Lakers would no doubt meet in the playoffs at some point. That the two teams, with the Dallas Mavericks fading and the Oklahoma City Thunder not having made a major offseason move, would duke it out for the Pacific Division title, and possibly play in the Western Conference finals for the rights to represent the city in the NBA Finals.
And why not? Even after trading Lamar Odom for mere payroll relief, the Lakers still looked stout as ever. Kobe Bryant's knee was as good as it had been in years thanks to his experimental knee rehabilitation in Germany and the extended six-month layoff due to the Lakers' relatively early 2010-11 exit and the NBA's lockout. The Clippers would be returning superstar Blake Griffin, they matched Golden State's offer for center DeAndre Jordan, and Paul was supposed to be the guy to find easy buckets when everyone's footwork went awry.
Instead, though, both teams petered out in the second round, with just one win between the teams to show for their efforts. The Clippers looked both thin and brittle, overly reliant on Paul to save them from the offensive dregs, with CP3 once again ending his season with a pronounced limp. The Lakers looked disturbingly uneven from night to night, a top-heavy team whose top parts didn't play well with each other. Both went out far earlier than intended by them, or predicted by some, and both have major issues to face as they head into their offseasons a month earlier than they had hoped for way back in December.
With nine playoff appearances, a shared association with coaching godfather Gregg Popovich, and a Coach of the Year win to their combined credit, Lakers coach Mike Brown and Clippers head man Vinny Del Negro are perhaps the two most criticized coaches in the NBA. Del Negro has a poor reputation based on his in-game decisions, his offensive sets in both Chicago and Los Angeles were criticized as pedestrian at best, his teams often look unprepared down the stretch of games, and his embarrassing and unprofessional habit of shouting at 3-point shooters near the Clipper bench has made him a laughingstock on Twitter. Vinny's reputation could just be the result of perception gone batty, but for now that cloud exists, and even his first second-round appearance as coach couldn't do much to pop it.
Brown's in-game adjustments are often clear, and executed well, as are his between-game moves to stiffen the game defensively and focus attention on one nagging opposing scorer. Still, dating back to Brown's time in Cleveland, he is regarded as a bit of a pushover offensively; and his inability to find a way to mesh Kobe Bryant, Andrew Bynum and Pau Gasol's extensive gifts without having to dump it into either player exclusively and walk away was the subject of derision. And, from this particular camp, disappointment.
Brown's future, despite the unfortunate fanboy fulminations of Magic Johnson, is secure. The Lakers are the same team that dumped Laker legend Derek Fisher midseason just to save a few million, so this team is not going to eat the last $9 million on Brown's contract just because he couldn't figure out a way to make Gasol more of a threat in the pick and pop game. This doesn't mean we don't think Brown's style, and the resultant criticism, will change much in 2012-13 and onward.
VDN's future is less secure. The Clippers have a team option on the coach to decide on picking up between now and June 1, and this is the point in the column where you have to bring up that the Clippers just aren't any other NBA team. They work cheap in all the strangest areas — Los Angeles might splurge on a free agent or pay big bucks to retain their own players, but they also boast a limited scouting staff, they withhold agreed-upon and guaranteed money to fired coaches, and they battle for the rights over relatively mere thousands of dollars that is owed to its front office personnel.
Declining Del Negro's option, it would seem, would be a very Clipper move even if his work wasn't scrutinized as much. This way, the Clippers could continue the habit of going months without having to pay a coach during the offseason, before hiring one just before training camp. Then again, Del Negro is working on one of the more affordable coaching contracts in the NBA. It's the Clippers, and late-game execution and rotation juggling just don't often factor in these sorts of decisions.
The Clippers' player payroll is another issue. Should Mo Williams pick up his player option for next season (Mo was unhappy in Los Angeles this year, but he's not going to be able to find the $8.5 million he's owed next year on the open market, and the ability to secure a longer mid-level deal will still be there for the scoring guard in the 2013 offseason), the Clips will be just a few million under the projected salary cap limit in 2012-13 with only seven players on its roster. The team is going to have to find a way, via trade re-signings or some other machination, to get over the limit in order to utilize the NBA's capped-out player exceptions, and they're going to have to figure out a way to improve the team's depth with two players already making eight figures a year, and with possible rotation fillers having to come to Los Angeles for either minimum salaries or exceptions.
And, once again, these are the Clippers we're talking about. Yes, they fill that arena, and play into the playoffs now, but we have no clue what the team's ownership will do with that income. The team was incredibly lucky to back into additions Nick Young and Kenyon Martin midseason, but both are free agents, both might not be back, and even with those additions the team was still squirming every time it had to go to its bench in the playoffs. Blake Griffin sat down, and sometimes Bobby Simmons stood up. That sort of thing just can't happen again next year, but will the Clips have the cash -- or willingness to explore the D-League and better options outside of name players like Simmons -- to change that?
Meanwhile, the team's cornerstones are both free agents in 2013. Chris Paul has yet to sign a contract extension with the team, and Blake Griffin's rookie deal only has one year left on it before he becomes a restricted free agent before 2013-14. Both would be due to make maximum contracts, but … again, these are the Clippers. We have no way of knowing.
It also seems cruel to wonder, but might the Clips take a wait-and-see approach with Paul?
For a while there, CP3 shed his injury-prone reputation following a frustrating couple of seasons early in his career, but he's been continually banged up down the stretch in both his last few years with the Hornets and Clippers. Paul's groin issues could have happened to anyone, his unfortunate stretch in Game 5 of the Memphis series had nothing to do with any of the ailments that have plagued him before, but the reputation holds. Paul would be entering his prime as he enters free agency in 2013, but don't think the Clippers are at best a little worried about what they're going to be paying for every May.
The Lakers don't have nearly the skinflint reputation as the Clippers do, but they've used the excuse of a family-run business to shed Odom, Fisher, scouting staff, and chances at trade deadline rotation upgrades in the last year. This is a team that will be paying both Kobe Bryant and Christian Eyenga alone a combined $29 million to play next season, making up half the team's salary cap even before tossing in the combined $35 million owed Andrew Bynum and Pau Gasol.
Should Ramon Sessions pick up his $4.5 million player option, and Devin Ebanks return for the qualifying offer, the Lakers will be well into luxury tax hell with just nine players on the roster, six of which (excluding Eyenga, Ebanks, though he led the team's bench in minutes in Game 5 against the Thunder on Monday, and Josh McRoberts) are in the rotation. Like their Clipper counterparts, this is an uneasy balance. The stars make so much that the team is paying through the teeth for a top-heavy team that fades significantly once the ball is passed away from a member of its Big Three.
That's a bit of a boo-flippin'-hoo to these major market squads. Outfits in Miami, New York and Los Angeles have to make do with ineffective benches mainly because their top stars make so much. Even as talk radio hosts and cable TV yellers trumpet the NBA's new style of aligning stars, star alignment isn't exactly a go-to move, but that's a column for another day.
Worse for the Lakers is these stars' inability to play well alongside each other. Bryant and Gasol don't get along. Gasol doesn't respect Kobe's shoot-first tendencies, especially when Kobe played for so long and so successfully in the triangle offense, and Bryant can't understand why Gasol can't hit the same sort of face-up jump shot off a pick and pop that so many of his international contemporaries can. Meanwhile, Bynum's effort level fades at times, and even when he is engaged, Bryant's reputation as some sort of fourth-quarter closer makes it so Bynum rarely sees the ball in a patient Laker possession (because, yes Laker fans, it is possible to get the ball to Drew when he's being fronted) in the final minutes of a contest.
As a result, you have the same old push and pull. The same old frustrations until Brown develops a way to make Gasol more effective as a power forward (his thin frame may seem to work best at the position, but his low and high-post game make him more suited to the center position offensively; as he's not the sort of jump shooter you can run an endless screen and roll game with), and orders the team to attempt a ball reversal and second attempt into Bynum when the big man has a small center leaning on the front of him.
And, though Gasol failed Kobe in a late-game possession in Game 4, and Bynum's effectiveness came and went, Mike Brown is going to have to learn to stand up to Kobe Bryant when he chucks and chucks and chucks. Considering Brown's history, we're not holding our breath.
Trading Gasol, a (sadly; because this should have worked) odd fit, would seem to be the obvious answer. The problem is that Pau is a luxury only the Lakers can afford — a player who will be 32 at the start of next season, due to make over $38 million over the next two years.
Teams aren't going to line up to grab Pau in exchange for the sort of depth (a jump shootin' power forward! Shooters off the bench! A defensive point guard with good size!) that the Lakers need. Nobody is going to line up to help the Lakers, a team that fought tooth and nail to avoid any sort of revenue sharing re-jig in the last labor impasse, in order to take on Pau as he slides further away from his prime. And this is one of Gasol's most ardent fans, writing.
Bryant's obviously not going anywhere, and the Laker ownership's infatuation with Bynum would seem to prevent any move. So would the fact that Bynum is still years away from his prime, and already one of the league's best players at the hardest position to ably fill. And because he's entering a contract year.
Unless the team willingly takes on a bad deal just to excuse Gasol (with his trade value at an all-time low, as opponents understand that the Lakers are desperate), expect more of the same from the Lakers in 2012-13. Which means the development will have to come from within, and because this is a veteran team, the changes will have to come from the coaching staff.
And because this is the coaching staff, don't expect much change. Brown is fantastic at getting his players to pick it up on one end, but it was the offense that was failing Los Angeles at the end of close playoff games this year.
So … do it all again next year? With the same thrills, the same frustrations, the same hopes, and the same potential letdowns? The same drama? The same triumph? The same Twitter, TV, and blog fodder?
It's just a day later, and with the playoffs still in full swing, and we can't wait. Hurry back, El Lay. Both of you.