Both of the Los Angeles teams are struggling this season. But the long-term prognosis for the famous Lakers looks better than that of the Clippers
Sunday was another tough night for LA basketball. The Los Angeles Lakers’ losing streak increased to five games after the Houston Rockets blew them out 118-95. Meanwhile the injury-plagued Clippers lost their third straight, falling to the Minnesota Timberwolves 112-106. Despite coming into this season with radically different expectations, both teams have won just eight games and have a long way to go if they want to make it above the .500 mark. While it’s still early in the season, there’s a strong possibility that we could be heading towards the first NBA postseason without an LA-based team since 2005.
It’s been a particularly unusual time to be a Lakers fan as their team has already missed four straight postseasons, by far their longest playoff drought. In fact, prior to this stretch, they had missed the playoffs in back-to-back seasons only once before, in 1974-76. Since 1960, when they moved from Minnesota (hence their geographically suspect nickname) to become the first NBA team on the West Coast the Lakers have won 25 conference titles and 11 championships, including two three-peats. This is a team that has showcased a laundry list of superstar players including Jerry West, Wilt Chamberlain, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Magic Johnson, James Worthy, Shaquille O’Neal and Kobe Bryant.
Even if the Lakers hadn’t established themselves as one of the most successful and popular franchises in US sports, the Clippers were always going to be the lesser loved of the two teams. They began life as the Buffalo Braves in 1970 before moving to San Diego in 1978 and rebranding themselves as the Clippers. They then moved to LA in 1984, just in time to be completely overshadowed by Johnson’s “Showtime Lakers” teams, whose epic battles with Larry Bird’s Boston Celtics helped revive the league and laid the groundwork for the modern day NBA.
Of course, it’s doubtful that the Clippers would have gained a large fanbase even if they had an entire major market to themselves. For most of their existence the Clippers have played awful, uninspired basketball. They wouldn’t make their first playoffs as the Clippers until the 1991-92 season. They lost in the first round, something that would become a fairly common result on those rare occasions that they actually managed to qualify for the postseason.
Much of the blame for the Clippers’ legacy of losing has to be placed on Donald Sterling, the bigoted slumlord and notorious cheapskate who owned the Clippers from 1981 to 2014, when the NBA finally banned him for life after he was caught on tape making racist remarks. During his reign, the Clippers weren’t just bad on the court, they were an absolutely toxic organization with a reputation for making players miserable, a situation that ensured that free agents tended to give the team a wide berth.
However, even before former Microsoft CEO Steve Ballmer bought the team in August 2014, it the Clippers’ luck was changing. IN 2009, they drafted No1 pick Blake Griffin who, after losing his entire rookie year to a knee injury, developed into one of the best players in the league. Then, in 2011, the Clippers pulled off a trade for all-star point guard Chris Paul after the league controversially voided a trade that would have sent him to, who else, but the Lakers. This, obviously, was considered a double win for long-suffering Clippers fans.
With the Lakers mired in the longest slump of their existence, due in part to Kobe Bryant’s drawn-out decline, the Clippers finally established themselves as the most successful NBA team in the city. They had a new owner, the most talented team in franchise history and a proven head coach in Doc Rivers, who led the Boston Celtics to a title in the 2008 NBA finals.
Now, it’s hard to argue that the Clippers haven’t been successful during that stretch. They have made the playoffs in each of the last six seasons, a genuine accomplishment since they before that they had made a grand total of four postseason appearances since moving to LA. Still it’s equally hard to argue that the Clippers have been able to take advantage of the Lakers’ recent struggles.
It’s understandable that the Clippers didn’t win a title, especially considering that their best seasons occurred right when the Western Conference became historically competitive, but the Clippers failed to even make their first conference championship appearance. As good as they have been over the last few years, they haven’t been able to overcome injuries to their most important players, notoriously thin benches and good old fashioned “Clippers luck.”
Now their window might be closed. The Clippers traded Paul to the Houston Rockets in the offseason. While there was some hope that the team could build around Griffin in the way that the Rockets have built around James Harden and the Oklahoma City Thunder are attempting to do with Russell Westbrook, Griffin’s latest knee injury has probably put an end to that particular fantasy.
At this point of the season, the Clippers and Lakers have won the same number of games, but that doesn’t mean that they’re both on equal ground. The Clippers came into this season thinking that they were going to be a competitive playoff team and hoping to avoid having to go through a messy rebuild that would essentially end their latest attempt at stealing the spotlight away from their intra city rivals. Meanwhile, the Lakers had absolutely no intent on building a winning team last off-season. Instead they concentrated on clearing away the cap space so they can sign two superstar players next summer, possibly even LeBron James.
If this were any other team, this would be an utterly presumptuous move to make, but it’s something that the Lakers can do given their winning tradition, gigantic fanbase and their history of attracting talent. In other words, star players come to the Lakers with an expectation of winning championships because the Lakers are the team where star players have won championships. In the NBA, success begets success and no team exploits that concept more than the Lakers. For that reason, it’s hard to imagine that the Clippers, with their ugly history of bad luck and worse basketball, will ever be able to truly make LA their town.