No longer a mere punchline or a lesser attraction, the Los Angeles Clippers have usurped the Los Angeles Lakers as the city's top team. But with the addition of Doc Rivers to coach up an already talent-laden roster, they aren't satisfied with merely being No. 1 in Los Angeles.
Coincidentally, though, their road to accomplishing more starts against the Kobe Bryant-less Lakers in a designated road game Tuesday night.
The Lakers (45-37) were the ones with championship expectations entering last season following the acquisitions of Dwight Howard and Steve Nash. Both were plagued by injuries, however, while Bryant suffered a torn Achilles tendon prior to a first-round sweep at the hands of San Antonio, and Howard bolted for Houston after his contract expired.
The Clippers (56-26) swept the season series for the first time since coming to Los Angeles, winning four meetings by an average of 13.2 points. Now being better than their historically superior arena mates appears to be the least of their concerns.
They've been successful in the regular season, as their 96 wins over the last two rank fifth in the NBA. But after a second-round exit in 2012, they were eliminated in the first round by Memphis despite jumping out to a 2-0 series lead.
"We have higher expectations for ourselves than anybody else," forward Blake Griffin said. "We don't feel we've arrived until we win a championship."
The Clippers fired Vinny Del Negro and dealt a future first-round pick to Boston to acquire Rivers' services. Since arriving, Rivers has put a priority on building a championship mentality, seen in his move to have the Lakers' banners and retired jerseys covered inside Staples Center for Clippers home games.
Point guard Chris Paul, who signed a five-year, $107 million extension in the offseason, found out in a hurry what playing for Rivers would be like.
"You always want someone to push you and motivate you," said Paul, who tied for the league lead in steals with 2.4 per game and finished second in assists at 9.7 but has only won two playoff series in his career. "In our first meeting, he told me I hadn't really done anything in this league, and he's right."
Paul should be happy with more weapons at his disposal, particularly with a deeper group of reserves. The Clippers added a bevy of 3-point options in J.J. Redick, Jared Dudley and Byron Mullens, and the signing of Darren Collison should also help Paul find more time to catch a breather.
The Lakers enter with a roster full of question marks after a championship-or-bust season went bust. No firm timetable has been set for Bryant's return, so the responsibility of leadership - and production - appears to fall squarely on the shoulders of Nash and Pau Gasol in the meantime.
"It's really important for us to embrace these low expectations, try to find a chemistry and build ourselves into a team that has some confidence," said Nash, who at 39 is the league's oldest player.
They'll be playing alongside a virtual scrap heap of free-agent acquisitions, including Nick Young, Wesley Johnson, Jordan Farmar and Shawne Williams. But where most generally see inexperience, Nash sees potential.
"We may not be as talented at the top like last year, but I think we got younger, more athletic with more shooters who can space the floor," Nash said.
Perhaps the youth can revitalize Nash, whose 6.7 assists per game were his fewest since 1999-00. Howard's departure also means Gasol will have the paint to himself, looking to improve on a career-low 13.7 points per game and 46.6 field-goal percentage.
Paul is averaging 22.1 points and 12.4 assists in his last seven games against the Lakers.