On October 22, 2019, the Los Angeles Lakers and Clippers met at Staples Center, tipping off what would have been a tumultuous season even without COVID-19. On Thursday evening, the teams will meet again, nine months and 2,500 miles from where it all began.
The 6 p.m. game, on a neutral court in Orlando, marks the resumption of the NBA season, which abruptly shuttered on March 11 when a Utah Jazz player was found to have contracted the coronavirus. The league has spent months meticulously planning the restart and figuring out how to keep racial justice concerns on the front burner. It all takes place inside a “bubble,” a portion of the Walt Disney World complex where the players, coaches, and staff of 22 teams live in hotels, and interaction is severely limited. Not only are there no fans in the stands, but even players who come off the court must sit six feet apart.
Each team plays eight games, and then a traditional 16-team playoffs begins on August 17. The Clippers and Lakers are among the favorites to win the championship—along with the Milwaukee Bucks—though each took a unique path to this moment. In case basketball seems like something from another lifetime, here’s a refresher on what has transpired, and a look at what is to come.
How They Got Here: It’s easy to forget how many questions loomed over the purple and gold before the season began: Could LeBron James recover from an injury-plagued 2018-19 campaign, or was Father Time about to sucker punch the superstar? Had a doddering front office assembled enough complementary pieces around James and high-profile new addition Anthony Davis? If the squad stumbled out of the gate would new coach Frank Vogel survive, or would fans and the media clamor for him to be replaced by assistant coach Jason Kidd?
The Clippers rocked the Lakers on opening night, but Team LeBron won 24 of their next 26 contests, stomping on every doubter. James not only shrugged off Father Time, he seemed to have discovered the Fountain of Youth, as the 35-year-old led the league in assists for the first time in his career. Davis was a beast on the offensive and defensive ends of the court, the team responded to Vogel, and even notable NBA question marks such as Dwight Howard and JaVale McGee bought in. The tragic death of Kobe Bryant in a helicopter accident on January 26 shook the Lakers faithful to their collective core, but the team stayed strong, and by the time of the shutdown the Lakers sat atop the Western Conference with a 49-14 record.
Why They’ll Win It All: LeBron is the greatest player of his generation, the second best of all time (sorry; Jordan’s still tops), and Davis is his most talented sidekick since he teamed with Dwyane Wade in Miami. They’re the best one-two combo in the league, and the respect opposing defenses must show them opens up space for players such as Danny Green and Kyle Kuzma. Perhaps the best glimpse of their potential came in the days before the shutdown, when the Lakers beat the Bucks and Clippers in consecutive games.
On the Other Hand: While the Lakers cruised pre-pandemic, their roster is thin, and was stretched further when defensive specialist Avery Bradley opted to skip the bubble due to family health concerns. Plus, guard Rajon Rondo is out for a few weeks with a busted thumb. The team’s margin of error is limited.
To win it all, James and Davis need to have good games virtually every game through four rounds of the playoffs. There’s also a possible early trap: the Lakers, who are almost certain to be the top seed in the conference, can’t sleep on a first-round matchup against either the Portland Trailblazers or the New Orleans Pelicans and human pogo stick Zion Williamson. If they make the Finals, they’ll likely face the Bucks and have to figure out how to counter Giannis Antetokounmpo, a nearly seven-foot athletic freak who seems like he was designed in a lab to dominate basketball courts, and is likely to win his second consecutive MVP award.
How They Got Here: Everything changed for Los Angeles’ “other” team on July 6, 2019, when a.) free agent forward Kawhi Leonard opted to leave the team he had just guided to the NBA championship, the Toronto Raptors, to sign with the Clippers, and b.) the front office traded nearly every present and future asset for Oklahoma City’s Paul George. It was the ultimate win-now move under owner Steve Ballmer and elevated the Clips into the stratosphere.
A 44-20 record puts the Clips second in the West but is also something of a red herring, perhaps throwing fans off of just how good the team really is. George missed 22 games due to injury, and Leonard, who the franchise treats like he is made of glass, sat out 15 games. The entire M.O. has been to preserve bodies for the grueling playoffs. By the time the season shut down the marathon-not-a-sprint approach was paying off, as the Clippers were finally fully healthy and rounding into form, having won seven of eight games, including five against likely playoff teams.
Why They’ll Win It All: While James and Davis are the league’s best duo, Leonard and George are a close second, and the Clippers’ pair augment their potent offensive games by being just plain nasty on the defensive end—in the 2019 playoffs, Leonard turned the tide of an entire series by swaddling the Bucks’ Antetokounmpo. Add in nonstop pest Pat Beverly and rim protector Ivica Zubac, and opponents will have to work for every bucket, which is wearing over a seven-game series.
That’s just the start. Forward Montrezl Harrell generates the kind of energy usually only seen in a Tesla coil, and silky shooter Lou Williams pours in buckets off the bench. The net result is that the Clippers are the deepest team in the league, better prepared than any other squad to withstand a down game or the absence of a star. This is a gritty collective that excels in team-oriented play, and coach Doc Rivers is a past NBA champ who knows how to read a game.
On the Other Hand: The Clippers’ restart was addled, with several players joining the bubble late, and at least one testing positive for the coronavirus. Then Williams pulled a head-smacker by leaving the bubble for a funeral (approved absence), and then being photographed in an Atlanta strip club (not approved!), necessitating a ten-day quarantine, which means he’ll miss the Lakes game. If you’re looking for a reminder of the Clippers Curse, this is it.
Like the Lakers, the Clippers face a potentially difficult opening round playoff series if they draw Oklahoma City, Houston or Dallas, and while they’ll be favored against any of the three, each will make them sweat. Also like the Lakers, if they reach the finals, they’ll likely have to battle Antetokounmpo.
Bonus: For the Lakers to win a title, they’ll likely have to get through… the Clippers. And for the Clippers to claim the trophy, same thing. If the bubble holds, the Lakers and Clippers are likely to meet in the third round of the post-season, creating perhaps the single greatest playoff match-up in L.A. sports history. For a few weeks in September, the city might focus on something other than COVD-19.
Stay on top of the latest in L.A. food and culture. Sign up for our newsletters today.