Way back in ancient times—mid-October—a sizable number of Angelenos were really excited about the start of the NBA season. This being Los Angeles, about 93 percent of them were Laker fans made giddy by the idea of point guard Russell Westbrook joining superduperstars LeBron James, and Anthony Davis. The tiny minority of people who favor the Clippers (I’m one of them) were also eager, though with Kawhi Leonard injured and possibly out for the season, the excitement was more about just getting to see games in person after the year punched by the pandemic.
A few months later, no matter which team you cheer for, the emotional state is somewhere between meh and disappointment. With the 82-game regular season about one-third done, the Lakers and the Clippers are each a bit over .500, and while there have been occasional high points, both teams have frequently been frustratingly mediocre, with mercurial play and a stunning ability to lose to NBA bottom feeders.
Here is a look at what has gone wrong for both teams, as well as how things could turn around.
On far too many nights, the Lakers look awful, and the squad is plagued by malaise and inconsistency. Entering Wednesday, they sport a 15-13 record—including a pair of losses to atrocious Oklahoma City—and are sixth in the Western Conference. That’s okay, but when the season started many experts projected them to be title contenders. They sure don’t play like it.
Virtually everything that has gone wrong stems from the acquisition of Westbrook. On the one hand he is a human highlight reel who plays with a thrilling ferocity. But for all his statistical prowess, he makes copious dunderheaded plays—his 4.6 turnovers per game ranks second in the NBA and kneecaps the team’s momentum. Part of me thinks someone convinced Westbrook that if he gives the ball away it’s like a charitable donation that he can write off at tax time.
The crazy thing is, Westbrook’s inadequate fit is no surprise, and a lot of basketball fans and analysts raised their eyebrows when General Manager Rob Pelinka traded a coterie of supporting players for him. Ostensibly Westbrook was brought in to be another playmaker for when James and Davis rest. Not only has Westbrook generally failed to guide the Lakers to wins when the other stars sit, but when all three are on the floor he’s more distraction than complement. To use a basketball cliché, there’s only one ball, and that ball is best put in James’ mitts, not Westbrook’s. Additionally, Westbrook is a poor outside shooter and doesn’t set many picks, so when he’s not holding the rock, he’s usually not helping the rest of the team.
The Lakers’ record and uninspiring play has prompted whispers that coach Frank Vogel could be canned. Making him the fall guy would be ridiculous—not only did he coach the team to a title in 2020, but the problem comes from the roster assembled by Pelinka. The players he gave up to secure Westbrook, and allowing fan favorite Alex Caruso to leave in an attempted salary save, has turned the team’s defense many nights into a sieve.
Beyond the three big names, the rest of the roster is mostly a combination of league castoffs and guys who are, by NBA standards, geriatric. Having Carmelo Anthony, DeAndre Jordan, Dwight Howard, and Rajon Rondo on the roster is amazing, but only if Pelinka invents a time machine that transports everyone back to 2014.
Laker diehards will point to health, saying James has already missed 12 games. They’re right, but the dude is nearly 37. If you’re counting on him to be bulletproof every night, and for the oft-injured Davis to also be the pinnacle of health, then you’re living in Fantasyland. That may also be the nickname of Pelinka’s office.
For all their roster construction problems, the Lakers still have two things no other team does: LeBron and Anthony Davis. The ceiling of any squad with the duo is the championship, and if Westbrook improves—and he has a history of getting better as seasons progress—no one would be surprised by a deep playoff run.
Whereas expectations for the Lakers were sky-high at the start of the season, anticipation for the Clippers’ campaign was much more tempered. That has everything to do with Leonard. The star forward, who won championships with the Spurs and Raptors, underwent surgery for a partially torn ACL during the summer, and no one has any idea if he’ll return this season.
Given his absence, the Clippers may be surpassing predictions. They’re fifth in the conference with a 16-12 record and have recorded some impressive victories. They’re currently on a four-game win streak—three of them without their second star, Paul George—and earlier this season won seven in a row. Their defense is ferocious.
But like the Lakers, they are remarkably inconsistent. Outside of those two win streaks, they’re 5-12, and have lost twice to New Orleans, which is hard to do, as the Pelicans are the worst team in the conference.
This is all about personnel. Coach Tyronn Lue is getting the best out of the squad, and players including Marcus Morris Sr., Ivica Zubac, Terance Mann, and Isaiah Hartenstein play with grit and tenacity—they embody a Clippers mantra of “Streetlights Over Spotlights.”
Ultimately, however, this is a roster constructed with the specific purpose of surrounding two stars with tough, team-oriented role players who can spread the floor and drain three-pointers. That worked last season when the Clippers advanced to the Western Conference Finals for the first time in history. But when only one star is available, and even if George has often been brilliant, you are bound to have shortcomings. Point guard Reggie Jackson can be a magnificent isolation player at times, and he hit a game winner on Saturday against Orlando, but he’s not someone you build a franchise around.
The Clippers right now aren’t winning a title. But that could change if Leonard returns. The Claw, as he is known, is dominant on both the offensive and defensive ends of the court, and no one would rule the team out if he comes back at even 80 percent of his usual self.
Plus, the Clippers have a really good front office, one with the savvy to swing a trade that keeps them in contention.
Where They Go From Here
At this moment in time, the Lakers and Clippers don’t scare anyone, and neither seems capable of beating the Phoenix Suns or the resurgent Golden State Warriors in the playoffs.
But we’re only at the one-third mark, and the title is handed out in June, not December. There’s a lot of season left, and the ball can bounce in unexpected directions.
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