After six months and 82 games, the NBA calendar has come to the only thing that matters: the playoffs. And if the regular season has taught local hoops fans anything, it is that neither the Los Angeles Lakers nor the Clippers figure to be around very long.
No matter which squad you like—and yes, for 90 percent of Angelenos it’s the purple and gold—most of the year has been a middling mess. The Lakers started abysmally, then bounced back, but even with a late-season push they don’t look like a squad that can tangle with the best teams in the Western Conference. The Clippers, meanwhile, began the season with championship aspirations, but have been plagued by inconsistency. Injuries have hampered both teams, but that’s just an excuse — wonky knees and sprained wrists hit all 30 NBA squads.
Despite the doldrums and fan frustration, neither team can be written off. The Lakers and Clippers each have two superstars, and that provides a fighting chance. Here’s a look at how things are lining up.
Los Angeles Lakers’ Reversal of Fortune
How They Got Here: The Lakers were a horror show before the season began, as their roster was plagued by General Manager Rob Pelinka’s acquisition of former great, Russell Westbrook. He was the proverbial sore thumb in a lineup where the offense should run through stars LeBron James and Anthony Davis, and the team zombie-lurched to a 2-10 start.
But give them credit. Rookie coach Darvin Ham ensured that they always had fight—even against superior teams, and they put together wins. As the season wore on, guard Austin Reaves emerged as someone whom James trusts, which is rare. Then, near the trade deadline, Pelinka finally shipped out Westbrook, bringing back point guard D’Angelo Russell, shooter Malik Beasley and forward Jarred Vanderbilt. For the first time in two seasons, their roster made basketball sense, with a cadre of players who complement James and Davis. Vanderbilt doesn’t put up numbers like the other two arrivals, but he’s a sneaky solid presence, especially on defense.
In February, James became the league’s all-time scoring leader, and the Lakers won nine of their final 11 games to finish 43-39, good for seventh among 15 teams in the West. The team record is not particularly impressive but is a reversal of fortune from early in the season.
Playoff Push: Every team enters the playoffs with the same four words and ellipses: If they stay healthy…
Look no further than James, who is 38, and slowed by a foot injury, and Davis, whose bones may actually be part butter. Both missed more than 25 games this season, and the Lakers’ thin path to NBA glory relies on each being able to play about 40 minutes a night for a play-in game and then four hyper-intensive series. It could happen—and Davis has been a beast in the past month—but there are much wiser bets. Russell, Reaves and Beasley all have the potential to get hot and help win a game, but none is a series difference-maker.
The Lakers will host a play-in game Tuesday night against the Minnesota Timberwolves and already got the kind of luck that only befalls the team: T-Wolves center Rudy Gobert punched a teammate during a game on Sunday and is currently suspended. Even more bizarre, Jaden McDaniels, a lockdown defender who would be assigned to James, got frustrated, punched a wall, and broke his hand. He is out for the playoffs.
Likely Path: The Lakers should roll over the depleted Timberwolves, but then would face electric Ja Morant and the second-seeded Memphis Grizzlies. The latter team is younger, faster, and truly the better one in the face-off. Even if the Lakers somehow win, they’d lack home-court advantage in every round of the playoffs. We are better off hoping for next year’s prospects.
Los Angeles Clippers’ Big “If…”
How They Got Here: An old line is more apt than ever: The only consistent thing about the Clippers this season has been their inconsistency. At seemingly any point they could string together five consecutive wins or losses. With superstar duo Kawhi Leonard and Paul George and a deep bench, they could look like what they are: one of the most expensive NBA rosters ever, meticulously crafted to nail three-pointers, play tight defense and score the first title in franchise history. Or, they could come out flat and uninspired, and choke away late leads; they were prone to fall to bottom feeders like Orlando, which they did twice this season.
Leonard spent the first part of the season recovering from a torn ACL, though for the past two months has been one of the best players in the league. However, George went down with a sprained knee a few weeks ago and there is no timetable for his return. Outside of steady play from center Ivica Zubac, the rest of the roster has been all over the place, as coach Tyronn Lue keeps trying to mix and match parts. Norm Powell is a scoring machine off the bench, but missed 22 games due to injury. The Clippers even picked up Westbrook after the Lakers jettisoned him—Westbrook has generally played well and understood his role, though at times seems to think he’s still a superstar. That’s often not a good thing.
The Clippers finished 44-38, good for fifth in the West. They also moved forward on a $2 billion Inglewood arena, not that the building makes a difference in daily results.
Playoff Push: Remember that aforementioned line, If they stay healthy…
It holds here. If George returns to the lineup and is himself, then the Clippers can compete with anyone. They have scorers in Powell, Eric Gordon and Bones Hyland, fan-favorite Terance Mann can deliver a jolt of energy, and forward Nico Batum is a steadying veteran presence and good defender. They bulked up their frontcourt by trading for backup center Mason Plumlee, a smart passer who I once heard the team announcer hilariously refer to as Plumdog Millionaire.
The problem is, the Clippers play the Phoenix Suns in round one, and though point guard Chris Paul has slowed with age, Phoenix has two of the league’s best players in forward Kevin Durant and guard Devin Booker. Durant is also coming back from injury, and they are not as fluid yet as they could be, so there is vulnerability. But life becomes hard if George is not himself.
Likely Path: This is year four of the all-in experiment of teaming Leonard and George, and the results have been underwhelming—just a single trip to the Western Conference finals. The Clips have the power to beat Phoenix, but after a season of unsteady play and no semblance of a killer instinct, it’s hard to see them winning four games, especially when the Suns have home-court advantage.
If they do win, then it’s likely a second-round matchup against Denver and center Nikola Jokic, and the Nuggets have owned the Clippers for several years. There is a reason for hope—again, Leonard and George—but an early exit seems more likely.
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