Professional basketball journalist A. C. Boyle discusses the sport’s new order in which power is concentrated in Los Angeles and whether the Clippers will be become a dynasty.
As I write this now, the NBA defending champion Golden State Warriors’ 2019-20 season has started 1-5. The Los Angeles darlings of the offseason, the Lakers and Clippers, are 5-1 and 5-2, respectively.
Welcome to the new NBA order.
Change in the hierarchies of NBA basketball are as slow and painful as change in any other area of life, and anybody who knows the agressively absurd and annoying lack of parity in the NBA knows this to be true. From the years 1980 to 2003, there were only seven different NBA Champions, with three of those teams winning 17 of those 23 championships. The last NBA champ from the Western Conference that wasn’t located in the state of California or Texas doesn’t even exist as a team anymore because they relocated from Seattle to Oklahoma City. And there are 11 teams– a third of the league– that have never won a single NBA title, while two teams (the Lakers and Celtics) combined have won 33 of the NBA’s 71 championships. By percentage, that’s almost half.
This immense lack of parity owes to the fact that basketball is the most skill-oriented game in the world, besides chess. While the other major American professional sports leagues have dynasties, it seems like underdogs can always find a way to win and unseat giants (did you see the Washington Nationals in baseball just last month?). But in NBA Basketball, the big, star-studded, juggernaut teams are always better, and they virtually always win (unless you are the 2004 Detroit Pistons, because we still haven’t figured out how they upset Kobe Bryant and Shaq).
With only five players on the field and a huge gap between good and bad teams (due to superstar talent being concentrated at the very top of the pyramid), this disparity shouldn’t come as a surprise. But it should disappoint you, because the NBA is basically the complete opposite of College Basketball, where upsets are as common as Oregon rainfall thanks to March Madness. Surely if the second highest tier of basketball can find a way of balancing things, the highest tier league can too. Right? I know that the NBA Playoffs have best of seven series matchups while March Madness has only one elimination game, making upsets less likely in the NBA. Maybe the NBA should learn from this, then, and change their playoff format.
For the past few years, the Golden State Warriors have dominated the league with an all-star roster that won more regular season games than any other team in history, only to add another top-5 superstar to their team next year. They have represented the Western conference in the NBA Finals for five years in a row, and won three of those five championships.
And now, their season is off to a lackluster 1-5 start, with their own star player, Draymond Green, declaring that “We f—— suck right now.” They lost Stephen Curry to injury, Klay Thompson to injury and Kevin Durant to injury, and then free agency, with him signing with the upstart Brooklyn Nets in the Eastern Conference. Green, too is also temporarily sidelined, meaning that their once illustrious “Big Four” is now a big zero. This team went from the highest highs to the lowest lows, and it only took a couple of bad luck injuries to unseat them. At this point, the Warriors aren’t even thinking the word “Championship” right now. They’re thinking about rebuilding their health and roster for next year.
This leaves another old chapter of the NBA in the past, with the door blown wide open for several new teams to try and take the Warriors’ place on the throne of the (decidedly stronger) Western Conference. There are several teams who have been in Golden State’s shadow for a while now, ready to come out and make the new decade their time to shine.
Of these teams, the biggest and brightest is the Los Angeles Clippers, led by Kawhi Leonard and Paul George, their two superstar offseason acquisitions. Leonard, possibly the best basketball player in the league right now, just brought the first NBA title to the country of Canada by helping the Toronto raptors dethrone the Warriors. Now he is looking to follow this success up by moving to a new city to help a perennial underdog team that has never made a conference finals, let alone the NBA Finals, finally reach their peak. Joining him is Paul George, a player who has come close to the promised land several times before, but never won a title. Together, they will probably be the team to beat at things shape up.
But I should also mention their intra-city competition, the Los Angeles Lakers. Led by legendary superstar LeBron James, and adding former New Orleans pelicans superstar Anthony Davis in the offseason, this team is the answer to the Clippers, and much stronger than last year, when they disappointed fans by missing the playoffs. James, in his 18th year, is getting old, with probably about two or three years left before retirement. But he still wants to win, perhaps now more than ever, in order to cement his legacy and silence the haters who think he can’t bring championships to Lakertown like Shaq and Magic could.
The Lakers and the Clippers played their first game against each other, with the Clippers winning a close shootout by the score of 112-102. They will meet three more times in the regular season, including a game on Christmas Day which might shape up to be the best game of the regular season– and after that, who knows? They might face each other again in the playoffs.
Intra-city rivalries in sports are always fun (think Yankees-Mets and Cubs-White Sox), but where this one is different is in the fact that both these teams share the same stadium– Staples Center– and the floorboards have to be switched out each time the other team has an upcoming game (they need to house LA’s hockey team, too. Yikes!). This would make a hypothetical playoff matchup between the two teams even more interesting, because neither of the teams would need to fly from one city to another for the home-away schedule, meaning their level of play would be devoid of jet lag and likely improved.
The Lakers have pretty much always been the dominant team among fans in LA and nationwide, with many considering the Clippers to be nothing but a sideshow experiment, an afterthought. But if I know anything about the Clippers’ roster, I know that they are filled with hard-nosed, resilient players who don’t think of themselves as afterthoughts, and are ready to finally prove themselves to the city of dreams. They have a talented coach, Doc Rivers, and a passionate owner, former Microsoft CEO Steve Ballmer. They don’t want to play second fiddle to the Lakers anymore, and they look poised to finally capture the big prize this year, barring any injuries.
Which begs the question: will a time come when the Clippers aren’t the resilient, likeable underdogs anymore, but the bullies beating up on the little teams?
Before that can come, they’ll have to beat the Lakers, and whichever Eastern Conference team pushes ahead of the pack. This is good news for anyone tired of the same team winning each year, because now we have two really strong teams that both have something to prove, competing for dominance in the very same city. Hopefully the NBA will get exciting again soon, because I’m going to bury my head in the sand if not.