The tables are beginning to turn in Los Angeles, as it’s starting to look like the LA Clippers are becoming the city’s destination team.
Since 1984, there have been two NBA teams located in Los Angeles — the LA Clippers and the Los Angeles Lakers. And for the vast majority of that time, the Lakers have been the team that has ruled the City of Angels. Since the Clippers’ inaugural season in Los Angeles in 1984-1985, the Lakers have won the NBA Finals eight times. That’s a number the Clippers haven’t been able to sniff, as the team has only appeared in the playoffs 11 times since making the move from San Diego and has never made it beyond the second round.
The Lakers have also had the better players, coaches and front office executives for a vast majority of that time as well, and that’s no coincidence. Because during that time, the Lakers had established themselves as a destination team — a team that NBAers of all sorts would want to be a part of. Los Angeles established a winning culture, captured the spotlight with flashy stars and made decisions that would benefit both the current team and the future of the franchise.
Meanwhile, the Clippers were still struggling to find their footing. They didn’t have the honor of playing their games at The Forum, and with a mediocre owner running the organization, LA failed to do anything truly noteworthy until the mid-2000s, when they made it to the second round of the playoffs and pushed the first-place Phoenix Suns to seven games. Had it not been for a last-second triple made by Raja Bell in Game 5, the outcome of that series could have gone the Clippers’ way, too.
Nothing changed between the Clippers and Lakers until the 2013-2014 season, which marked the first time in league history that the Clippers made the playoffs in a year when the Lakers didn’t. With a powerful trio of Chris Paul, Blake Griffin and DeAndre Jordan, the Clippers established themselves as a legitimate threat in the Western Conference. And although they weren’t winning any titles, they were still doing more to put themselves on the map than the Lakers were at the time.
Since the 2011-2012 season, the Clippers have missed the playoffs just once, and have the sixth-best regular season win percentage in the league since 2010, behind only the San Antonio Spurs, Oklahoma City Thunder, Golden State Warriors, Houston Rockets and Miami Heat. The lone playoff miss was during the 2017-2018 season, when the Clippers went 42-40 and remained in the playoff race until the final week of the regular season.
The Lakers, on the other hand, haven’t made the playoffs since the 2012-2013 season and have won an average of 27 games per season since 2013-2014. Still, over that course of time, the Lakers have landed some of the league’s better-known names on the roster: Dwight Howard and Steve Nash were there, and they’ve brought in LeBron James and Anthony Davis during the past two summers.
The only thing was, while the Clippers were winning and taking over headlines, they still weren’t attracting any big names. No one came out and said that they wanted to play for the Clippers. The number of those that wanted to play for the Lakers decreased, but it wasn’t because they were going to the Clippers instead — there were just other teams that offered a better shot at winning, like the Golden State Warriors, Miami Heat and Cleveland Cavaliers.
So the Clippers were winning, and they were performing well, yes. But at the same time, they weren’t entirely stealing the thunder. Part of that probably has to do with the fact that the Lakers weren’t all that far removed from their last title, which Kobe Bryant and Pau Gasol helped deliver in 2010. But after Bryant’s reign came to an end, the Lakers didn’t have much. At least, there were no superstars worth talking about. And even then, the media attention was still focused primarily on the Lakers rather than the Clippers.
The current Clippers were the ones that finally changed that. And while none of them would ever give a second of their time to talk about the “Battle of Los Angeles”, something has become apparent recently — specifically this offseason.
The LA Clippers are on the cusp of becoming the city’s destination team. And to understand what I’m getting at here, we first need to talk about Paul George.
After spending the first seven years of his career with the Indiana Pacers, George was shipped to the Oklahoma City Thunder in exchange for Victor Oladipo and Domantas Sabonis. At the time, it was seen as a lopsided trade — Oladipo was nothing compared to the star he’s become in Indiana, and Sabonis was fresh off a rookie campaign that could be described as solid at best. Meanwhile, George was a rising star in the Association, nearing superstar status. George’s destination was unexpected as well, as the expectation was that he would sign with the Los Angeles Lakers the following summer since the Pacers didn’t want to trade him there.
Throughout the course of the 2017-2018 season, not much thought was given to George’s future with the organization. On social media at least, the minds had been made up. George was going to be a one-year rental for the Thunder, and then he’d be off to Los Angeles to sign with the Lakers, presumably joining LeBron James.
Only that wasn’t what ended up happening. Much to the dismay of Lakers fans, some of whom were running accounts on Twitter dedicated to George’s arrival, he re-signed with the Thunder in July 2018 — burning James and the Lakers in the process.
It was almost a year to the date later that George would force a trade to the LA Clippers, in order to team up with free agent forward and 2019 Finals MVP Kawhi Leonard.
Leonard’s story is another that factors into the change that’s taking place in Los Angeles, and his arguably matters more than George’s.
By the summer of 2019, Leonard had already achieved superstar status. On top of that, after leading the Toronto Raptors to victory over the Golden State Warriors in the Finals, plenty of folks in and around the league began to consider him to be the best player in basketball. A few weeks prior, Doc Rivers suggested that he’s “the most like [Michael] Jordan that we’ve seen”.
It wasn’t a coincidence that Leonard would be a free agent in just over a month’s time, and one of the teams he was rumored to be considering was the Clippers. Leonard was also connected to the Lakers, as one of his main desires was to come home to LA.
Leonard’s free agency was a grueling process. Fans of all three teams involved — the Clippers, Lakers and Raptors — didn’t know what to think. Raptors fans seemed to be content no matter the outcome, given he had just delivered the franchise’s first title. Lakers fans were confident that Leonard would choose them, given their rich history and the fact that they already had the player widely considered to be the best in the world. Clippers fans were nervous — yet oddly comfortable. At least, that’s the way I felt.
It always seemed to me that the Clippers were Leonard’s best option, so long as winning (and only winning) was his main priority. They offered a chance to get out of the LA spotlight, a competent front office, a strong coaching staff, a team full of hard-working supporters… you name it. The Clippers had it. Ultimately, Leonard went for them, and for plenty of those reasons that I just laid out.
But see, there’s a deeper significance to that. Not only did Leonard’s decision to choose the LA Clippers put them atop every sports media outlet’s power rankings, but it was virtually the first time in NBA history that a free agent of Leonard’s caliber chose the Clippers over the Lakers — a serious, serious event considering the two clubs’ history.
It didn’t end there, though. Patrick Beverley opted to re-sign with the Clippers, after it was reported that he would take meetings with a number of other teams, including the Lakers. JaMychal Green also chose to come back to the Clippers, and was one of the league’s most coveted remaining free agents at the time of his signing. On top of that, both players reportedly had more lucrative offers on the table from other teams, but came back to LA anyway. After all, they offered the best chance to win.
More recently, Tyronn Lue agreed to join the LA Clippers’ coaching staff, mere months after he was considered to be the front-runner for the Lakers job. A small thing by itself, but the icing on the cake considering the summer that this team just pulled off.
When it comes to down the basics of it, it’s not hard to see why the Clippers are becoming LA’s destination team. They have the better coaching staff, a well-established culture, one of the league’s best groups of front office executives, an owner that’s willing to spend every penny of his own money for the benefit of the team, and a roster full of determined, hard-working players that are driven for victory — and only victory. Guys like Pat, and Montrezl Harrell, and Lou Williams. They all embody that nature.
In a few years, the LA Clippers will have a brand-new, state-of-the-art stadium all to themselves. And assuming their current model holds true, they’ll have a few championship banners to hang in the rafters once it opens to the public. And maybe, just maybe, the precedent left by Leonard, George, and the rest of the people that make this team such a special one will be followed by the next wave of NBA greats.