For the first time in what feels like NBA history, both of Los Angeles’ teams stand poised to have seasons that are both competitive and relevant at the same time. The iconic Los Angeles Lakers finally traded for Anthony Davis, allowing him to team up with LeBron James; while the Los Angeles Clippers added Kawhi Leonard and Paul George to a largely unchanged squad who stole the hearts of every NBA fan with league pass last year. The city of Los Angeles, and the entire NBA fandom, is divided by one question: Who will win the Battle for LA? The NBA knows this, and have decided to headline tonight’s Tip-Off with a showdown between the Clippers and the Lakers at their mutual home: The Staples Center. When the dust clears, and the Staples Center lies in ruins; two silhouetted figures will stand before a line of men, victorious. And those two figures will be Kawhi Leonard and Paul George.
The Stars — Paul George and Kawhi Leonard
I’m not even going to address the “are they better than AD and Bron?” question here, as functionally, it doesn’t matter; the NBA season is not a single game of 2 on 2. What you have in Paul George and Kawhi Leonard is two superstar players who can do it all. George and Leonard can defend every position well, make shots consistently from most spots on the floor, play on or off the ball, make plays with their shooting or passing, and take over a game at a moments notice. Despite having no season MVP awards between them, PG and Kawhi have had multiple seasons that reached the bar set by MVPs in league history. Both players have already accomplished so much before turning thirty, and will both for the first time be playing somewhere they truly chose to play. Both George and Kawhi forced exits from the teams they began their career with; and now have moved on again after short stints with their second teams. Kawhi and PG, both natives of Southern California, have dreamed their whole life of playing in LA. Now, they’ve chosen each other, and chosen the Clippers. How will these two already transcendent talents respond to finally playing for home crowds in Los Angeles? For the first time, Kawhi Leonard will be playing with another superstar in his prime–how will that help him unlock other areas of his game? How will Kawhi, already a two-time Finals MVP, step up to bring a championship home? The answer to all of these questions is a perfect storm of: These two are going to be devastating this season on both ends of the floor.
The Clippers are adding two of the league’s best and most versatile offensive superstars to a team that last season excelled on offense despite having no true star due to their excellent ball movement, pace, and shot selection. The concern in adding offensive superstars to a team like that is that they might stop the ball, or slow down the team’s pace. Leonard and George both thrive in transition, and have shown throughout their careers an ability to play on-and-off the ball as needed. They’ll fit right into Doc Rivers’ offensive scheme as a one-two punch with the already potent bench offense based around Lou Williams and Montrezl Harrel, who will also fit right in to provide spacing and post play in line-ups with Kawhi and/or PG.
The fit for Anthony Davis and LeBron on the Lakers is honestly poorer. While Davis and James fit great together and that should bring the team some success in itself, both need floor spacing to thrive and the Lakers only have two competent outside shooters on the entire roster (Danny Green and Kyle Kuzma–Kentavious Caldwell-Pope does NOT count). The Lakers are going to be very dependent on the admittedly potent pick and roll combination of Anthony Davis and LeBron James, but it’s hard to see them keeping pace offensively unless Rondo and Dwight Howard suddenly start making threes.
Defense was the Clippers’ main weakness last year, allowing the sixth most points per game to opposing teams during the regular season. General manager Michael Winger has addressed that very well by adding a former Defensive Player of the Year in Kawhi Leonard, and a four-time All-Defensive Player in George. As I said before, Kawhi and George are both versatile, switchable defenders who will be able to be assigned to different positions as needed. Between them and returning defensive pest Patrick Beverley, the Clippers’ defense is going to give opposing teams nightmares.
On the other hand, opposing offenses are going to sleep pretty soundly before playing the Lakers. While Rob Pelinka managed to acquire perhaps the best defensive player in the league, he did so by trading away three solid perimeter defenders in Lonzo Ball, Josh Hart, and Brandon Ingram. Yes, Anthony Davis is a better defender than any of these players individually, but he’s still only one person, and plays his best defense in the post in a perimeter-oriented league. The best defensive guards on the Lakers are Danny Green and Avery Bradley, who hasn’t truly been a defensive asset in almost 3 years. The Lakers made a habit of allowing opposing guards to drop 20 or more points on them during the preseason, including a 32 point performance from Steph Curry just 4 days ago. The league has as many elite backcourts as ever, who are the Lakers going to put on these elite guards? If the Westbrook/Harden tandem in Houston pans out, they’ll drop 40 a piece on Rondo and Alex Caruso.
The Clippers are adding two All-NBA players to the core of a team that shocked the league by losing all three of its stars, traded its leading scorer midseason, still made the playoffs, and held the first-seed Golden State Warriors to a six game series. The Lakers traded 3 of its 5 best players to add Anthony Davis to a team that couldn’t make the playoffs with LeBron James, and whose last general manager “I’m not gonna be here”’d his way off the staff.
The Clippers retain the amazing depth that pushed them through to the playoffs last year, and will likely still have one of the most potent offensive second units in the league led by Lou Williams, possibly the most dynamic scorer to ever come off the bench, and supplemented by Montrezl Harrel. The best scorer coming off the bench for the Lakers will probably be Alex Caruso, which like, good for Alex Caruso, I guess. To supplant their depth problem, the Lakers signed busted-ass Dwight Howard, whose ass is so busted it is literally busted, and Demarcus Cousins, who is unfortunately eternally injured. The one good signing the Lakers made was Danny Green, though it is overshadowed, to me, by the Clippers retaining a deep team of returning role players who already understand how they function on this team.
Watching these two teams battle for dominance in one of basketball’s most storied cities is going to be a blast this season, and both the Clippers and Lakers must be credited for assembling two of the most exciting duos in NBA history. However, The Clippers have the roster construction, depth, and institutional stability to compete on a level that the Lakers simply cannot this year. The Battle for LA won’t be won easily, but it will be won by the Clippers.
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