The story of Los Angeles Basketball is a tale of two franchises. The Lakers have been the big brother for 50 years now, cranking out championships every decade while the lowly Clippers have yet to reach a single Conference Finals. After missing the playoffs for the past six years, the Lakers went all-in and traded for a transcendent talent in Anthony Davis to pair with LeBron James.
Ironically enough, their biggest obstacle to a 17th banner is just across the hall at the Staples center, where the perennial laughingstock Clippers acquired superstars Kawhi Leonard and Paul George in historic fashion. Now that the dust has settled and the rosters are set, let’s break down which team has the upper hand of basketball supremacy in the City of Angels.
Evaluating both rosters, the Lakers have the two best passers in Lebron James and Rajon Rondo. James hasn’t slipped as a playmaker despite his age, registering three of his four highest AST% seasons over the past three years. Rondo still possesses unique court vision and has proven chemistry with Anthony Davis from their year together in New Orleans. The loss of Lonzo Ball will reduce fastbreak playmaking though, where the Lakers finished 2nd in the NBA in scoring last season.
The Clippers finished in the middle of the pack for team assists a year ago, but the loss of Shai Gilgeous-Alexander and Danilo Gallinari will set them back in that department. Although Paul George tied his career-high in assists (4.1) last season, him and Kawhi are known for their defensive prowess rather than passing, as is also the case with starting point guard Patrick Beverley.
Looking at last years roster, it’s no surprise the Lakers were the 2nd-worst three-point shooting team (33.9%) in the NBA. Big-minute players like Lebron, Lonzo, Brandon Ingram and Kyle Kuzma all shot below 34% from deep, a kiss of death in the modern NBA. Newly signed Danny Green and Jared Dudley will curtail the problem; Green finished 2nd in the NBA in three-point percentage (45.5%) last season and Dudley is a career 39% shooter from deep. That being said, there’s no getting around the fact that Lebron James and Anthony Davis, far and above the Lakers two best players, are not great shooters.
On the complete other side of the spectrum, the Clippers thrived from beyond the arc last season, finishing 2nd in the NBA (38.8%) in three-point percentage. Gallinari and Gilgeous-Alexander shot a combined 40% from deep compared to 38% from Leonard and George, but the latter duo’s volume of 3PA (14.8 compared to 7.2) make them a significant upgrade over the former. Throw starters Landry Shamet (45%) and Patrick Beverley (39%) into the mix, and the Clippers could be one of the most devastating three-point shooting teams next season.
6th in the NBA last season in RPG, the Lakers could finish first now that they’ve added the 6’10 Anthony Davis. He’s averaged 10+ RPG each of the last six years and was 3rd in the NBA in contested RPG last season. LeBron and Rajon Rondo both have a knack for rebounding, a dimension to the backcourt most teams can’t match. DeMarcus Cousins has the the size to bully his way into rebounds and contribute on the glass even though his athleticism had faded last season post-Achilles tear. Losing Lonzo Ball is a tough pill to swallow in the rebounding department, (10th among guards in RPG) but the addition of Davis and Cousins more than negates the loss.
The Clippers were middle of the road in terms of rebounding last season, but Paul George and Kawhi Leonard will bump them up at least a few spots. Both George and Leonard averaged career-highs in rebounding and Leonard was even more impressive in the playoffs, increasing his line from 7.3 to 9.1 RPG. Montrezl Harrell is an dogged rebounder despite standing at just 6-8, but against the likes of AD, even he’s not getting a ball that’s up for grabs.
Given the Lakers depth at Center last season (Javale Mcgee, Tyson Chandler) it’s a shock they finished second in the NBA in paint scoring. First on that list was the New Orleans Pelicans, superstar forward Anthony Davis’ former team before the Lakers poached him. AD is a 27.5 PPG scorer over the past three years, takes more than half his shots in the paint and doing it all efficiently. Demarcus Cousins has been dealing with injury the past two seasons, but he’s still supremely skilled and a full offseason of recovery will freshen those legs. Let’s not forget, this is unfinished business for AD and Cousins, dating back to their time together in New Orleans. That extra bit of motivation should make the rest of the league tremble. Not to mention King James can still throw it down with authority.
The Clippers don’t have the big-name weapons down low like the Lakers do, but their frontcourt depth is solid nonetheless. Center/Power Forward Montrezl Harrell took a leap forward last season, averaging 16.7 PPG on a stunningly high 70.6% shooting in the restricted area. They also re-signed promising center Ivicia Zubac to a four-year contract, another big body to throw against Cousins and Davis during the Battle for L.A. All that being said, the Clippers inside scoring is only good. The Lakers is spectacular.
No deep stat dive is necessary for this one, the eye test alone shows the Clippers run laps around the Lakers when it comes to perimeter defense. Kawhi Leonard and Paul George have nine All-Defensive teams between them (four firsts) and when he’s at his best, Leonard is arguably the most destructive wing defender since Scottie Pippen. Starting Point Guard Patrick Beverley is widely regarded as one of the biggest irritants in the NBA, a necessity considering how loaded the West is at that position (Lillard, Curry, Westbrook, Murray).
For all the talent they’ve acquired, perimeter defense could be the Lakers Achilles heel come June. Lonzo Ball was their best wing defender by far and with his departure, Lebron is now starting at Point Guard. He showed slippage last season on the defensive end and entering Year 17, is he ready for the aforementioned gauntlet of quick Point Gods in the Western Conference? Danny Green registered a top-20 defensive rating last season, but Rajon Rondo, Kentavious Caldwell-Pope, Quinn Cook and Kyle Kuzma are all sub-par defenders.
The Lakers interior defense was above-average a year ago, but like with rebounding and inside scoring, Anthony Davis will take them to new heights. AD is a three-time blocks champion, three-time All-Defense, and in 2017-18 (came 3rd in MVP voting), he had the fourth-best rim DFG% of players that averaged 30+ minutes. Expand the parameters to 20+ MPG and jump ahead to 2018-19, and backup Center Javale McGee finished fifth in that category. The rosters biggest shortcoming concerning rim defense is Boogie Cousins; his diminished athleticism is a glaring weakness.
Ranked 18th in the NBA in rim defense last year, the Clippers will do about the same this upcoming season. Paul George and Kawhi Leonard are defensive beasts, but as forwards their strengths are on the perimeter, not as much on the interior. Montrezl Harrell and Ivica Zubac and are still one and two on the depth chart at center and barring any dramatic defensive development, expect to see similar success as last year.
Here’s where things get interesting when comparing the two teams. Anthony Davis might be the most “switchable” defender in the league, yet his partner in the front court, Demarcus Cousins, is the polar opposite. Since his Achilles injury, he’s lost much of his athleticism, and his deficiencies switching onto guards was on full display in the Finals, where Raptors wings salivated at a chance to take him one-on-one. Danny Green’s stats show he’s just a tad worse defensively than in his San Antonio days, but at age 32, it’s unclear how much gas he’s got left in the tank. All that being said, the Lakers still have LBJ, who can still effectively guard virtually any player in the league.
Looking at the Clippers roster, they’ve got a multiple defenders who can switch assignments with ease. In addition to locking up opposing Point Guards, Patrick Beverley has shown success against forwards for extended stretches, even taking it upon himself to guard Kevin Durant in the playoffs. George and Leonard can shut down anyone positions 1-4, and Montrezl Harrell defines relentless. He’s quick on his feet, and his 7’3 wingspan allows for quick recovery if he gets taken off the dribble. Although they had the absorb his $11 million price tag, the Clippers added another 3-and-D wing in Maurice Harkless. Considering the sheer number of switchable defenders on the Clippers roster, they edge out the star power of AD and Lebron by the slightest of margins.
Frank Vogel’s career as a Head Coach has seen its ups and downs. He won 57% of his games and made two Conference Finals (2013-14) in Indiana, then flamed out after two years running the show in Orlando. Now he’s in L.A., coaching the same player who caused so many sleepless nights the previous eight years: Lebron James. Vogel’s seen the view from the top of the standings before, but there’s no preparing for what’s to come next season. Besides the ordinary media circus that follows James, there’s an added element of forcing Vogel to hire Lebron’s buddy and previous Head Coach candidate Jason Kidd as an assistant.
Doc Rivers is a Coach of the Year, NBA Champion, and steered the Clippers to a competitive first round with the Warriors after most people counted them out at the start of the season. Once Rivers was relieved of his responsibilities as General Manager, things really starter clicking for him in Los Angeles. He’s got a great relationship with management, the players, and has experience fitting together superstars from his time in Boston.
In the summer of 2018, Magic Johnson and Rob Pelinka made some head-scratching free agency decisions (Lance Stephenson, Michael Beasley, letting Brook Lopez walk) and it led to one of their most disappointing seasons since the Kobe-Nash-Dwight era. The instability within the franchise was highlighted with Johnson’s shocking resignation and the subsequent reporting, creating all kinds of buzz regarding who’s really calling the shots for the Lakers: Pelinka, Lebron, or owner Jeanie Buss. Credit must be given for acquiring Anthony Davis and Danny Green, but management needs to add perimeter defense and shooting at the trade deadline to finish the job.
From the top down, the Clippers have a model front office. Owner Steve Ballmer might be the most energetic guy on Earth, but he’s hands-off and has left the roster building to the basketball experts. Slowly but surely they accumulated assets, then went all-in for Kawhi and PG. With mastermind Jerry West providing sage advice behind the curtain, the Clippers have a proven track record and are one of the most forward-thinking organizations in the NBA.
It’s a close call, but after taking into account all the main aspects of a winning basketball team, the Clippers have a slight pre-season edge over the Lakers. The Lake Show might be more entertaining to watch (Lebron and AD pick-and-roll is just scary to think about) but the ability to switch on defense and shoot from the perimeter are paramount in the modern NBA. Don’t underestimate the value of a strong coaching staff and front office either. Sometimes, all it takes is one coaching insight or a seemingly small trade to push a team over the edge, which is why the Clippers are the team to beat entering the 2019-20 season.
OVERALL EDGE: Clippers
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