The NBA season is, for all intents and purposes, a marathon and not a sprint. Regardless if the regular season lasts for 72 games or a full slate of 82 games, regular season success simply gets you through the door. The postseason is an entirely different animal.
Such is the case when comparing the Los Angeles Lakers and the Los Angeles Clippers, crosstown rivals who have a 17-title gap between one another on the basis of postseason success and taking to heart the phrase “the best ability is availability.”
The Lakers and Clippers have both been title contenders since the offseason of 2019, when both squads reloaded after contrasting seasons. Year One of the “LABron” experience did not go according to plan as a groin injury forced LeBron James to miss 23 games and the 2019 playoffs, extending the Laker playoff drought to six years.
The Clippers on the other hand, took the back-to-back defending champion Golden State Warriors to six games before bowing out in the first round. Their stacked roster of Lou Williams, Patrick Beverley, Montrezl Harrell, Danilo Gallinari, and then-rookie Shai Gilgeous-Alexander made a dent in the postseason even as they traded leading scorer Tobias Harris, his buddy (and John Wick 3 extra) Boban Marjanovic, and the underperforming Avery Bradley.
With the arrival of Davis to the Lakers and the Clippers’ moves to sign Kawhi Leonard and trade for Paul George, both teams were thrust into title contender status, with the intracity rivalry becoming more even than in recent years. Trashtalking and the games were hard-fought, but nothing meant more than beating one another in a playoff series.
The perfect stage to settle it all was the 2020 Western Conference Finals, and the Lakers did their part. After dropping the opening playoff games in both playoff matchups against the Portland Trail Blazers and the Houston Rockets, the Lakers rattled off four straight victories and waited in the Western Conference Finals with bated breath.
Alas, it was the Clippers that looked shaky entering the postseason. While chemistry issues and the likes of Harrell and Williams entering the bubble late for contrasting reasons may have already raised apprehensions, their complacency in the playoffs was inexcusable.
Even if it took the Clippers six games to take down an injured Luka Doncic and the depleted Dallas Mavericks, the expectation was that they would dispatch the Denver Nuggets. However, Jamal Murray and Nikola Jokic continued their stellar play, with the former leading a few comebacks that eventually sent the Clippers packing and ending all hopes for the big “Battle for LA”. The Clippers never adjusted from iso-ball and ill-advised shots. While the team had a lot of good individual defenders, it didn’t necessarily translate to great team defense and instead became another case of a fallacy of composition.
In the end, the Lakers celebrated their title, while everyone laughed at the Clippers for their antics and colossal collapse. Both teams retooled their rosters as Harrell moved to the Lakers, while the Clippers added Nicolas Batum and Serge Ibaka among others.
Both teams met on opening night of the 2020-2021 NBA Season, which was coincidentally Ring Night for the Lakers. The Clippers won, 116-109, but the loss barely registered with Laker Nation and rightly so. The Lakers would go 11-3 through mid-January since that loss and with Davis missing a few games here and there, everyone initially thought that their depth was simply in full view.
Meanwhile, the Clippers lost both Kawhi Leonard and Paul George for eight and 11 games, respectively, due to COVID-19 health and safety protocols, effectively disrupting their efforts to generate any rhythm. At first, it looked as if both would be taking diverging paths, but as the season went on, the roles became reversed. Injuries and COVID-19 protocols slowly affected the Lakers and prevented them from having a complete lineup or solidifying their rotation, whereas the Clippers learned not to lean too heavily on their stars while resurrecting the career of the versatile Batum.
As of this writing the Lakers have a half-game lead over the Clippers for the third place in the Western Conference. Both teams are among the top defenses in the league, with the Lakers holding their opponents to 106.2 points per game (2nd in the NBA) and the Clippers limiting their opponents to 109.3 points per game (6th in the NBA). Numberswise, the Clippers are a much better offensive team as their 114.8 points per game is 8th in the league. The Lakers are at the bottom half with their 111.5 points per game (20th in the league).
For a league that puts a premium on run-and-gun offenses, both teams are actually among the more deliberate offenses as their Lakers and Clippers’ paces of 98.7 and 97.3 rank 18th and 28th, respectively. It does, however, make sense considering both teams have stars past the age of 30 (George and James) and with a long injury history (Davis and Leonard).
Currently, the Lakers don’t have their two marquee players, while the Clippers are near full strength heading toward the end of the regular season. In terms of figuring things out, the Clippers are perhaps ahead because of how the struggles came early and the Lakers now find themselves currently figuring out how to replace nearly half of their offensive and defensive production.
Based on calculations using basketball-reference.com data, James and Davis contribute 42.5 percent of the Lakers’ points, 35.9 percent of their rebounds, 44.1 percent of their assists, and 41.38 percent of their blocks.
Moreover, the build of the Laker roster requires the spacing that LeBron and Davis create, particularly because the rest of the team (save for maybe Dennis Schroder, Talen Horton-Tucker, and sometimes Kyle Kuzma) can barely generate offense on their own. Defensively, the Lakers can hold their own considering the system Lakers head coach Frank Vogel has laid down, but basketball games are won by scoring more points than the other team.
This isn’t to say that both teams are ready. While the Lakers must work on their big man rotation with Davis potentially not 100 percent even in the postseason, the Clippers must also work out the kinks in their offense. Their two stars thrive in iso-ball situations and late-game execution continues to hound them like a recurring nightmare. Both teams have also figured in trade rumors, with the Lakers in the market for a big man like Andre Drummond or even LaMarcus Aldridge, while the Clippers have been eyeing a playmaker like Lonzo Ball.
The 2021 NBA Playoffs will begin on May 18 and a lot can happen between now and then. Players will move in and out of the rotation (or even the team) for various reasons so the Lakers and Clippers you currently see on the court could look markedly different once the postseason begins. Yet in the end, it won’t mean a thing without a ring.