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The History of "The Battle For Los Angeles"

At the beginning of the 2020 NBA playoffs all eyes shifted to the City of Los Angeles with much anticipation, as for the first time in the city’s basketball history, there were two legitimate title contenders poised to make a deep run to the championship. With the Lakers’ recent acquisitions of LeBron James and Anthony Davis, and the Clippers matching that when they went out and got Kawhi Leonard and Paul George, it was hard not to let your mind jump ahead to the potential war that would occur during the Western Conference Finals between the two Los Angeles teams with a spot to the championship on the line. The Battle for Los Angeles was finally looking like a real possibility after nearly four decades of buildup and various successes. To understand how we almost got to this historic moment, and to consider why it ended up not happening, we need to start by looking at the gradual build-up that led both of these teams to title contention in 2020.

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Heading into the 1999-2000 season, it had been quite a while since the city of Los Angeles was at the pinnacle of the basketball world. Although the Lakers had consistently been in the playoffs and even The Finals a few times in the 90s, by the turn of the century the illustrious franchise had gone over a decade since celebrating their last championship title. Things were clearly looking up for the organization, however, as they had recently acquired future hall of fame coach Phil Jackson, they were led by two all-time greats in Shaquille O’Neal and Kobe Bryant, and they had filled out their roster with a solid mix of experienced veterans like Robert Horry and Ron Harper, and promising young talent like third-year point guard Derek Fisher. As we know, this combination quickly allowed for the Lakers to break through that brick wall and reclaim their throne at the top of the NBA… and then they did it again… and again… and suddenly, the Lakers had once again cemented themselves as a franchise that was here to stay after regaining the glory that the city of LA experienced for a majority of the 80s. The Lakers continued on, led by Kobe Bryant and Phil Jackson, to another two championships in 2009 and 2010, thus re-establishing themselves as the dominant team force in Los Angeles.

What about the other team playing basketball in Los Angeles, though? After the San Diego Clippers relocated to Los Angeles in 1984, the two teams have shared the same city and the same arena since 1999, but they have hardly shared the same success. Sharing the same city and stadium should make it tough for the people of Los Angeles to declare their allegiance to one side or the other—making it somewhat of an even split—but that hasn’t been the case. The Clippers established themselves in Los Angeles 24 years after the Lakers did so in 1960, immediately putting them at a disadvantage when vying for city supremacy. As the younger brother, you are always compared to your older brother until you are able to break away and demand the respect you feel you deserve. Unfortunately, the Clippers haven’t quite seized their opportunity in establishing themselves as the relevant in this intracity rivalry.

In the same season that the Lakers were just beginning their pursuit for a three-peat, the Clippers franchise was still trying to get their first playoff series win. Since relocating to LA in 1984, the organization had only made three playoff appearances at the time, and each of them resulted in a first-round exit. That’s a rough start for a team trying to establish themselves in a city that already has a basketball team, and it didn’t get much better any time soon. As the Lakers were winning their second and third straight championship, the Clippers were still losing. At the time of the Lakers’ championship to cap their three-peat in 2002, the Clippers had only one season of winning 40-plus games (1993) and had finished the 2002 season at 39-43. Flash forward to the next series of Lakers’ championships, and things hadn’t really improved for the younger brother. From 2003-2010, the Clippers had made it to the playoffs only once in 2006, and had finished 2010 with a 29-53 record, once again making it clear that the Battle for Los Angeles was non-existent. The next decade, however, would provide a golden opportunity for a franchise desperate to finally establish their place in the city they called home for nearly 30 years.

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After the 2011 season, which saw the Lakers bounced from the playoffs in the conference semifinals and the Clippers finishing the season at 32-50, Phil Jackson decided to retire from coaching basketball—marking the end to one of the greatest coaching careers in the history of the sport. For the Lakers, this was a huge hole to fill. For the Clippers, this was a tremendous opportunity. Although they had been down for a long time, there was growing optimism for the Clippers of the future. Not only did the team have Blake Griffin heading into his second season after winning the Rookie of the Year Award in 2011, but they also had acquired Chris Paul from the New Orleans Hornets to bring desperately-needed star power to a roster that was starting to come along nicely. What made the acquisition of Chris Paul even sweeter was the fact that the Clippers were only able to trade for him after his deal to the Lakers was struck down by the league, which owned the Hornets at the time.

Commissioner David Stern had struck down the deal to the Lakers because he believed it was in New Orleans’ best interest to keep the rising star. The Clippers seized this wide-open opportunity and traded for Paul only a few days after the initial trade was vetoed by the league. Not only did this move improve a roster that needed a leader like Paul, but it threw a wrench in the future of the Lakers, who could have had another prosperous decade with an aging Kobe and the emergence of Chris Paul as one of the top point guards in the league. Instead, the Clippers began to piece together their roster over the next few seasons, while the bottom fell out for the Lakers and the team fell to depths that were foreign to such a historic franchise.

During the 2013 season, Lob City was in full swing as the Clippers were reaching new heights as an organization. Chris Paul and Blake Griffin—alongside role players such as Deandre Jordan, Jamal Crawford, and Caron Butler—led the Clippers to their best record in franchise history by a mile, finishing 56-26 before losing to the Grizzlies in six games during the first round of the playoffs. While this was an impressive run for a team not accustomed to winning, the Clippers knew they had room to improve. So in the 2013 offseason, they went out and got Doc Rivers to help lead this team to a championship like he had done in Boston. They also made moves to improve their roster by acquiring players like JJ Reddick and Darren Collison. This was good enough to improve their record by one win during the 2014 season, when they went 57-25 and made it to the Conference Semifinals. As it looked like the stars were finally aligning for the little brother franchise, the Lakers were entering a period of turmoil that the franchise was not used to. Since winning their championship in 2010, the Lakers tumbled down the Western Conference over the course of the next few seasons before hitting a new low in 2016. Half a decade removed from being at the top of the league, the Lakers finished the 2014-2015 season at 21-61 before finishing 17-65 the very next season. These two seasons marked the lowest winning percentage for this organization since 1957—when they were still located in Minnesota, and the name “Lakers” actually made sense. During these seasons, the Clippers had strung together their third and fourth consecutive 50-win seasons, but had yet to manage to make it past the semifinal round in the playoffs. The Clippers were enjoying a period of unprecedented success while the Lakers were struggling through a period of unprecedented failure, but the battle for Los Angeles superiority had yet to shift.

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As the decade wore on, the championship window for the Clippers slowly closed. Blake Griffin had dealt with his fair share of injuries. The team couldn’t push past the semifinal round of the playoffs—highlighted by a catastrophic collapse in the 2015 playoffs when they blew a 3-1 lead against the Houston Rockets. Team chemistry issues began to boil over until all of the promise and potential that was ushered in by Griffin and Paul left when both players were traded away. After five consecutive 50-win seasons and six consecutive playoff appearances, the Clippers went into the 2018 season with a roster that was hardly recognizable. The only remaining big piece from the Lob City-era was Deandre Jordan, and without his counterparts, he wasn’t quite what he once was during the promising run that had nothing to show for it. Meanwhile, the Lakers were slowly clawing themselves out of the depths of the league and piecing together a roster of young talent that was enticing for the future. It looked as if both LA teams were fixing to be in rebuild mode at the same time, until the 2018 offseason came around.

LeBron James was coming off of his fourth season in Cleveland, where he had delivered on his promise of bringing the Larry O’Brien Trophy home in 2016, and he was as dominant as ever. Coming off of a season where he averaged 27.5 points per game (his most during his second stint in Cleveland) and where he played all 82 games for the first time in his career, LeBron once again was on the move—this time to Los Angeles. On July 1, 2018, LeBron James agreed to sign with the Los Angeles Lakers—thus putting the franchise back in title contention and once again ahead of the Clippers, who were still sporting better season records than the Lakers were leading up to this point. This is fresher in the mind, so I’ll spare you the drawn-out explanation of what happens next for both teams. After months and months of trying to acquire Anthony Davis from the Pelicans, the Lakers finally got a deal done with a New Orleans team for a star player. The Lakers agreed to send a hull of draft picks and some young talent to New Orleans in exchange for the rising superstar, all but cementing them as the title favorites for the 2020 season. At around the same time, the Clippers had their sights set on bringing in star power of their own when they not only signed Kawhi Leonard in the 2019 offseason, but traded for Oklahoma City star Paul George to pair with Kawhi. For the rest of the 2019 offseason, it was an arms race between the two Los Angeles teams to gear up for a potential true “Battle of LA” during the 2020 playoffs.

That brings us to where we started this article—heading into 2020. Since 1984, the Clippers had been waiting for this shot: the opportunity to challenge the primary team of LA for a spot in the NBA Finals. For the first time, it looked as if a dead-even matchup at the top was heading our way. Many considered the Clippers to have an edge given their depth, and the fact that Kawhi was just entering his prime while LeBron was turning another year older. The Conference Finals seemed rather set-in-stone all season, as even with the COVID delay that stopped the season for months, the two teams out of Los Angeles looked unstoppable. Once again, however, the Clippers came up short and didn’t get their shot at LA supremacy. In the bubble playoffs, the Clippers once again suffered a tremendous 3-1 collapse in the conference semifinals that prevented the highly-anticipated Battle for LA. As we all know, the Lakers took advantage of their fortuitous path to the championship and once again reached the mountaintop after beating the Heat in six games.

When researching and writing this article, I reached a conclusion that Clippers fans possibly aren’t quite ready to hear. Even though we’ve seen a decade or so of sustained success from an organization appearing to be hitting their stride, I don’t think there has ever been a Battle for LA, I don’t think there is a Battle for LA right now, and I don’t expect there to be a Battle for LA any time in the near future. Looking through the history of these two teams, the Clippers were set up for failure from the get-go. When the Clippers were just beginning their long and tortured tenure in Los Angeles during the 1984-1985 season, the Lakers were winning their third championship in six years and would go on to win two more by 1988. The Clippers wouldn’t even make it to the playoffs until four years after that point. During the 2000s the Lakers were once again winning, and the Clippers were somewhat of a laughingstock—only increasing this gap between the two teams. One side gives you all-time greats like Magic, Kareem, Jerry West, and Kobe Bryant, while the other has been led by Elton Brand, Chris Paul, and Loy Vaught. That’s not to take anything away from the great players the Clippers have had, but the Lakers have established a culture that goes beyond basketball. Lob City was the coolest the Clippers have ever been—and it coincided with the Lakers at the worst they had ever been—but it still didn’t matter. The Lakers will always be THE team in Los Angeles because of their history. To me, that was the most important part about breaking down the history of these two franchises. Yes, maybe the Clippers will have years and potentially even decades where they are better than their LA counterpart, but the foundation that the Lakers have established has evidently woven them into the fabric of the city and of the basketball world. The Clippers had their chance to chip away at this throughout the 2010s, and while they turned their franchise around, they also became synonymous with blowing a 3-1 lead and not living up to expectations. Regardless of how fun your team is or how many games you win, if you can’t get the job done when it matters most—you don’t have a shot in hell of triumphing over such an established rival.

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The past is also vital in looking at the futures of these two teams. The Lakers' ability to sign LeBron and Anthony Davis, win a championship in their first season together, and then go out and improve their already championship-caliber team while re-signing both LeBron and AD is indicative of who the Lakers are at their core. Not every season is a championship season—or even a playoff season—but people still watched the Lakers of the 2010s because they were the Lakers, and for most of that time period they had Kobe. They know how to win as an organization, and they will always attract a rather large audience, win or lose. Looking at the Clippers, they just acquired two of the most notable stars that their franchise has ever had, and it feels like their window is already shut. Just an offseason removed from the lofty expectations, the Clippers have had a quieter offseason than fans would have liked to see, especially with the Lakers making so many moves. Not only has there been a lack of moves to increase what they have, but there have been reports about tension within the organization. This is a trend that we’ve seen as the success starts to come for the Clippers. Towards the end of the Lob City-era, there was frustration and tension leading to the trading of two star players in Griffin and Paul. Building a winning culture as an organization is almost as important as winning on the court, and it doesn’t feel like the Clippers franchise can get over the hump in either regard. Looking more specifically at the immediate future of these two organizations, it doesn’t appear to me that the Clippers will be breaking through any time soon, either. As I mentioned above, the Lakers made it a point of emphasis to re-sign both LeBron and AD to two- and five-year deals, respectively. Meanwhile, the Clippers have one year remaining on Kawhi’s contract and they just re-signed Paul George to a deal that guarantees him $226M over the next five years. These offseason signings show two teams heading in opposite directions. The Lakers appear as if they will have sustained success for the foreseeable future. LeBron has shown minimal signs of slowing down, and he could very well still be at the top of his game when his next contract expires. Even if he has declined, it’s only a two-year deal and he’ll still be smart and savvy enough on the court to maintain a level of greatness. With Anthony Davis, you have a 27-year-old in the prime of his career who is poised to carry the Lakers for the next five years. He was scary good last season, and with another few seasons of LeBron and a revamped roster, it’s hard to not consider the Lakers favorites in the years to come.

Looking at the Clippers, their offseason and disappointing finish last season makes me nervous that they are heading for basketball purgatory in the coming years. The Clippers will absolutely be competitive this season and should be in good shape to make another title run, but it won’t be as easy as it should have been last year. The West is looking like an absolute juggernaut of a conference, with seeds one through eight being competitive. While the Warriors did lose Klay Thompson for the season, the return of Steph and the offseason moves that franchise made indicate that they’ll be competitive. The Suns (led by Chris Paul) have formed a nice roster around Devin Booker and should be near the top of the conference. Dallas has another season of Luka and hopefully a healthy Porzingis that could form them into a contender. I’m not sure the Clippers have done enough to even feel confident that they can make a Conference Finals appearance. If they aren’t able to build off of their performance from last season, their future prospects aren’t promising. To start, they sold away their future in order to go all in on the Kawhi-Paul George tandem. In acquiring George, the Clippers gave away five future draft picks that will certainly stunt their team development down the line. On top of this, signing a 30-year-old Paul George to a five-year max contract feels like it will age poorly as he ages and declines. George has already proven he isn’t reliable in the playoffs, and even if he did improve his performance as last year’s playoffs went on, he is not capable of being the go-to guy on a championship team. We’ve seen this throughout his career, as he was bested time and time again by LeBron when he was in Indiana; we saw it in OKC when he and Russ were unable to make it past the first round; and, we saw shaky playoff performances last offseason when the team had all but given up as they watched their 3-1 lead evaporate at the hands of the Denver Nuggets. Kawhi has been rather unpredictable his entire career, and it isn’t a wild claim to say he could up and leave Los Angeles after another unsuccessful season. Spending another contract in Los Angeles with a formidable Lakers squad when the East isn’t nearly as competitive may be something he looks into. Finding an organization that is reputable and established could draw the two-time champion away from the Clippers franchise. For the argument’s sake, let’s say he does. Then what? The Clippers don’t have a first-round draft pick until 2027, they’ll have an aging Paul George under max contract for the next four seasons, and that feels like a recipe for a rebuild or first-round eliminations for years to come.

Yes, things can change and the NBA is as unpredictable as anything, but as an organization, the Los Angeles Clippers have provided very little reason for optimism since their first season back in the 80s. They have had their shots as of late, but it still feels like this organization is learning how to handle being in a big market and sharing the spotlight with one of the most historic teams in the NBA. With how much young potential there is in the NBA right now and the next generation, it feels as if the Clippers will miss out on another opportunity to achieve greatness because they went all-in right now. There’s nothing wrong with that strategy—it got Toronto a championship in 2019—but there’s a right way to go about winning now and a wrong way, and it feels like the Clippers have gone about it the wrong way. While an all-Los Angeles Conference Finals would still be a fun and historic moment for the NBA if it were to happen in this upcoming season, the Lakers have already made it abundantly clear who reigns supreme in their city, as the Battle for Los Angeles looks to be over before it really even began.