The Battle For Los Angeles Basketball: Clippers Or Lakers?

When the Los Angeles Clippers traded for Chris Paul just before the season began it was supposed to be a sign that a new rivalry was coming to Hollywood and the Clips could now stand toe-to-toe with their crosstown rivals at the Staples Center. When this sort of hype happens it usually results in the veteran team—the Lakers in this case—taking offense and seizing the opportunity to crush any rebellion from the upstarts before it even gets serious.

But the NBA rivalry in Los Angeles is looking like the real thing. The teams are within one game in the Pacific Division standings. It was the Clippers who won the first head-to-head meeting. So as they get set to tip tonight (10:30 PM ET, NBA-TV), let’s look at where each stands, what they’re doing well and what’s not working out.

Alongside each team name is their record and rank within the Western Conference as a whole. The top eight in each conference make the playoffs.

LA Lakers (10-8, 10th): What’s this, the Lakers wouldn’t make the playoffs if the season ended today? That’s right. In the tough Western Conference, there’s not much room for error. I stands in sharp contrast to the East where the sub-.500 Celtics would be in. But while a competitive conference is the main cause, we can’t over LA’s obvious flaws. The biggest, and one which was talked about in the short preseason after the lockout, was that the team only has three worthwhile players, in Kobe Bryant, Andrew Bynum and Pau Gasol. I suppose as trios go, that’s not bad, and Kobe’s averaging 30 a night while the two seven-foot post players combine for 32 points/25 rebounds. The Lakers come into every game knowing they can beat you inside and out, and that at crunch-time Kobe will smell blood.

Furthermore, head coach Mike Brown can draw some comfort from the fact that the team ranks 7th in the NBA for offensive efficiency and 6th for defensive efficiency. How do those rankings in the entire league equate out to a 10th-place spot just in the conference? They don’t, and since we’ve only played 18 games in a 66-game schedule, the smartest guess is to think that it will even out with time.

Now on to the problems. Derek Fischer, the veteran guard whose hit so many big shots for this franchise in their title runs is so clearly on his last legs, that we shouldn’t even say “last legs” anymore. He’s really worn them down to his last ankles. He was already getting significant chunks of playing time, and with Steve Blake going out with bad ribs, Fischer’s minutes will only increase. I suppose if nothing else, the drop-off won’t be that dramatic, because Blake wasn’t doing anything either. Matt Barnes hasn’t been able to step up at forward and the Man Formerly Named Ron Artest, now humbly known as “Metta World Peace” has apparently brought his newfound pacifisms to the basketball court, where he’s done nothing to demonstrate himself as an asset.

Los Angeles does not matchup up well against good teams, they lack depth and Phil Jackson’s soothing sideline demeanor is no longer there. I have nothing against Brown, who did a good job in Cleveland, but he’s in a position here where all he can do is fail. The Lakers have a tough road ahead just to reach the playoffs.

LA Clippers (9-5, 3rd): The new kids on the Hollywood block are still growing as a team, but head coach Vinny Del Negro has to be pleased with the progress. They’ve gotten quality wins against not only the Lakers, but also Miami, Dallas and Portland. None of the losses are head-scratchers, and consistency is one of the things you have to watch for with a team like this that isn’t used to winning.

Chris Paul at the point and Blake Griffin at forward are the ones who make the highlight reels and that’s entirely fair. They are head and shoulders above the rest of the team and give the Clips an inside-out combo that few can match. While its Paul’s passing and running of an offense that may land him in the Hall of Fame one day, don’t overlook the fact he can shoot, and that includes the three-ball. Mo Williams is deadly from behind the arc was well, and if defenses extend too far, Chauncey Billups can still attack the basket at age 35. Billups, a veteran of Detroit’s 2004 championship team, gives this group badly needed championship experience and he’s a good complementary piece in the offense.

Caron Butler is an X-factor for this team. He’s capable of the big scoring night if his team’s Big Two are struggling, but at the same time his shooting can be erratic. While 43 percent from the floor isn’t bad, Butler isn’t a three-point threat and he only averages four rebounds a game. I would like to see him kick up his game just a little bit before considering the Clips a serious threat to really separate themselves from their crosstown rivals in the Pacific Division. The defensive presence of DeAndre Jordan gives Del Negro something his counterpart Brown lacks, and that’s a role player who can block shots and alter an offense.

As far as tonight’s game goes, Paul is nursing a hamstring injury, and while he’s listed as probable, you never know how NBA coaches are going to respond, with the schedule being played at a much more intense pace this year after the lockout. For the long haul, I like what the Clippers have done and think that the Lakers will need to make some kind of major trade if they don’t want to lose control of their own town.