Battle for Los Angeles: Lakers vs. Clippers
Could there finally be a legitimate rivalry brewing within the confines of the Staples Center in Los Angeles?
It’s been a long time coming but the woeful franchise that is the Los Angeles Clippers has finally begun to field a respectable team. Starting with the drafting of All-Star forward Blake Griffin and culminating with the acquisition of All-NBA point guard Chris Paul, the Clippers are now a team to be reckoned with in the Western Conference.
Not to be outdone, the Los Angeles Lakers underwent a face-lift procedure of their own this offseason in an attempt to get out of the second round of the playoffs for just the first time since the championship season of 2010. The best center in the NBA in Dwight Howard and two-time MVP Steve Nash have joined Kobe Bryant to headline a starting five that somewhat resembles an All-Star team.
Even with the Lakers forming a super team in their own backyard, the Clippers believe a healthy squad and some notable offseason additions could have them right in the heat of things come playoff time.
There’s no question it’s going to be a battle for supremacy between these two teams over the course of four nationally televised games this season, so let’s break down this match-up and take a look at the projected starters, reserves and coaches of the 2012-13 Lakers and Clippers:
Point Guard: Chris Paul (19.8 points, 9.1 assists in 2012) vs. Steve Nash (12.5 points, 10.7 assists in 2012)
Even though Nash is closing in on 40 years of age, this will still be a high-spirited battle when these two teams match up. Being younger, quicker and faster is certainly a huge advantage that Paul (27 years old) holds over Nash, who is over a decade his senior at age 38.
Defensively, it’s more likely that Bryant guards Paul and Nash moves over to Billups, but Paul will likely still hound Nash when the Lakers are on offense. That would help Nash immensely considering how much trouble the 16-year NBA vet has with quicker guards on that end of the floor, although Paul’s suffocating defense could give Nash fits.
While Nash will be a key cog in helping to transition the remodeled Lakers early on and the engine that makes the offense go, Paul is still the clear choice here. Keep in mind that this pick is contingent on Paul remaining healthy, something that has been an issue for the All-NBA guard throughout much of his career.
Shooting Guard: Chauncey Billups (15 points, 4 assists in 2012) vs. Kobe Bryant (27.9 points, 5.4 rebounds, 4.6 assists in 2012)
On paper, this would look to be one of the easier matchups for the Lakers but, as NBA fans know, it isn’t wise to sleep on Mr. Big Shot Billups. Culminating with an NBA Finals MVP after leading the Detroit Pistons to a championship in 2004, Billups has silenced critics who didn’t think he had what it takes to reach the ultimate prize.
Unfortunately for the Clippers, the Black Mamba still reigns supreme as the man in Los Angeles. With a fully healthy and reinvigorated Bryant leading the way for the new-look Lakers in 2013, this L.A. team looks tough to beat.
Small Forward: Caron Butler (12 points, 3.7 rebounds in 2012) vs. Metta World Peace (7.7 points, 3.4 rebounds in 2012)
In a match-up of two solid forwards that can do a lot of different things on the court for their respective teams, the Peace-Butler pairing will be the spot where the dirty work gets done. Each of these players are stout defenders and either has the ability to put the ball in the basket when needed.
Both are also likely to be looked upon to guard the other team’s best perimeter player so Butler could see time on Bryant while Peace could guard everyone from Paul to Billups to even Butler if needed. The most evenly matched position on the floor is also the only position where each team holds equal strength.
Power Forward: Blake Griffin (20.7 points, 10.9 rebounds in 2012) vs. Pau Gasol (17.4 points, 10.4 rebounds, 1.4 blocks in 2012)
Although Gasol is getting a bit older at 32 years old and Griffin is just beginning to reach his ceiling at age 23, this will still be a knock-down, drag-out battle when these two teams get together. Griffin certainly holds the advantage in the athleticism department, as the 6’10 forward has already created a career’s worth of highlight-reel dunks in just two NBA seasons.
On the other hand, Gasol holds a distinct size advantage and the big man’s skill around the basket on both ends of the court should not be overlooked when dealing with the still-developing Griffin. This might be the toughest match-up to call of the bunch, but a slight edge would have to be given to the younger Griffin, who still has plenty of room to grow.
Center: DeAndre Jordan (7.4 points, 8.3 rebounds, 2 blocks per in 2012) vs. Dwight Howard (20.6 points, 14.5 rebounds, 2.1 blocks in 2012)
The second of two prized acquisitions for the Lakers this summer, Howard will be counted on to be an anchor for L.A. on both ends of the floor this season. No disrespect to Jordan, but Howard’s offensive game has grown leaps and bounds over the past few seasons to nearly match his unforgiving post defense. Right now, Howard is clearly the cream of the crop of NBA centers.
The biggest issue for the Clippers is going to be how to guard each of the Lakers’ twin towers. Jordan can only guard one person, which leaves Griffin in the unfortunate situation of having to deal with either Howard or Gasol.
Neither of these scenarios are satisfactory options for the Clippers.
Key Reserves: Eric Bledsoe, Jamal Crawford, Grant Hill, Lamar Odom vs. Antawn Jamison, Steve Blake, Jordan Hill, Jodie Meeks
No matter how you slice it, depth is clearly in the Clippers’ favor going into the upcoming season. Even though the Lakers’ reserve core has taken a step forward with the additions of Jamison and Meeks this summer, it’s going to be difficult to match the amount of talent put together on the Clippers bench.
Both Crawford and Hill have been starters for nearly all of their careers, while Bledsoe stepped up huge at the end of last season and the hope is that Odom can gain some of his pre-Mavericks form again in L.A. The addition of Jamison and Meeks certainly make the Lakers bench more deadly on the offensive end, but the overall firepower isn’t on par with the Clippers.
Coaching: Vinny Del Negro (154-158 record in four seasons) vs. Mike Brown (313-162 career record in six seasons)
While each coach has faced his share of criticism over the course of the last year, Brown looks to be on much more solid footing heading into the new season. Having had to integrate a new offense in his first year as head coach after years of the Lakers using the triangle and now with a bevy of new players, Brown has earned the benefit of the doubt based on his brief but productive history as an NBA head coach.
On the other hand, while there’s reason to believe Del Negro gained confidence from his club to close out this past season, a slow start could seal his exit from the Clippers. It’s hard to believe in Del Negro as a coach when there has previously been talk throughout the locker room that he may not be the right person to lead this Clippers squad.
The Verdict: While the Clippers hold advantages at the point guard, power forward and reserve spots, the Lakers are a team oozing with Hall-of-Fame-level talent in 2012-13. Even if Griffin and Paul win the battles in each of their respective positions, the combination of Gasol and Howard down low is going to be unstoppable for the Clippers to guard. Also, keep in mind the Howard could be assigned to shut down Griffin, while Bryant checks Paul and the Clippers’ offense could become completely stagnant and struggle to score points.
Some have pointed to the Lakers’ age as a potential hurdle, but I don’t see it. Even though both Nash and Bryant have played over 15 NBA seasons, neither has a significant injury history or have shown signs of slowing down coming into the new year.
The youth and vitality of the Clippers certainly make them a worthy rival for the Lakers, but the other team in Los Angeles isn’t quite ready to challenge the throne.
It’s a long season but right now, on paper at least, the Lakers are the best team in Los Angeles.
Ready for these two teams to settle things on the court? The first of four nationally televised games between the Lakers and Clippers is less than three weeks away on Nov. 2 and will be televised on ESPN.