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The City of (Two) Angels

The Clippers and Lakers are on two completely different timetables, with two very different benchmarks for success. But for the first time in a long time, both teams have reasons to be optimistic.

Getty Images/Ringer illustration
Getty Images/Ringer illustration

After a long summer of topless championship parades, free-agency meetings in the Hamptons, Snapchat mishaps, and gold medals, the NBA is finally, truly, really, almost back. The start of training camp marks the beginning of our NBA Preview.

This is Squad Goals Week. We’re looking at a bunch of teams and asking one question: What constitutes success for this franchise?

What does a winning culture mean to Los Angeles basketball? The Clippers have been dominant in the regular season, winning 66.5 percent of their regular-season games over the past five years, but still had a lower viewership last season than the Lakers, whose 82-game Kobe Bryant Farewell Tour produced the worst TV ratings in franchise history. (I guess people really do prefer trash TV over substance.) L.A. sports fans are living in the Upside Down, where the Clippers are the perennial title contenders and the Lakers are in the midst of a bottom-feeding rebuild. Success, though, is relative. To longtime Lakers fans who maintain a “championship or bust” mentality, the Clippers, in their failure to advance to the late stages of the postseason, are no better than the downtrodden Lakers. The Clippers haven’t taken control of the city. They may be winning, but they still aren’t the Lakers.

So it’s unsurprising that Clippers owner Steve Ballmer is reportedly exploring potential sites for a new arena, which would literally and figuratively distance the franchise from the 16-time champions. “We’re third guy in, we have third choice in dates,” Ballmer told the Los Angeles Times in 2015. “If you are a good businessman, you don’t come to the end of your lease and say, ‘I have no options, landlord, please take me to the woodshed and beat me.’ We’ll have options.” Their Staples Center lease is up in 2024, so Ballmer has plenty of time to find or build a new stadium.

A lot can change by 2024, which would be the final year of a Hillary Clinton or Donald Trump presidency, or the end of Kanye West’s first term. Chris Paul will be 39. DeAndre Jordan will be 36. Blake Griffin will be 35. Doc Rivers will be 63. There likely won’t be a single current Clipper on the roster by then. Unless you have a time machine, it’s impossible to predict so far ahead.

And we might not have to wait that long; the offseason that will define the team for years to come is fast approaching. The Clippers could look drastically different as soon as summer 2017. Paul and Griffin both have early-termination options, so they’ll likely enter free agency next offseason. “It’s free agency, you know. You get the ability to choose,” Paul told USA Today in July. “I remember I told [Kevin Durant], ‘man this is one of the only times in your career where you get to pick and choose where you want to play and where you want to live. Enjoy it.’ His decision, it is what it is. I’m happy for him.” If the Clippers suffer a playoff implosion for the sixth consecutive season, it at least seems plausible that Paul and Griffin could develop wandering eyes, just like Durant.

In 2011, Paul, then with the New Orleans Hornets, first requested a trade to the Knicks to join his buddy Carmelo Anthony, then was almost dealt to the Lakers before the trade was nixed, and finally landed with the Clippers. In 2013, The Ringer’s Bill Simmons, then of ESPN, reported that Paul was so unhappy that the Clippers had failed to trade for then–Celtics coach Doc Rivers that he was ready to sign with Houston to team up with his buddy Dwight Howard. The Clippers gave in to Paul’s threat and coughed up resources to acquire Rivers from Boston. Only then did CP3 sign on the dotted line. “The lesson, as always: Chris Paul runs the Clippers,” Simmons wrote at the time. He still does. If Paul’s comments regarding Durant’s free agency are any indication of his own mind-set, it’s certainly possible he’ll look elsewhere.

Then there’s Griffin. The Thunder are eyeing him as their second superstar to fill the void left by Durant, according to The Vertical’s Adrian Wojnarowski. Griffin was born and raised in Oklahoma City, and attended college at Oklahoma. The Sooner State doesn’t offer the same nightlife or entertainment that L.A. does, but it is home — an aspect of player agency that has had more and more resonance over the past few years. But Griffin’s career timeline differs from that of LeBron James or Dwyane Wade. There are still things he hopes to accomplish while he’s situated in a big market. Griffin places a great deal of value in his projects rooted in L.A., such as his movie production company, Mortal Media, which is developing a reboot of the 1991 film The Rocketeer, according to The Hollywood Reporter. One league agent told me he doesn’t see Griffin leaving L.A. unless it’s for another big-city franchise.

The Clippers can put an end to this speculation — and speculation is all this is — by performing as well in the playoffs as they have in the regular season. Staying healthy would help; injuries have played a role in their playoff nosedives. In that sense, their luck, above all else, needs to change. Rivers will continue to lean on his Big Three and the sleekest spot-up shooter (and podcaster) alive in J.J. Redick. Doc can also start getting creative, which he’s started to do this preseason by staggering the minutes of Griffin and Paul, keeping one of them on the floor at all times. “It’s preseason, so I’m sure Doc is still just flirting with things, and we’re going to see what works,” Paul recently told reporters.

Here’s what they’re trying to figure out: This preseason, Griffin has shared the court with Paul for 68.7 percent of his minutes. Now let’s juxtapose that number with what’s happened over the past three seasons: Griffin played 5,540 minutes during games in which Paul was active, and the two shared the court for 4,982 of them, or 89.9 percent. In other words, of Griffin’s 35 minutes per game over that span, 31.5 minutes were played with Paul, and only 3.5 were played without him. Since taking over as the Clippers’ coach, Rivers has generally subbed out his entire starting unit at the same time. Doc must’ve learned the definition of insanity, because his substitution patterns have changed in the preseason. There are no guarantees that keeping either Griffin or Paul on the floor at all times will be effective, but it’s worth trying when it’s the same type of approach used by some of the best teams in the league, including the Spurs and Warriors.

The Clippers will also be aided by Griffin’s progress as a shooter; he added a 3-pointer to his arsenal this offseason. Griffin has shot 40.9 percent on deep 2-pointers on a high volume since 2014, per NBA Savant, so there’s reason for optimism that he’ll be competitive from 3. Film study reveals that he’s slightly revised his shooting mechanics, flattening a hitch where he’d release the ball on the way down. Griffin now has a smoother release, which should help his percentages.

By simply spotting up behind the arc, defenders will need to take that extra stride to close out on his shot. That will open up drive-and-kick opportunities for Griffin, who already is one of the greatest playmaking big men of all time.

The extra breathing room that a 3-point shot provides will put significant strain on a defense, especially when Griffin occupies the floor with new teammate Marreese Speights, a human jumper cable. Spotting up from behind the arc forces one’s defender to race an extra few feet or inches to contest a shot. When challenging a midrange shot, the defender might not even need to leave his feet, like he does in the clip above. Getting a defender in the air in all that space opens the door for Griffin and lets him waltz into the paint, where he can score or kick it out to Paul, a 42.3 percent shooter on spot-up 3s since 2013, per SportVU.

The Clippers’ goals are clear: compete for and win their first title in franchise history, and maintain the core moving forward. Meanwhile, the Lakers are prioritizing development over wins, eerily similar to when Griffin and Eric Gordon headlined the late-aughts Clippers. “My biggest concern right now is just getting the foundation set for the future,” Lakers head coach Luke Walton told L.A. Today in July. “For the next years to come of playing the right way, practicing the right way, competing on both ends of the court … I think the wins will kind of take care of themselves once you turn those habits into the way we do things every day.”

This mind-set is in stark contrast to the process that led to the Lakers’ carnival last year. “I feel like if I came into the league this year, in this environment, it wouldn’t have been as tough,” D’Angelo Russell said at Lakers media day. “The coaching staff, the whole atmosphere that this coaching staff brings is different. I’m not saying better, I’m not downgrading the last coaching staff. I’m just saying the atmosphere they bring every day is a winning mentality.” What Russell is trying to say is Byron Scott’s poor coaching and Kobe’s silly farewell tour stunted the development of the team’s youth.

Walton spent two seasons as an assistant coach with the Warriors and says he wants to bring that team’s culture to Los Angeles. “Obviously it’s different starting points and different plan of attacks because of the youth that we have and new coaches in and new vets coming in,” Walton recently told reporters. “But the way they did things as far as big picture is something I’d like to see down here.”

Byron Ball meant dribble, dribble, dribble, give the ball to Kobe, and GTFO. Last season, the Lakers averaged the fewest assists per game of any team in the last seven years. They were one of the five worst teams in free throw assists, last in the league in secondary assists, last in potential assists, and last in points created by assists. They led the league in isolations, per Synergy, and they were last in spot-up shots. Here’s what that looked like. (Close your eyes. You’ve been warned. I’m sorry.)

That’s all changing under Walton. No wonder Russell acts as if he opened a Nintendo 64 on Christmas morning. Here’s what the offense has looked like in preseason. (You can keep your eyes open for this.)

Sure, the play above certainly isn’t as pretty as a Warriors passing display. Sure, the Lakers don’t have the same personnel as the Warriors. But this season will be a stepping stone in becoming the team that they want to become, and the early returns are encouraging. The Lakers core is so young that it can be molded to fit Walton’s motion-based system, and we’re starting to see the formation of that this preseason.

The Lakers’ decision to sign both Timofey Mozgov and Luol Deng to four-year guaranteed contracts is still perplexing, but that doesn’t change the fact their young talent is alluring. The future is bright. If Walton successfully installs his system, and the kids keep growing, it could be only a matter of time before they’re a team that’s fighting for the playoffs and becoming an appealing destination for prospective free agents.

The NBA landscape changes fast. If the Clippers keep their core together for the foreseeable future, both the Clippers and Lakers could eventually be playoff contenders, establishing a potentially memorable Hallway Series the league has never had before. The Clippers have been to the playoffs only nine times since moving to L.A. in 1984, and there have been only four instances in which both of the city’s franchises finished with records over .500. They came close to meeting in the playoffs twice over the last decade: In 2006, the Lakers blew a 3–1 lead to the Suns in the opening round, and in 2012, both teams got smoked in the semis. Both franchises have reasons to be optimistic, even though their timetables are diametric opposites. The Clippers are on the brink of championship contention, and the Lakers are suddenly on a smart rebuilding track. Maybe a winning culture in L.A. doesn’t have to be reserved for only one team at a time. Or maybe the fates of these two franchises are fixed: Maybe it’s only a matter of time before the Lakers are the Lakers again, and the Clippers are right back to being the Clippers.