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Both Directions at Once: Two Unexpected Seasons in Los Angeles Basketball

The Lakers were supposed to be playoff bound. The Clippers were supposed to be lost. But with the season wrapping up, the teams have switched paths.

Getty Images/Ringer illustration

The postgame scene was too on the nose, so of course Patrick Beverley was going to point it out. The Clippers guard who had just scored 13 points, swiped five steals, guarded LeBron James, and backed up the talk that the Clippers were “the best team in L.A.” with a 113-105 win over the Lakers, walked through one of Staples Center’s tunnels after the game. A stream of reporters and videographers stood in his way, all trying to get into the Lakers locker room. “What are you all doing over here? Ain’t nothing to see here,” he said, slipping through the crowd. He gestured toward the Clippers locker room, as if to remind everyone who had won the game.

“Like I said about us being the best team in L.A., a lot of people don’t believe me,” Beverley said postgame. “It’s fine. Women lie, men lie, numbers don’t.”

Beverley wouldn’t like this, but it’s impossible not to start here: It seems that the Lakers are not going to make the postseason. LeBron James, for the first time since his second season, is going to miss the playoffs. The Lakers haven’t been mathematically eliminated quite yet, but their season is over. That became crystal clear on Monday night, when the “other team in L.A.,” as Montrezl Harrell put it, dealt them another loss, their third in a row.

It felt almost cruel that it would be the Clippers who put the Lakers five and a half games back of the 8-seed with only 18 games left to play. It also felt fitting that the same Staples Center court plays host to two different kinds of teams.

“It’s not Laker City, it’s Los Angeles. This is Los Angeles,” Harrell said. “We’re not here to make a show, we’re here to make a competition.”

The Lakers had gone all in on LeBron, and the hope that the young players around him would step up, the hope that the eclectic group of veterans they signed in free agency would contribute, the hope, even, that they’d engineer a midseason trade that would improve their team. But injuries, the process of fitting in next to LeBron, the lack of shooters, and the inability to make a trade for Anthony Davis—who did all he could to get himself to Los Angeles—have combined to be too much to overcome.

The Clippers, meanwhile, banked on mostly known quantities. It’s why they’re one of the most well-rounded teams in the league, with a bench that’s deeper than the Pacific and is leading the league in scoring (52.9 points per game), and has not one, but two candidates for Sixth Man of the Year in Lou Williams and Harrell. They are a team prepared for slumps, inconsistencies, injuries, and trades.

“We’re not that good,” Doc Rivers said before Monday’s game. “The best part about this team is that they know that. We know if we don’t do all the things [we’re] required to, we won’t win.”

Self-awareness is the Clippers’ best quality. Their second- and third- and fourth-best qualities were on display Monday when they were playing with energy, scrambling for loose balls, grabbing 50 total rebounds to the Lakers’ 40, and outscoring the Lakers’ bench 44-27. The Clippers don’t have an All-Star, much less a superstar, on their team, and they traded away their best player midseason while acquiring four new players (Landry Shamet, Garrett Temple, JaMychal Green, and former Laker Ivica Zubac) to slide into their basketball assembly line. Somehow, this move has improved the team’s playoff chances during a time when everyone thought they would tank. “It was seven people at media day,” Beverley said. “And I told Shai [Gilgeous-Alexander], look at the room, seven people at media day, watch at the end of the year.”

To Sindarius Thornwell, it’s not just the systems that make the Lakers and Clippers different, but the way each team has dealt with the noise around it. “For a big part of the season, half of their team didn’t think they were going to still be there,” Thornwell told me. “There were times when it was six people being traded for one person—that’s half the team! How do you focus like that? How do you come back and want to be a part of something that … when people are out there saying they’ll offer you or offer that. How do you play like that?”

Thornwell said that when he watches the Lakers on tape he sees a team that came back from the trade-deadline chatter with their priorities out of whack. “When you find out that somebody want to trade for you, how do you come back?” he said. “Are you going to come back thinking, ‘I’m gonna try to win for the team,’ or ‘I’m just going to get my numbers?’”

Rivers said it was tough for the Clippers to go through their own trade deadline turmoil, but that it was Beverley—surprise—who rallied the group and told them nothing was going to change. Only, things did change, but for the better. Since the deadline, the Clippers have posted a plus-1.7 net rating, 11th-best in the league. For the first 55 games of the season, their net rating was 0.7. How have they gotten better?

NBA: Los Angeles Clippers at Los Angeles Lakers
Shai Gilgeous-Alexander and Patrick Beverley defend LeBron James
Richard Mackson-USA TODAY Sports

“A lot of them are free agents,” Rivers said. “And they believe that if they do it together it will help them individually.”

On the other hand, since LeBron said he had “activated” playoff mode, the Lakers have gone 2-5, turning their playoff chase into an embarrassing and inadvertent tanking performance. Over that stretch, they have posted a bottom-10 defense and offense in the league, and have had a worse record than the Hawks—a team who had the worst record in the league for much of the season. They have been shaded by a former Laker, and beaten by the Suns, one of the worst teams in the league. Perhaps worst of all, they have also been memed into oblivion.

“The type of guys we have on this team, they don’t have egos,” Temple said. “It’s a different situation here.”

The Clippers have good chemistry and they know how to sell it. The way the team talks about itself sounds like PR-approved optimism, but is also hard to dispute when looking at the results. The Lakers, on the other hand, are surrounded by so many problems, it would be hard for even the greatest spin doctor to sell their situation to the public.

Foremost on the Lakers’ list of issues is injuries. Brandon Ingram, who had been playing the best basketball of his career, was ruled out before the game with a shoulder problem. Kyle Kuzma went down with an ankle injury and didn’t return, and Lonzo Ball is still out with an ankle injury of his own. Even Josh Hart, who played 30 minutes, has had lingering knee problems. Tyson Chandler sat out with a neck injury. They are limping to the finish line with a roster that is depleted, and after the game, LeBron talked as if he was reading the writing on the wall. He discussed his minutes—he played 42 in a loss—and then told ESPN he wasn’t planning on sitting out games if he was healthy. Unless the Lakers want to pivot to tanking, which one could argue they should, LeBron has to play. At this point, though, even he can’t turn this final stretch into a heroic comeback; this isn’t the Eastern Conference, and the best player of his generation will have to come to grips with meeting only the lowest expectations.