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Battle of Los Angeles: How the New-Look Clippers Stack Up With the New-Look Lakers

After a few summer blockbuster moves, the intracity rivalry could dictate the fate of the 2019-20 season. Who will run L.A.? We break down both revamped rosters in eight essential categories.

Getty Images/Ringer illustration

The Clippers and Lakers are more like roommates than rivals. They share the same roof, they have the same passive-aggressive arguments about things that happened a long time ago, and they generally avoid each other as much as possible. In their 34 seasons together in Los Angeles, the Clippers and Lakers have never been top-four seeds in the Western Conference at the same time, and have never faced each other in a playoff series. That could all change soon.

With Anthony Davis joining LeBron James and Kawhi Leonard teaming up with Paul George, the Lakers and Clippers are finally on a collision course. Here’s how they match up:

Projected Starters

LAL: Rajon Rondo, Danny Green, LeBron James, Anthony Davis, DeMarcus Cousins
LAC: Patrick Beverley, Landry Shamet, Paul George, Kawhi Leonard, Ivica Zubac

Rotation Players

LAL: Kyle Kuzma, Kentavious Caldwell-Pope, JaVale McGee, Quinn Cook, Alex Caruso
LAC: Lou Williams, Montrezl Harrell, Maurice Harkless, Jerome Robinson, Mfiondu Kabengele

Depth

LAL: Jared Dudley, Troy Daniels
LAC: Rodney McGruder, Terance Mann

Scoring

LAL: We have to go back only two seasons (2017-18) to get a rough idea of how Cousins, Davis, and Rondo mesh together offensively. In 497 minutes together for the Pelicans, the trio posted a 108.4 offensive rating (for context, New Orleans was 12th in the league with an offensive rating of 108.5 that season). Of course, the fourth and fifth guy on the court matter a little bit, especially when one of them will be LeBron James instead of Solomon Hill. Davis and James will bully their way to easy baskets. New head coach Frank Vogel knows how to create driving gaps with five-out spacing, even when he has bigger personnel on the floor. Kyle Kuzma can carry the scoring load for the second unit, and Cousins scored 23 points per 36 minutes at less than full strength on a loaded Warriors team. No team offers more physically imposing individual matchups than the Lakers, but to borrow a quote from Villanova coach Jay Wright, spacing is offense and offense is spacing. Can the Lakers create enough of it to leverage their dominance at the rim?

LAC: Doc Rivers probably doesn’t get enough credit for his offensive schemes. In his six seasons in Los Angeles, the Clippers have never finished outside the top 10 in offensive rating, despite wildly different levels of talent. George (second in points per game last season) and Leonard (sixth in PPG) are accustomed to doing the heavy lifting offensively, and with three other role players who won’t create their own shot in the projected starting five, not much will need to change. Unlike other teams with two stars, however, the Clippers won’t have to stress over staggering minutes thanks to the presence of Lou Williams and his pick-and-roll partnership with Montrezl Harrell in the second unit. The ability to create more dribble penetration with smaller lineups and burn teams that send too much help gives the Clippers a slight edge.

Advantage: Clippers

Shooting

LAL: After finishing last season 29th in 3-point percentage, the Lakers will once again invest heavy minutes in multiple players (Davis, Cousins, Rondo, Kuzma, Caldwell-Pope, McGee) who shoot below 35 percent from behind the arc for their careers. While the additions toward the back end of the roster (Cook, Daniels, Dudley) can provide spacing, it’s unclear how much court time they’ll garner as specialists. Danny Green is the 3-and-D guy the Lakers desperately needed, depending on which version they get. Is he the guy who shot 45 percent last season in Toronto, or the one who went three straight seasons in San Antonio under 38 percent before that? The timing of Leonard’s signing left limited options in free agency, but the Lakers failed to fully address arguably their biggest weakness from last season.

LAC: The Clippers ranked second in the NBA in 3-point percentage (38.8), but were a low-volume team (28th in 3PA). George will help on that front, as he hoisted nearly 10 3s a game last season for Oklahoma City and can get good looks whenever he wants them. With Shamet (45 percent from 3 in L.A.) and Beverley (nearly 40 percent in two seasons with the Clippers) spotting up off the ball, the Clippers will force teams to pick their poison: give up a wide-open 3, or play straight up against two of the league’s most dangerous offensive forces. This one isn’t close.

Advantage: Clippers

Rim Protection

LAL: When Davis is motivated, his length makes him a capable rim protector, but he chases blocks from the weak side more often than he squares up with his chest and gets vertical. Cousins has the opposite problem: He’ll get in front, but he can’t elevate or get to shooters outside of his area the same way since he tore his Achilles. According to Cleaning the Glass, the 2017-18 Pelicans were 21st in field goal percentage allowed within 4 feet of the basket before Cousins’s injury. The saving grace—something he’s never been called before—might be JaVale McGee. He ranked sixth in the NBA (minimum 50 games played) in percentage of shots at the rim contested while on the floor last season and held teams to a stingy 52 percent shooting. McGee could end up being a better fit next to Davis in the starting lineup because of it.

LAC: Soak in that schadenfreude; the Clippers weren’t great defensively last season, but they were ninth in rim field goal percentage after getting Zubac from the Lakers at the trade deadline. Only Pacers big man Myles Turner defended a higher frequency of shots than Zubac did while he was on the floor. How much he’ll be on the floor, with Harrell offering so much more offensively, is hard to say. Harrell’s height limits his ability to contest, but with three of the league’s best perimeter defenders (Beverley, Leonard, George) in front of him, it’s worth asking: How badly do you need rim protection if no one can get there?

Advantage: Lakers

Transition

LAL: The Lakers will likely ease off the gas in transition with Luke Walton and Lonzo Ball out of the picture, but the pendulum shouldn’t swing too far. Davis is accustomed to playing at a high pace and turning rebounds into one-man breaks, and when LeBron and Davis come downhill at defenses it will result in a lot of “business decisions.” The Lakers were at their best last season when LeBron went to the rim with reckless abandon, and the addition of Green (both offensively and defensively) will have a big impact in this setting. The Lakers might hover a little closer to league average in pace, but they should be significantly more efficient than they were last season and will have more success attacking defenses that aren’t set and packed in the paint.

LAC: Everything points to the Clippers’ playing fast. The smaller lineups (featuring Harrell at the 5) will be capable of burning up the court. George and Leonard can both grab and go. Rivers has also embraced a faster tempo over the years. With all that said, it’s fairly common to see two superstars who haven’t played together before fall into the trap of taking turns and slowing down as a result (think LeBron and Dwyane Wade in Miami, or Chris Paul and James Harden in Houston). The idealized version of this team will play fast, but it will likely take time.

Advantage: Lakers

Post Play

LAL: Lakers fans who haven’t had the chance to watch Davis on a regular basis are in for a surprise: He’s nearly 7 feet and shoots wrong-legged runners more than he scores from drop steps. Davis has a smooth kind of awkwardness to his post and face-up games that only someone with a unibrow could achieve. While the Lakers won’t shy away from dumping it down to Davis, he’s most dangerous on the move. Still, you almost feel bad for the other Western Conference teams who spent the past few years adjusting for small ball, only to be bludgeoned this season by a monster lineup featuring LeBron, Boogie, and AD. There’s always going to be a mouse in the house.

LAC: The block should be mostly unoccupied, but Leonard and George will both do their work at the elbows and punish smaller defenders all the same. The Clippers will use Zubac and Harrell more as screeners and plant them along the baseline as opposed to throwing it to them on the block. It’s been a long time since any healthy offense treated post touches as a crucial part of the equation, but big might be on its way back. Just maybe not for the Clippers.

Advantage: Lakers

Off-Ball Defense

LAL: This was known as “break time” for the Lakers veterans last season. Rondo and LeBron were the two biggest offenders, as teams quickly discovered they would stand in the paint and ball-watch, causing impossibly long rotations for everyone else on the floor. Davis and Green will help cover up a lot of those lapses with their foot speed and length, but Rondo is borderline unplayable when he’s not engaged defensively. If Cook and Caruso, flawed as they are, push for time at point guard it could be a net positive because of this area alone. If the veteran Lakers wait until the games really matter to start helping, they won’t like the result.

LAC: Last season, the Clippers were 27th in turnover percentage and free throw rate allowed, and 25th in defensive rebounding percentage. Those are three of the “four factors,” and the numbers suggest an underlying problem throughout much of the returning roster—players were too often out of position to box out, contest properly, or play passing lanes. For as much as George and Leonard bring to the table, teams will still find ways to create advantages elsewhere, and the Clippers simply have to get better at how they react to them. Still, there’s too much potential here to ignore.

Advantage: Clippers

On-Ball Defense

LAL: The Lakers were pretty solid at the point of attack last season. LeBron treats isolations against him as a personal affront, and the castaways (Ball and Josh Hart in particular) defended their position well. The Lakers were 13th in defensive efficiency last season, which is kind of remarkable given that it was a lost season. There’s cause for concern, though. Cousins will be a slowly moving target in pick-and-roll situations, especially without Draymond Green covering his back. Rondo is 33 and will have to face the gantlet of Western Conference point guards again. Danny Green will be great on the ball, but he’ll be easy to avoid. The good news? This is what Vogel does best. If the Lakers buy in, which is a big “if” for any LeBron team, they can be solid.

LAC: George and Leonard are the best defensive superstar duo since Michael Jordan and Scottie Pippen shared the floor. Bless the heart of every player who gets all that wingspan thrown at him all game, only to see a pit bull like Beverley in front of him on the next possession. George and Leonard won’t have to search far and wide to help create a team identity. This is it.

Advantage: Clippers

Overall

LAL: There are few things more terrifying than playoff LeBron. Acquiring Davis, assuming reasonable health, all but ensures we’ll see that version of James again. The Lakers will probably look a little different after exploring the buyout market later this season, but LeBron has done more with less in the past. The perception of every major player on this team is at an all-time low, but the Lakers have the kind of talent that can overwhelm even the best defensive teams. The Clippers are better equipped to handle injuries and have the higher floor, but the ceiling for the Lakers is just as high.

LAC: The usual things we’ve seen freshly minted superteams try to hunt down are already in place: the defensive-minded point guard who doesn’t need the ball in his hands to be effective (Beverley), the deadly spot-up shooter to keep defenses honest (Shamet), the energy big to clean up all the messes (Harrell), the big body in the middle (Zubac), and the second-unit scorer who can help shoulder the load late in games (Williams). All the pieces fit around two of the league’s most complete stars, who won’t have to alter their games in order to fill in the gaps. Leonard can do his thing in isolation from the middle of the floor, and George can spot up. George can get downhill on the wing, and Leonard can find the soft spots in the defense away from the ball. Both can push in transition and create gravity away from the ball, or punish switching teams by taking smaller defenders on the block. So long as there are viable shooting threats around them, there will be a lot of poison-picking going on. After watching Leonard carry Toronto to a title, it’s not unrealistic to tab the Clippers as the favorites at this point.

Advantage: Clippers

D.J. Foster is a writer and high school basketball coach in Oceanside, California.