Back in July, the Lakers and Clippers were pitted against each other before either team stepped foot on the court. Both franchises were vying for the services of free agent Kawhi Leonard, and when he spurned the Lakers for the Clippers—in a move that seemed intentionally delayed—the teams’ adversarial relationship as contenders began. That sentiment has continued into the season. The Lakers and the Clippers’ two meetings had a playoff-like intensity, and the games were presented as marquee matchups. Now the teams may be gearing up for another off-court showdown.
On Tuesday, ESPN’s Adrian Wojnarowski reported recent retiree Darren Collison is mulling over a return to the league, and the Clippers and the Lakers are his two preferred landing spots. Collison retired in July at just 31 years old, and the announcement shocked many as the veteran free agent was coming off a fourth consecutive season shooting over 40 percent from 3, and he would have likely been in line for a $10 million per year payday.
Not seven months later, Collison wants back in, but the Los Angeles native doesn’t want to travel too far to make his return. Collison has connections to both L.A. teams. He spent a season with the Clippers in 2013-14 and was in Indiana when current Lakers coach Frank Vogel took over the Pacers job. It’s unclear whether either team will reciprocate Collison’s interest (Matt Barnes said on The Jump on Thursday that he didn’t know whether Collison and Doc Rivers get along), but both could benefit from his services. The Lakers’ and Clippers’ superstar pairs will carry them to the playoffs, but a February tweak or roster addition could be the difference in a close seven-game series. That’s why Andre Iguodala is such a hot commodity on the trade market right now, and why a Collison signing could be crucial.
For the Lakers, this news is a godsend. Despite starting the season 27-7, this team has plenty of deficiencies that are no longer masked. The Lakers have a tendency to revert to isolation plays and bad shots when the offense is sputtering, and their lack of depth is concerning. Sure, the fact that they can rely on LeBron or Anthony Davis coming through in the clutch offers a unique fail-safe, but that could also give the wrong impression about the rest of the roster’s playoff preparedness. You can see it in flashes: The Lakers get out to a 30-point lead, like they did against the Suns on Wednesday, but to keep it, they have to play both Davis and LeBron late into the fourth quarter. You can also see it in the numbers: Five of the Lakers’ seven losses have come when LeBron has scored 23 points or less. It’s not ideal that the Lakers need LeBron, 35, to score 25-plus every night to get the win.
The Lakers don’t have the assets to make any big trades to address these issues (save for Kyle Kuzma), which means they’re likely on the outside looking in for the Iguodala sweepstakes. Waiting for the buyout market was likely going to be their play, but now Collison could be a perfect fit, and he’s an ideal player for a team with shaky point guard depth. Collison could offer scoring— especially elite 3-point shooting—but more than that, he’s a reliable ball handler who can help lessen LeBron’s role as distributor and buoy units when James is on the bench. (LeBron has the highest real plus-minus in the league by three full points over Giannis, and the Lakers are 13.6 points per 100 possessions worse when he sits.)
The Clippers, meanwhile, have gotten off to a slower start, sitting Kawhi on one half of each back-to-back and taking their time with injured players such as Paul George. As a result, they are 25-11, but they’ve taken on the persona of their superstar; when they flip the switch, they’re nearly impossible to stop. That doesn’t preclude them from wanting to make improvements and adjustments, though. Their ball-handler reservoir is more robust than the Lakers’: Lou Williams is coming off the bench and playing at a near-All-Star level, and both George and Kawhi are capable of bringing the ball up as well. Even Landry Shamet has point guard experience, and Derrick Walton Jr. is a surprising bright spot as a two-way player, too. Doc’s crew might be better off targeting Iguodala or a stretch-4 type who could bolster their shooting.
Still, the Clippers know that if the Lakers acquire Collison, it presents a tougher challenge for them in the long run. That alone could be enough motivation to try and lure Collison to the other side of the Staples Center tunnel.
Any time NBA teams start recruiting like college football coaches, I’m all the way here for it. I fully expect to see Photoshop edits of Collison in both teams’ uniforms, to hear about a third mystery team in the mix at some point, and to eventually read Collison’s decision about “coming home” in a Players’ Tribune article. Let the L.A. rivalry continue.