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LOS ANGELES -- Coming into NBA free agency, the top two available free agents played for the Los Angeles Lakers and the Los Angeles Clippers.
One decided to re-sign with his team on the first possible day he could, believing that staying where he was gave him the best possible chance to win a championship.
The other dragged out his decision after taking meetings with five different teams and eventually decided to take less money to leave Los Angeles and play for the Houston Rockets, believing that last season's 8-seed gave him a better chance to win a championship.
Once upon a time, it would have been easy to guess which team was which in this scenario, but everything you've ever known about Los Angeles basketball has changed. For the first time, a franchise player in the prime of his career left the Lakers and a franchise player in the prime of his career committed to staying with the Clippers.
|Chris Paul's commitment to the Clippers struck many as the start of a new era.|
Both decisions have had a ripple effect that will not only change the face of basketball in Los Angeles this season but for the foreseeable future.
The Lakers are a team in flux. They just lost their future franchise player. Their current franchise player is turning 35 next month and is rehabbing a ruptured Achilles tendon. Their head coach, Mike D'Antoni, is under pressure to prove his system can take the team to a title. And worst of all, there is uncertainty in the franchise's management structure after the death of owner Jerry Buss in February.
The Clippers, meanwhile, have laid the groundwork for a contending team with long-term stability. Chris Paul and Blake Griffin both have five-year deals and Doc Rivers is expected to be around as long as they both are in L.A. Owner Donald Sterling has long been criticized for being frugal but in the last year he will have paid around $225 million to lock up the services of Paul, Griffin and Rivers. The Clippers are not only a luxury tax team; they also employ the highest-paid coach in the NBA.
Calling the Clippers the best team in Los Angeles is no longer an outlandish statement meant to incite a response from Lakers fans. Anyone who watched the Clippers sweep the Lakers last season for the first time, winning all four games by an average margin of over 12 points, would be foolish to cling to the belief that the Lakers are a better team than the Clippers.
What the Lakers have always had over the Clippers -- other than their 16 championships, of course -- is that the Lakers are, well, the Lakers. They have always found a way to bounce back after a bad season and contend for championships. They've missed the playoffs just five times in their 65-year history. The Clippers have only made the playoffs six times since 1977.
The Clippers may have had one crazy season when they were better than the Lakers but many viewed it as an aberration rather than a trend going into the offseason. History told us the Lakers would find a way to keep their big-name players and once again contend for a title. That's what they've always done.
|Dwight Howard choosing to leave L.A. has put the Lakers' future in doubt.|
Not this time. This time, while the Clippers are reloading for a run at a championship, the Lakers are trying to come up with a "Plan B" in the aftermath of Dwight Howard's departure for Houston.
Not only did Howard spurn the Lakers and take less money to join the Rockets, but Earl Clark decided to sign with the Cleveland Cavaliers and Metta World Peace is a likely candidate to be amnestied (saving the Lakers about $19 million in luxury taxes).
Meanwhile, Paul wasted no time committing to the Clippers, which set off a domino effect that has the Clippers putting together the pieces of what they think will be a championship team.
They traded Eric Bledsoe and Caron Butler to the Phoenix Suns in a three-team deal in which they added J.J. Redick and Jared Dudley. They were able to get Darren Collison to replace Bledsoe as Paul's backup. They re-signed Matt Barnes and Ryan Hollins and are looking to re-sign Ronny Turiaf and add Antawn Jamison to the mix before Wednesday.
The Lakers are over the cap and unable to make any major moves this season, despite losing Howard and others, which means they will go into next season as a shell of the team that barely made the playoffs last season. Their focus is on getting past this season and making a splash next offseason when they have a ton of cap room.
In the meantime, the Clippers -- winners of 56 games and the Pacific Division title last season -- will once again be the team to beat in Los Angeles, and, according to Las Vegas oddsmakers, one of the top three title contenders, along with the Miami Heat and Oklahoma City Thunder.
This doesn't mean Los Angeles will become a Clippers town. This is still a Lakers town and will be for the foreseeable future. Even if the Lakers are a lottery team next season and the Clippers have the best record in the NBA, most of the talk on local television and radio will be focused on how the Lakers can improve and what free agents and draft picks they're targeting.
The Clippers can't overcome 30 years of futility and the Lakers' 16 championships overnight, or over a couple of seasons. But what is happening in Los Angeles right now can no longer be viewed as an aberration. It's a growing trend that could last for the next five seasons and could, over time, change the way we view the Lakers and Clippers in Los Angeles.