A battle of Los Angeles: Will the Lakers or Clippers have a better 2019-20 season?by Pierre Monceaux October 1, 2019 0 comments
In the battle between the Los Angeles Clippers and Lakers, the gold and purple are once again broadly considered to be the better of the two L.A. teams.
But are they? With the recent arrival of 2019 Finals MVP Kawhi Leonard and regular season MVP contender Paul George, the fight for dominance in the City of Angels could very well be the closest one ever. Still, based on the respective teams’ history, the odds seem pretty lopsided in favor of the Lakers.
A look at the history
The two residents of the Staples Center couldn’t be more different. One franchise has reached the NBA Finals 30 times and taken home the Larry O’Brien Trophy on 15 occasions, while the other has never finished a season better than third in its conference, nor made it past the semi-finals, even going back to the Buffalo Braves days. This is partly due to the Clippers not having their own facility and renting the Staples Center where they have spent the last 20 years. The bottom line is they are seen as perennial losers by NBA fans and analysts alike, whereas the Lakers are expected to be a serious championship contender year in and year out.
Younger, more stable Clippers
The Clippers are, however, by far the younger of the two teams with an average age of 25.85 years per player, versus 29.3 years for the Lakers. They also enjoy relative continuity with head coach Doc Rivers entering his seventh season at the helm. In stark contrast, the Lakers navigated some troubled waters last spring with the firing of head coach Luke Walton followed by the sudden departure of general manager Magic Johnson. New head coach Frank Vogel, who brought the Magic back to the Playoffs in just two short seasons, will attempt to do the same for the Lakers who have missed the playoffs for the last six years despite recruiting LeBron James a year ago.
All new Lakers
The lack of continuity for the Lakers is reflected by a drastically different roster. Only five players return from last year: LeBron James, JaVale McGee, Kyle Kuzma, Alex Caruso, and Rajon Rondo. They will need to build chemistry and learn to play together with the many new faces on the team, such as Anthony Davis, DeMarcus Cousins, Danny Green, Avery Bradley, Jared Dudley, Quinn Cook, Troy Daniels, Talen Horton-Tucker, and now Dwight Howard. One of the many things Vogel will have to figure out is how to best utilize Kyle Kuzma. With James, Davis, and Howard most likely in the starting five, Kuzma becomes a fourth option which could hurt his development as a player. Yet, both the Lakers’ fans and Kuzma’s teammates will no doubt have high expectations, starting with improving his lackluster defense (0.4 blocks per game and 0.6 steals per 36 minutes in 2018-19). At this point, it isn’t even certain that Kuzma will be a starter in this star-studded team.
New Clippers’ captain?
Los Angeles is faced with a similar predicament with six returning players and seven additions, two of which are NBA superstars. That begs the question: who will be the leader of the team and carry it on their shoulders when the game is on the line? Will Kawhi Leonard and Paul George be able to share the responsibility? And, as former Washington Wizards star Gilbert Arenas recently pointed out in The No Chill Podcast, will they pass the ball to the player who has been taking those crucial shots, sixth man Lou Williams?
Though that decision ultimately belongs to Rivers, he will have to earn his new recruits’ trust and make sure they buy into his system. Rivers will also need to get the most out of a lineup that somewhat lacks depth (something he has proved to be proficient at), notably at the point guard position. The Clippers only have two point guards: 31-year-old Patrick Beverley (7.6 PPG per 36 minutes) and 32-year-old Lou Williams (27.1 PPG per 36 minutes). Expect shooting guard Landry Shamet (9.1 PPR per 36 minutes), acquired last February from Philadelphia in a deal that also involved Wilson Chandler and Mike Muscala in exchange for Tobias Harris, Boban Marjanovic, and Mike Scott, to contribute as a third option at point guard.
A deep Lakers roster
Let’s be honest: on paper, the Lakers are the better team. They are deeper than they probably get credit for with a nine-man lineup that is big, experienced, and highly effective both on offense and defense. How would you like to try and get to the basket with LeBron James (6-foot-8), Anthony Davis (6-foot-10), Dwight Howard (6-foot-11) and possibly Kyle Kuzma (6-foot-9) simultaneously on the floor? The first three are big bodies who respectively block 0.6, 2.6 and 0.6 (a career-low) shots per 36 minutes and rebound at a rate of 8.6, 13.1 and 13.0 boards per 36 minutes.
The Lakers can also count on their secondary unit for a continuous defensive effort. The bench includes two-time champion JaVale McGee (12.2 rebounds and 3.2 blocks per 36 minutes) and four-time All-Defense and one-time Steal Champion, Rajon Rondo. The Clippers will respond with Zubac (12.5 rebounds and 1.8 blocks per 36 minutes), Leonard (7.7 rebounds and 0.4 blocks per 36 minutes), George (6.9 rebounds and 0.4 blocks per 36 minutes), Harrell (8.9 rebounds, and 1.3 blocks per 36 minutes), Maurice Harkless (6.8 rebounds and 1.3 blocks per 36 minutes) and JaMychal Green (10.7 rebounds and 0.9 blocks per 36 minutes).
The Lakers’ firepower
The Lakers also seem to have the upper hand offensively despite an average of 13.2 points scored per player last season versus 14.8 for their counterparts. Together, a starting five composed of Avery Bradley (16.1 PPG), LeBron James (27.4 PPG), Kyle Kuzma (18.7 PPG), Anthony Davis (25.9 PPG) and Dwight Howard (12.8 PPG) would rack up a total of 100.5 points per game. Let that sink in for a minute. The projected starters for the Clippers are simply overmatched, with Patrick Beverley scoring 7.6 PPG, Kawhi Leonard with 26.6 PPG, Maurice Harkless with 7.7 PPG, Paul George at 28 PPG and Ivica Zubac at 8.9 PPG for a grand total of 75.8 points. Whether or not these turn out to be the starting lineups of both teams, the Lakers show superior fire-power.
More durable Clippers
There is one condition to the older Lakers’ superiority: they take the floor every night. At only 25, Anthony Davis comes off a career-low 56-game season, though likely not all of the 26 games he missed were due to injury. He has never played more than 75 games in a season. Similarly, LeBron James, who will turn 35 next December, suited up for 55 games in his first season with the Lakers, also a career-low after having played all 82 games in his last championship-chasing season in Cleveland. To make matters worse, Dwight Howard, who replaces injured DeMarcus Cousins in the lineup, turns 34 on Dec. 8 and only took part in nine games last year. Guard Avery Bradley shows an equally disappointing attendance record of 14, 49, and 63 games played over the past three seasons. The Clippers fare far better in that regard, as Montrezl Harrel only sat out seven games in 2018-19, Patrick Beverley sat out four, Paul George missed five and Kawhi Leonard was out for 22.
A photo finish?
Finally, there are a few more details worth considering.
As mentioned earlier, the relative stability, at least from a coaching perspective, that the Clippers enjoy will play in their favor.
Doc Rivers has repeatedly demonstrated his Greg Popovich-like ability to make the most of what he is given, and this time around he has two superstars.
Kawhi Leonard also has a knack for exceeding our expectations, though high they might be, and transcending himself when games and seasons are on the line.
Landry Shamet is an interesting young player who shoots the ball very well (9.1 PPG last year, 10.9 while suited as a Clipper, 43.1 FG% overall and 40.3% from beyond the arc) and hardly ever turns the ball over. There’s no doubt Doc Rivers will look to develop the 21-year-old, 6-foot-5 guard into a reliable and dependable offensive weapon.
In this classic rendition of David versus Goliath (okay, not really), the younger and more stable Clippers just might outlast the aging Lakers in the race to the playoffs and beyond. The Lakers will need to carefully manage their resources in order to keep them healthy in a very tough division this upcoming season. Success in this matter could propel them to the highest seed in their conference, but their ability to do this without hope-crushing injuries remains to be seen. Conversely, the Clippers should have no problem securing a Top-3 seed in the highly contested Western Conference, possibly edging out their neighbors during the final stretch of the season.