The Pacific Division’s second half is a tale of two teams from one city. No one is catching either the Clippers or Lakers as the rosters of the other three — Warriors, Kings, Suns — stand. If you’re trying to build a case in those teams’ defense, just stop.
This is what commissioner David Stern dreamed of in December when a trade of Chris Paul from New Orleans to the Lakers was rejected like a shot in Serge Ibaka’s airspace. That could have resulted in enough cap room to realize the owners’ great fear, Dwight Howard to the Lakers, and the run of titles in purple and gold to go with it.
Now we’ve got a situation where Staples Center isn’t big enough for the both of them and only a half-game separates the Clippers in first to the second-place Lakers. Playing out in front of the nation’s second-biggest media market is upstarts vs. veterans, new cool vs. old school. It’s lived up to the hype so far with the attitude around every Clips-Lakers showdown resembling a street fight in the City of Angels. How long will it stay a dead heat before one team pulls away?
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LOS ANGELES CLIPPERS
Things may appear perfect to the casual observer in Lob City, home of perfect weather and DeAndre Jordan’s “got ‘em” Twitter photo phenomenon, but the Clippers need a replacement for the injured Chauncey Billups. He was the bridge that allowed L.A. to think long-term success with a plan for a deep playoff run this season.
Even with a core of young stars in Blake Griffin and Jordan, the window isn’t completely open because Chris Paul still has options. Without an actual guarantee he’ll be back – outside of his word – L.A. would love to make moves before the March 15 trade deadline to go all out. Here’s the rub: Paul’s trade got them outsized expectations in the first place, but sending three players and a draft pick for him means the Clips have few poker chips to complement him with now.
Billups was the linchpin who could hold the lead at all times and take control on the floor once Paul needed rest. L.A. has two trade exceptions and could pilfer a veteran player for the minimum, but team executives have said they won’t compromise their long-term security for one season. Well, seeing as they already did by shipping a quarter of the team to get Paul for possibly one year, the second half will be question of which philosophy do they stick to: long or short term?
LOS ANGELES LAKERS
Things center around the centers in Los Angeles and will continue to do so. Andrew Bynum said his knee “feels really, really good” to the L.A. Times this week after being hit against Oklahoma City in the last game of the first half. He played but six minutes in the All-Star Game, but his track record of injuries bears watching closer.
The looming question is always whether Bynum or Pau Gasol will even be the Lakers’ problems by the middle of March. Stopped in his bid to get Howard before, Los Angeles GM Mitch Kupchak has to make changes to make the Lakers a credible playoff threat. They crumple on the road (going from plus-four at home scoring to minus-six), and only Boston (5-9) has fewer road losses than L.A. (6-12) of teams in the top two in their division.
Unlike the Clippers, whose roster is bereft of more than one young player worth building around (and Bynum is creaky, at that), Kupchak has to see this as one of the last chances for a title with Kobe on the team and might opt to go all in for the short term by acquiring another scorer or even Howard himself, if the price is right.