If the last shall be first and the first shall be last, that day seems to be coming for Los Angeles’ two NBA teams. Of course, the passage is biblical, where the time frame is eternal — which was how long it seemed it would take the lowly Clippers to match the Lakers, local lords of all they surveyed.
However, that challenge now seems to be under way, with Chris Paul now on the Clippers and sending shivers down the spines of local fans and the Lakers’ Kobe Bryant conceding that his team might no longer be the marquee entertainers in town.
“If we’re the boring team, we’re the boring team, as long as we get results,” Bryant said.
This has been a brutal couple of weeks for Bryant and the Lakers. NBA commissioner David Stern rejected the Lakers’ trade with New Orleans after they thought they had landed Paul, only to see him become a Clipper while they turned their attention to Orlando’s Dwight Howard.
Then the Magic pulled Howard off the market and then Bryant hurt his right wrist — a torn ligament he said would not keep him out of the season opener today.
The Lakers fumed when the Paul deal was vetoed — “We did the best we can to express our displeasure,” Lakers general manager Mitch Kupchak said — and the players fussed when Lamar Odom and his US$8.9 million salary were later dumped on Dallas for a No. 1 pick and a trade exception.
“I don’t like it,” Bryant said.
Amid all this, there was basketball to be played between the two rivals. On Monday, the Clippers romped, 114-95, in a dunk-fest worthy of their new reputation. On Wednesday, the Clippers made it a sweep, winning, 108-103, in a game overshadowed by Bryant’s injury.
The role reversal was instant; whether it lasts is another question.
The Lakers have so long been a league favorite that Stern, trading lines with Dan Patrick on ESPN radio, once acknowledged as much, joking that the NBA’s ideal matchup would be “the Lakers vs the Lakers.”
Even the basketball gods seemed to favor the team, dropping a star big man in their lap almost every decade — Wilt Chamberlain in 1968, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar in 1975, Shaquille O’Neal in 1996 and Pau Gasol in 2008.
Meanwhile, the Clippers were aliens, having sued the NBA for the right to move here from San Diego and prevailing when the case was settled. In Donald Sterling’s three decades as the team owner, the Clippers have made the playoffs three times.
A self-made billionaire known for thrift and hard-nosed business tactics, Sterling was hawkish enough to confront Stern at an owners’ meeting a year ago in Las Vegas.
Several people in the room, none of whom wanted to be quoted in describing a closed-door interaction, said Stern asked Sterling for his view of the league’s labor situation, prompting this exchange:
“You don’t want to hear what I have to say,” Sterling said.
“Yes, we do,” Stern replied.
“OK. I would fire you. You’re great at marketing, but you’re not tough enough with the union,” Sterling said.
The Lakers, darlings of A-list celebrities, got US$2,750 for each of their courtside seats at Monday’s exhibition game at Staples Center. On Wednesday, at the same arena, the Clippers were the designated home team and the same seats cost US$1,100.
However, rooting interest can change quickly; it actually did once before. In an overlooked anomaly in the 2006 post-season, the Clippers’ second-round series against the Phoenix Suns drew higher television ratings in Southern California than the Lakers’ first-round loss against the same opponent.