When a new NBA era arrived in Los Angeles three years ago after the Lakers and Clippers restocked their rosters with All-Stars over the course of a blockbuster summer, each subsequent meeting between the franchises arrived as a spectacle — often hundreds of credentialed media and millions watching on national broadcasts, all hoping to glimpse a preview of a possible postseason clash.
Such an atmosphere surrounded these teams during their first meeting this season Oct. 20, a 103-97 Clippers victory, the Clippers’ 33rd win in the series in the last 40 meetings dating to 2012-13. For the final four minutes of a back-and-forth game to begin a season in which both franchises harbored high expectations, the anticipated showdown finally reappeared as the Lakers’ duo of LeBron James and Anthony Davis faced Clippers counterparts Paul George and Kawhi Leonard, the latter making his debut after a 15-month layoff following knee surgery.
Just three weeks later, however, the hype surrounding the first matchup has been replaced on both sides by hope — that each, over the course of a long season, can still become its best version.
The Lakers are off on the wrong foot, more painful even than the sore left foot that sidelined James in Monday’s loss at Utah that dropped the Lakers to 2-8. James is listed as probable to play Wednesday, as is Davis, who has tightness in his lower back.
Their team boasts the league’s third-worst net rating, giving up 7.2 points more per 100 possessions than it scores. The modern NBA offense hinges on three-point shooting and high-percentage baskets around the rim. The Lakers’ 32% three-point accuracy ranks last, and though no one has attempted more shots at the rim than the Lakers, they are only slightly better than the league average at turning those opportunities into points.
“The easy answer is you build a team around LeBron with shooters, but I think the Anthony Davis featured in the post, grind-for-twos kind of game, it’s not really bearing a lot of success this year,” said one NBA scout not authorized to discuss other teams publicly.
“He just looks — the offense is just big and clunky and slow out there. I think it’s more style of play than anything else with them.”
After starting 2-4, the Clippers have won four of their last five to stand 6-5 and are “trending in the right direction,” coach Tyronn Lue said after Monday’s comeback to beat Cleveland after trailing by as many as 13 points in the fourth quarter. Yet with no timeline for the return of Leonard from the knee stiffness he first felt Oct. 25, the team is stuck in a state of arrested development.
Until Leonard can return to his starting role, which by Lue’s estimation will require him to be healthy enough to play about 30 minutes per game, Lue cannot set his lineups and rotations while the team struggles to build the on-court continuity and chemistry that could determine how far it will go.
“The elephant in the room is the Kawhi stuff,” the scout said. “I don’t know if guys can get a rhythm [without him]. ‘Do we go through Paul George? How many minutes will we get?’ That’s probably a bigger issue than people understand.”
At the same time, when Leonard does return, it will force another adjustment period.
“It’s going to be different again when Kawhi comes back, so you got to try to figure it out again,” Lue said Monday. “But I like where we’re at. We’re competing every single night.”
And so the Lakers and Clippers, so different in so many ways, enter Crypto.com Arena on Wednesday united by a common need to start showing progress.
After falling to 2-3, George called out the Clippers for not practicing with enough intensity and focus. Practice time since has been limited, but in staging double-digit second-half comebacks to win two of their last three games, they have begun to flash the resilience of last season.
“Because we have so many guys out. It’s hard to gauge who we can be,” George said. “One thing is for certain we got to be a team regardless of who’s in, who’s out, we’re going to compete and we got a job to do and that doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t win.”
One of their chief concerns not only Wednesday but for the next several weeks is getting guards Norman Powell and Reggie Jackson back on track. Used often as a spot-up shooter in bench lineups when John Wall is the primary initiator of the offense, Powell has made only 21% of his corner three-pointers. That start spurred a conversation between Lue and Powell in recent days.
“I think the biggest thing from the conversation, he just told me not to get discouraged and I told him I gotta do a better job as well as finding ways to be impactful no matter how it’s going for me offensively, whether I’m getting shots, touches or missing wide-open shots that I normally make,” Powell said.
Wall, who will be available to play Wednesday after missing Monday’s second game on back-to-back nights as the team limits his early-season workload, can do a better job with his shot selection, Lue has said. The once-perennial All-Star is at his best when getting into the lane, not taking the jumper a defense is willing to concede from the guard who has made 17% of his pull-up attempts this season.
Likewise, the Lakers’ path back to play-in contention will require more from the whole cast, but with emphasis on former Clippers guard Patrick Beverley, who has shot 30% from the field and 22% from deep — 15 percentage points below his career average — and free-agent addition Lonnie Walker IV, who is questionable to play with a non-COVID illness and has made 29% of his three-pointers this season.
Lue, the coach the Lakers nearly hired in 2019, is 8-0 against the Lakers since his promotion with the Clippers in 2020.
“The Battle of L.A. is always a fun game for us,” Powell said. “So take the positives, learn from how we can get better and carry it into Wednesday.”
This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.