The rumblings had been present for years. Ever since he signed his extension with the Cleveland Cavaliers the summer after winning the 2016 NBA championship, LeBron James had been linked to the Los Angeles Lakers. Most of the speculation was just that – speculative. However, after being thrashed in the NBA Finals the following two years by the Golden State Warriors, who now boasted Kevin Durant, the possibility of James taking his talents West seemed to become all too real all too quickly.
James’s last few games in a Cleveland uniform turned out to be an unceremonious sweep at the hands of the Golden State juggernaut. After carrying a heavily out-manned Cavaliers team to the championship series only to be thoroughly dominated, James seemed tired. It was time for a change. Like so many in our nation, James headed to Los Angeles to follow his dreams. While most Hollywood fantasies consist of movie stardom or show business prestige, James was aiming to win one last NBA championship or two while he was still an elite force, and perfectly set up his post-playing status as a global icon. The plan was almost too perfect.
Unfortunately, the first season in purple and gold didn’t go as planned for King James. The roster of young talent faltered greatly throughout the campaign, with the team’s standing cratering after James went down with a groin injury on Christmas Day. Despite James’s best efforts to carry the group into the postseason, they missed the dance in disappointing fashion. For once, things looked bleak in America’s most sun-baked city.
The summer that followed, though, essentially re-anointed Los Angeles as the capital of the basketball world. James received the running mate he had so desperately clamored for, and even the Lakers’ ugly step-sister, the LA Clippers, loaded up with star power in hopes of usurping their Staples Center co-tenants as the city’s top dog. Los Angeles was officially back, but how had its return transpired? What would the aftermath be?
To answer those questions, we have to look much deeper into the city’s re-coronation.
The Drama of Davis
Perhaps the worst-kept secret of the entire Los Angeles saga apart from James himself was Anthony Davis, a franchise cornerstone and one of the unhappiest stars in the sport. Anyone who loosely tracked basketball headlines was aware that Davis wanted away from the New Orleans Pelicans, disgruntled with the team’s inability to craft a winning roster around him. Like James, there were several reported possibilities for Davis’s departure, but none received as much credence as the Lakers. Unlike James, though, LA’s courtship of Davis was executed far from seamlessly.
Despite their best efforts to get a deal done, the Lakers were unable to pry Davis away from New Orleans at the 2019 trade deadline, a desperate attempt to revive what became a lost season for the club. Lakers President Magic Johnson went as far as to say the Pelicans did not participate in “good faith,” talks, essentially accusing the team they were attempting to do business with of leading them on. Likewise, it was clear from the start of negotiations that Dell Demps, the head of the New Orleans brain trust, was rubbed the wrong way by LA’s infatuation with his star player, which likely mucked up any line of communication the teams had. When talks re-ignited over the summer, both Demps and Johnson were long gone, which allowed for a much more streamlined negotiating process, eventually giving both teams what they desired out of the deal.
It’s worth noting that in order for Los Angeles’ resurfacing to occur, a large portion of luck was involved. The Clippers had their own share of good fortune in their run on stars, but the Lakers were also entirely reliant on the Pelicans in order to pair James with a proper star. If Demps hadn’t been so public about his disdain for Davis’s actions following the failed trade, (he criticized the star for leaving a game early with an injury) he may have still been in charge when the season came to a close. This may have either kept AD as a prisoner in New Orleans, or shipped him off to a less desirable location given Demps’s obvious distrust of the Lakers front office. Luckily for the Lakers, they got their man in the end.
With David Griffin now in charge for the Pelicans, the teams wasted no time in executing a deal, agreeing to the exchange just a few days after the NBA season drew to a close. After landing the first overall pick in the draft, New Orleans decided it was time for a new era, sending Davis to Los Angeles in exchange for a heap of young players and draft picks. It was a phenomenal trade for both teams, with the Pelicans ending the Davis saga and starting anew, and the Lakers finally possessing the firepower to compete at the level they had hoped to after inking James.
Doubters of the new-look Lakers were numerous and loud, professing their skepticism of the team’s fresh roster. Many fans and media personnel criticized their apparent lack of depth, with most of their bench consisting of aging veterans signed to cheap deals. Sure, Davis and James were perhaps two of the top five best players in the world, but could they succeed with such a lackluster supporting cast?
The answer was a resounding yes.
Behind an MVP-caliber season from James, a dominant scoring output from Davis, and collective stepping-up from their role players, the Lakers stormed back into the playoff conversation, seizing the top seed in the Western Conference and second in the league as a whole. In a year when the Los Angeles community was deeply affected by the death of the great Kobe Bryant, the Lakers’ return to dominance offered a semblance of hope and normalcy. They had struggled mightily since Bryant passed his prime, with losing seasons and a lack of relevance, usually foreign concepts to the Laker faithful, now commonplace. With James and Davis leading the charge, it seemed everything was once again right with the world. The LakeShow was back on top.
The one thing that may have been unfamiliar, though, was the near-equal supremacy of their Los Angeles competitor.
The Ballad of Leonard and George
Despite being the superior LA basketball team for an extended period of time, the Clippers, too, were in a time of turmoil and change during the summer of 2019. Just a few years prior, they had been the infamous Lob City, a trio of Chris Paul, Blake Griffin and Deandre Jordan forming a high-flying, hard-slamming attack that left opposing defenses mystified. Now, with Griffin and Paul traded and Jordan departed, they were a team with no direction. A rag-tag group of role players that had managed to score two games off the fully-loaded Warriors, sure, but not a serious threat for title contention. Fortunately, it seemed they had help arriving in the offseason as well.
The connection of Kawhi Leonard to the Clippers was slightly more under-the-radar than that of James and Davis to the Lakers, but not tremendously so. Both LA franchises had been the subject of trade rumors when it became clear Leonard would be leaving the San Antonio Spurs, but they, refusing to arm a Western Conference foe with a weapon as potent as Leonard, instead shipped the estranged star to Toronto. Despite his tremendous success with the Raptors, eventually leading the franchise to its first NBA title, the season was marred by constant discussion of Leonard’s impending Free Agency. He had long been rumored to be unhappy with being a Raptor, but would a championship ring change his mind?
The answer was unclear for quite some time, as Leonard extended his Free Agency for an excruciatingly long period, keeping the basketball world on the edge of its collective seat. The major contenders were the Raptors, Clippers, and Lakers, with the Clippers seeming like the least likely option, given that they didn’t have enough star power to offer a true chance at the title. That being said, Leonard’s quiet and reclusive demeanor didn’t necessarily lend itself to the Laker spotlight either, further increasing the intrigue behind his choice.
In order to acquire Leonard, a once-in-a-generation talent, the Clippers would need to go all in. If there were ever a gambit to fit that phrase, theirs would be it.
In a power play to end all power plays, the Clippers nabbed Paul George, a key cog in the disappointing machine that had been the Oklahoma City Thunder, in order to ensure Leonard would join the fold. The Thunder were fully aware that they were not just trading George; they were essentially offering both George and Leonard, and this allowed them to garner a hefty package in return for their secondary star. The Clippers gave up almost all the picks they had collected from trading away Paul and Griffin, using the memory of their old superstar duo to craft an entirely new one.
Almost overnight, the Clippers became the darlings of the NBA offseason, their bombshell of a duel-acquisition surpassing even that of their rival Lakers. With their elite supporting cast still intact, a fresh new duo whose play-styles were conducive to one another, and a championship-winning coach, the Clips were the early betting favorites for the 2020 championship.
Just like their Los Angeles neighbors, the Clippers were able to deliver on their pre-season hype. They disappointed only slightly, finishing right behind the Lakers for dominance in LA just like they had for so long, but still claimed the second seed in the West, even defeating the Lakers in two out of their three head-to-head matchups. George struggled with injuries throughout the season and Leonard, through his load management philosophy, has shown us that the regular season is not of immediate importance to him. With elite role players like Montrezl Harrell, Patrick Beverley, and Lou Williams continuing to compliment the team’s superstar duo, the Clippers’ lunge for contention seems to have worked out flawlessly as well.
Battle of the Angels
Throughout the 2020 NBA season, the one looming sentiment throughout the West has been that Los Angeles’s two representatives have a fairly large chance of meeting in the Western Conference Finals to determine who will represent the conference in the championship. Each team has had their ebbs and flows throughout the year, including the season being suspended as a result of the Coronavirus pandemic, but with basketball set to return July 31st, it appears both loaded LA rosters are once again on a collision course for one another.
The teams match up tremendously well with one another, their regular season bouts all becoming instant classics. If that level of competition is in store for a potential WCF matchup, basketball fans would be foolish to root for any other outcome. The separation between LA’s representatives and the rest of the West is a large one, as throughout the season they have continued to distinguish themselves as the elite groups they were heralded as when the season began.
Is there any greater honor for the city of Los Angeles?
In a town that, for so long, represented what the entirety of the basketball world was striving for, is there any superior joy to having both of your cities teams be looked at as the class of the NBA? The Lakers and Clippers dominated headlines all summer long, brought intrigue throughout the NBA season, and now have the opportunity to put on a historically great series for basketball fans across the world in the wake of a global pandemic. With the help of James, Davis, Leonard, and Paul, Los Angeles has officially returned to the top of the basketball universe.
With their long-beloved Lakers returning to supremacy and the dormant Clippers rising from the ashes of a rebuild, LA is showing why they have been considered the gold standard in the sport for such a long period of time. Even for a city that had experienced so much greatness, it’s impossible to deny the gravity of their return to the top. The city of angels has been crowned once again.