Saturday, July 13, 2024

With the Season Half Over, Lakers and Clippers Are Both Frustrating Fans

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On a recent Monday evening, in the final quarter of a tense Los Angeles Clippers-Miami Heat game, the crowd got loud. “Let’s go Heat!” came the chant. “Let’s go Heat!”

This is normal in NBA contests, though one thing here was different: The shouts sounded in Arena, the Clippers’ home court. I was there with my friend and fellow Clips fan Jonathan, and we looked at each other and frowned. We pondered how all the Miami residents wound up in Downtown L.A. for the game. Do this many Florida ex-pats live here? Did they teleport?

Then things got worse. The Clippers, trailing by one with under six minutes to go, seemed to forget that the goal is to put the ball in the hoop. They fell by 10, their third consecutive loss in what would become a six-game skid. Welcome to the disappointment of rooting for the Clippers.

Still, there was a silver lining: At least Jonathan and I were not enduring the gouge-your-eyes-our frustration of being a Lakers fan in the 2022-’23 campaign.

The NBA season has hit the approximate mid-point, and no matter which of L.A.’s squads you like—and yes, I know that about 92% of the citizenry rabidly prefers the purple and gold—the only plausible emotions are distress and disappointment. The Clippers, who before the season were expected to challenge for the title, have struggled to a 23-22 record at of Tuesday morning, with enough injuries to fill a MASH unit. The Lakers, meanwhile, are 20-24, and sit in 13th place in the 15-team Western Conference. If the playoffs started today they’d be watching games at home… again.

One could say this is the L.A. b-ball version of Murphy’s Law, but it’s actually not surprising. The Clippers have spent half a century coming up with unique ways to let fans down, so what is one more underwhelming season? The Lakers, meanwhile, began the year with an awful roster, and have largely played to expectations.

Here is a breakdown of what is going wrong for each team, as well as reason for (possibly foolish) hope in the second half of the 82-game season.

Laker Lamentations

No matter how bad things get, the Lakers are always a show thanks to LeBron James. The now 38-year-old can clown players half his age. Decades of taking care of his body has him performing at an MVP level. On Dec. 30 he dropped 47 points. On Monday night he scored a ridiculous 48 against the Houston Rockets. Sometime in February he’ll likely set the league’s all-time scoring record.

He has a fantastic running mate in Anthony Davis. The problem is, Davis’ bones may be made of balsa wood. He has already missed 19 games, and a foot injury has kept him out for nearly a month. No one is surprised that the oft-injured big man is spending more time in street clothes.

After those two, the roster is meh. Russell Westbrook still seems to think he’s a star even though he’s been relegated to the bench. He sometimes plays capably and can add a spark, though his shooting percentage is dismal and he has a penchant for dumb decisions at key moments. Plus, at north of $40 million, he has one of the worst contracts in the league.

Blame the diaper of a roster on general manager Rob Pelinka, who several years ago got rid of a batch of shooters and solid defenders—the perfect complements to LeBron—for Westbrook. Team owner Jeannie Buss seems loyal to Pelinka to a fault.

The Lakers have put together some nice stretches, including a recent five-game winning streak, and James has been brilliant, but when he sits opponents begin giggling at a lineup with players such as Lonnie Walker IV, Wenyen Gabriel and Dennis Schroder. It says everything that the single biggest topic of conversation about the team is whether Pelinka will trade Westbrook and some draft picks in the effort to pry loose winning players from other teams.

But There’s Hope, Right?

James presents a fright factor to every opponent, and fans will talk themselves into what’s possible when Davis returns. But relying on Davis’ long-term health is like believing that playing the lottery will get you rich—it might happen, but there’s a reason they call it gambling.

Perhaps Pelinka pulls a trade and makes an increasingly frustrated James happy. Right now though, there’s simply not enough talent to compete with the league’s best. This is the sad case of the second greatest player in NBA history playing on an also-ran.

Clip Drips

The two most significant words for the Clippers are not All-Star caliber players “Kawhi Leonard” or “Paul George.” Rather, they’re “on paper,” as in, with one of the deepest rosters in the league, an excellent coach in Ty Lue, and owner Steve Ballmer willing to spend what it takes to win a title, the team is fantastic on paper. But games are played on a court, not a ream.

The Clippers break down more than an old Mercedes. George has played in only 30 games this season and Leonard, who is still coming off a major knee injury, has been on the court just 21 times. Injuries have hampered sharpshooter Luke Kennard and top reserve Norm Powell.

Center Ivica Zubac is having a very nice season, but overall there has simply been no consistency, no opportunity to see if all the parts fit together, and if players such as fan favorite Terance Mann can carve a role. Making matters worse, the squad too often is careless with the basketball.

There’s rocket power in the lineup, and they can thrill by roaring back when trailing by 20 points. But also, no Clippers lead is ever safe. Many times they play with a lack of urgency, which is baffling considering that they haven’t won anything. Maybe it’s that attitude that gets ticket holders to sell their seats to fans of other teams who show up with loud voices.

But There’s Hope, Right?

For all the frustration, the Clippers still possess a championship-caliber roster, and Leonard is getting healthier and improving as the season progresses. They’ve also got a ballsy front office known for making big trades to improve the lineup.

Ultimately, the entire organization is preparing for the playoffs, which means fans at regular-season games will endure more frustration by showing up to find a star is resting that night. Management would probably put half the team in bubble wrap if it were possible.

The Clippers’ floor-ceiling discrepancy is huge. There’s enough talent atop the Leonard-George base to propel the team to the NBA Finals, though getting past Nikola Jokic and the Denver Nuggets will be a tall order. On the other hand, Leonard could tweak a knee and the team could crap out in the first round of the playoffs, leading to the familiar Clippers feeling—disappointment.

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