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NBA Daily: Lakers and Clippers’ Fortunes Rise as Others Fall

The Lakers and Clippers are positioned to compete for the postseason at the same time, which could breathe new life into their generally tepid rivalry.

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The past few weeks, even days have been tumultuous in the NBA. Although there had been a lot of drama going back to the Kawhi Leonard saga last season for the San Antonio Spurs, the upcoming season felt like a chance to reset. DeMar DeRozan appears to have warmed up to playing in San Antonio, observers of the league were excited for the long-term potential of second-year guard Derrick White and Dejounte Murray appeared poised to take a leap as a team cornerstone. With Leonard, Tony Parker and others gone, Murray had the chance to really break out this season. Instead, he’s now out for the season with an ACL tear and barring a huge leap from White or the acquisition of a starting-caliber lead guard, so too are the Spurs’ playoff hopes.

It’s easy to forget Murray’s injury with the ongoing Jimmy Butler situation in Minnesota. What had been a long-simmering need to deal Butler after his trade demand has quickly heated up with his ultra-competitive practice showdown with teammates, coaches and team executives. Butler’s appearance immediately after practice with Rachel Nichols of ESPN confirmed the high state of dysfunction in Minnesota and the need to deal Butler (though recent reporting suggests Butler will start the regular season with the Timberwolves). The unfortunate truth for the Timberwolves is that his continued demands and the pressing need to be done with the whole ordeal potentially suppress Butler’s trade value. As a result, this season may be lost before it begins should Minnesota be forced to ultimately accept an unfavorable deal.

That leads us back to the Los Angeles based teams. Without having to move an inch, both the Lakers and the Clippers’ potential playoff standings have improved. Between the two, the Lakers are a much more popular pick to make the playoffs. The potential loss of both Murray and Butler (assuming Butler is traded) could be the catalyst for big downturns in San Antonio and Minnesota, which could open up two playoff spots in the Western Conference. This potentially opens the door for something we haven’t seen much of in Los Angeles.

To say the rivalry between the Lakers and Clippers has failed to live up to its potential is an understatement. Most often, one team is playing at a relatively high level while the other is not. The Clippers can certainly be chastised for poor play throughout the Donald Sterling era as the franchise was continuously mired in various states of dysfunction. The Lakers have been working to become competitive again since the last few years of the Kobe Bryant era and reverse an uncharacteristic multi-season drought. The result has been these teams have never faced off in the postseason and even their regular season matchups have lacked the intensity that would be expected of two teams that play in the same building.

Now the two Los Angeles franchises find themselves with a similar challenge — develop their younger players with an eye towards the future while fighting for the playoffs in this year’s ultra-competitive Western Conference. With the Spurs and Timberwolves facing major setbacks, the stage is set for the Los Angeles franchises to jockey over what could be some of the last few spots in the West. One caveat here – it is entirely possible that the young talent on the Lakers will collectively take a major step forward this season and LeBron James easily guides them to a secure playoff spot. However, as of right now, it is not a certainty that either franchise will make qualify for this season’s playoffs.

In terms of young talent and development, the Lakers are far ahead. The team wields young talent at every position. While relying on several young players isn’t a great recipe to make the postseason, the Lakers’ young players have a few years of experience and have had prominent roles in past seasons. Any shortcomings on this end will be mitigated by the presence of James, who is still playing at an elite level and should be a strong leader for the rest of the team to get behind.

Nearly a week ago, the two teams clashed for the first time this preseason. The two teams had a chance to feel each other out but as with most preseason games, the stakes were low and key players, such as Lonzo Ball and James, took the night off. Future match-ups will have real importance and even more so if the two are seriously challenging each other for playoff seeding.

Both teams have point guards of the future waiting in the wings. Lonzo Ball has already demonstrated he has elite court vision, passing abilities and strong defensive potential. Now going into his second season, he appears to have already made progress in improving his awkward shooting form, which could address one of the biggest hindrances in his game. As for the Clippers, they have rookie Shai Gilgeous-Alexander, who has impressed early in his NBA career. Gilgeous-Alexander is already showing flashes of brilliance on both ends of the court. The sky appears to be the limit for the lanky point guard, who has the benefit of learning from several talented veteran guards. Coach Doc Rivers emphasized the importance of this for Gilgeous-Alexander.

“He [Gilgeous-Alexander] gets a lot of attention, you know, with the other guards. He’s lucky in a lot of ways. He has Patrick Beverley, high IQ. Avery Bradley,” Rivers said. “[Bradley] holds everyone responsible and I think he has been unbelievable with Shai. And then, Lou [Williams] has been really great as well.”

It’s too early to accurately predict what will come of this season for both franchises. The Clippers have plenty of depth, but lack star talent. The Lakers have LeBron but several of their key players are very young and have struggled with injuries in the past. While it’s impossible to know what will come of this season, it is exciting to see the possibility that both L.A. teams will be legitimately fighting for a playoff seed while developing their young players simultaneously. Both teams want to compete this season but are keeping an eye on next year, when both teams will have significant cap space and hope to land some star players in free agency.

Both L.A. teams have reason to be excited about this season and their respective long-term futures. And L.A. basketball fans should be excited that both teams could be competing at comparable levels this season and for the foreseeable future.

James Blancarte is a writer for Basketball Insiders. He is also an Attorney based in Los Angeles, California.

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