Having trumped up, er, written more intracity rivalry stories than I care to remember, there are three things I know.
1. They’re really no big deal.
So what if the Clippers don’t like the Lakers, who don’t deign to notice the Clippers? The Clips don’t dislike the Lakes any more than the Suns or Warriors do, to say nothing of the Celtics.
This isn’t high school. It’s not even USC-UCLA. This is the NBA, where only the Clips would remember if they swept the Lakers, who then went on to win the title. The same thing holds true for the Knicks and Nets.
2. If something was really riding on the “city series,” it was settled long ago.
With their majestic-if-often-madcap tradition, the Lakers own Southern California. If they played at the Coliseum with its 90,000 seats, there might be entire seasons where no one attended a Clippers game.
The Knicks own New York, even if their tradition is more Clippers than Lakers. Not only are the Knicks at Madison Square Garden, the nexus of the metropolitan area, there hasn’t even been a second team in town. (And no, Piscataway, East Rutherford, Newark and Uniondale didn’t count as “New York.”)
Whether Brooklyn, which is one of the five boroughs but still isn’t Manhattan, counts or not remains to be seen. But the chances didn’t improve when the Nets ran out of the money in the Dwight Howard Derby.
3. As to points Nos. 1-2, so what? With two teams and one fan base, these things are still a lot of fun.
Lakers fans see the Heat, Celtics, Spurs and Thunder six times in six months, so thank heaven for the Clippers.
Of course, the Lakers have dominated the rivalry, although there have been brief but interesting reversals - like this summer, when the Clippers acquired Lamar Odom, Jamal Crawford and Grant Hill and re-signed Blake Griffin.
Meanwhile, the Lakers, who finished one (1) game ahead of them in the Pacific Division, looked like a beached whale.
Owner Jim Buss said they were making plans to go with what they had – an even older, slower, and ever-clumsier-looking team. Ramon Sessions arrived at mid-season and played well until the playoffs, when coach Mike Brown turned to Steve Blake, his non-playmaking point guard – which was why they couldn’t run plays in crunch time and just handed Kobe Bryant the rock.
If the Clippers were approaching an inflection point this summer with Chris Paul about to start his contract season, the Lakers’ future seemed more predictable. They were on their way out.
Then, in a surprise to the Lakers, as well as everyone else, Steve Nash, ticketed for New York, wound up in LA.
In a bigger surprise, so did Howard, who didn’t deny reports that he had crossed the Lakers off his list last season after a telephone conversation with Bryant, which Dwight reportedly took as an invitation to get the ball off the boards if he wanted to touch it.
Howard joined the lineage of star centers from Wilt Chamberlain to Kareem Abdul-Jabbar to Shaquille O’Neal. They made the Lakers the NBA’s destination of choice, changing the team’s destiny from Celtics patsies to a dynasty in their own right.
Surprising as the arrival of Nash and Howard were, the Lakers planned it all along, kind of.
With two 7-footers, one an All-Star and the other about to become one, the Lakers thought they could make a play for both Howard and Paul, then in contract seasons in Orlando and New Orleans last offseason.
Sure enough, the Lakers pulled off a deal for Paul, which Hornets GM Dell Demps accepted and the media reported. Unfortunately for the Lakers, the league owned and ran the Hornets. So it wasn’t Demps’ call but Commissioner David Stern’s, who famously said no.
Even more unfortunately for the Lakers, Stern found himself being barbecued over a roaring fire. Instead of holding onto Paul until the franchise was sold – as he had planned – Stern felt obliged to move him if a better offer came in.
Most unfortunately for the Lakers, one did, from the Clippers.
The outward-bound Gasol returned to the Lakes. The outward-bound Lamar Odom was in such a funk, they dealt him to Dallas for a trade exception, which they planned to offer New Orleans in a new bid for Paul, who was already headed to LA – just to the other dressing room.
As far as pursuing Howard, the Magic shopped him only briefly, preferring to try to win him back with a good season and an All-Star pageant around him in their new arena. Well, you can’t blame them for trying.
At that point, Andrew Bynum, who had yet to play a full season as a starter, barely figured into the equation. The Magic said they would take Bynum for Howard – along with Gasol – if the Lakers would also swallow Hedo Turkoglu’s contract.
So much for the Lakers’ best-laid plans last summer.
They barely maintained the local status quo last season, beating the Clippers by one game in the standings and lasting longer by one day in the playoffs.
Worse for the Lakers, they didn’t seem to have many moves available this summer.
They liked the idea of signing Nash. But the Suns star, a long-time rival, had places he preferred, like New York. Howard again had set his heart set on New Jersey – as he had before messing up his chance to sign as a free agent, opting in with the Magic to get everyone off his butt.
With the Knicks sure they had Nash, he changed his mind and became a Laker, changing everything
By then, the Magic and Howard were past Plans A, B and C, ready to do anything to get away from each other. In Dwight’s case, that meant becoming second fiddle (ugh) with the Lakers and following in Shaq’s footsteps (double ugh.)
With new CBA rules that allowed teams to offer 20 percent more to their own free agents, the Lakers took Howard with no assurance he would re-sign in the four-team trade with the Nuggets, Magic and 76ers, who took Bynum on the same basis.
Meet the new boss in L.A., same as the old boss, on paper.
The Lakers should be great, if not 70-win great. Having heard that before, like annually, I’ll believe it when I see it.
The Clippers could be great if they mesh.
If the Knicks and Nets will be more interesting – assuming either is any good – whatever the Lakes and Clips have going is heating up.
Mark Heisler is a regular contributor to SheridanHoops, LakersNation and the Old Gray Lady. His power rankings appear every Wednesday during the regular season, and his columns and video reports appear regularly here. Follow him on Twitter.