The Los Angeles Lakers are 18-3, Anthony Davis and LeBron James combine for nearly 52 points per game, and LeBron leads the league in assists. They’re the most popular team in the league, Davis and James are MVP candidates, and Dwight Howard’s career is rejuvenated as a Laker. But with all their success so far -– and all their hype -– the Lakers aren't even the best team in Los Angeles.
Psst! The Clippers are really, really good. And better than the Lakers. Really.
The Clips (16-6) have been on fire since Paul George returned, going 9-2 and outscoring opponents by nearly 12 points per game -– and that’s with Kawhi Leonard missing four of those games. They scored 150 points on the Wizards last week, only the third time in team history for that accomplishment. The second time was two weeks earlier, against the Hawks, in a game in which Kawhi also didn’t play. Lou Williams and Montrezl Harrell give the Clippers 40 points per game off the bench, and Patrick Beverley gives them a third All-Defensive wing, alongside George and Leonard. With George making four threes a game, the Clippers easily could be the NBA's best team offensively.
We all know why the Lakers get all the hype: LeBron, LeBron, LeBron. He's so popular that this week ESPN’s Ramona Shelburne and Brian Windhorst went to his son Bronny’s high school game, even though the Clippers were playing Player of the Week Carmelo Anthony and the Blazers at Staples Center that same night. Throw in The Brow, Howard’s disturbing hairstyles, and male pattern baldness hero Alex Caruso, and the Lakers are must-see television.
And let's face it: In Los Angeles, the Clippers will probably never be more popular than the Lakers. Although the Clips have made the playoffs seven of the past eight years, they haven’t made a dent in the fan base of the Lakers, who have gone to the lottery six straight years.
In the Clippers' 112-102 home win over the Lakers in the season opener, Kawhi had to resort to a “hey hey hey” to try to counter the booing from Lakers fans in attendance. It’s not just Lakers fans either. Kawhi got booed at home when the Raptors came to town, despite many of those fans having to travel thousands of miles to get there. In what looks like an inevitable Western Conference Finals pitting the LA teams, the Lakers would have seven home games at Staples Center, no matter any distracting antics by Chuck the Condor and Clippers owner Steve Ballmer.
There’s a natural bias against teams like the Clips, who have won only four playoff series since moving from San Diego in 1984. But that doesn’t mean it’s logical, or fair, especially given that the team’s roster has turned over since the end of the 2016-17 season. As much as it might feel that way, franchises don’t actually have ghosts, and you don’t need to look any further than the World Series champions this decade (Cubs, Giants, Red Sox, Royals) to prove that a team can defy its disappointing past.
Like those teams, the Clippers are supremely talented. Their current crunch-time lineup of Leonard-George-Beverley-Williams-Harrell features three award-winning defenders and two unstoppable bench scorers. The Clippers are flexible, too. One reason they are such a threat to the Lakers is that in George and Leonard, they have players who have the length and the strength to switch on the nearly unguardable AD-Bron pick-and-roll. Kawhi has stonewalled LeBron in the playoffs before, after all, and last season he slowed MVP Giannis Antetokounmpo, despite giving up a few inches in height. Ivica Zubac, stolen from the Lakers last year, may not be a match for Davis, but very few players are. His defensive numbers are solid, and he has the best rebound rate on the team.
With Davis and James on the court together, it’s almost a certainty that one of the other three players will be open –- you almost always have to help off one of those guys. And the Lakers' big men get a ton of dunks and layups, but they're not hitting outside shots at the rate you might expect. Only Rajon Rondo and Kentavious Caldwell-Pope are really overachieving from distance, defying their recent history with the team. Danny Green is the only truly elite three-point shooter in their regular rotation, and it’s the reason this Lakers offense has been good but not great. Imagine how much more dominant the Lakers front court could be with more spacing!
You could argue that despite the 150-point games, this Clippers offense is actually underachieving, since Beverley (29.1% from three-point range) and Leonard (31.3 %) are well under their usual shooting numbers. What the Lakers lack in outside shooting, the Clippers have in spades, with Landry Shamet and JaMychal Green both shooting over 37% from three-point range. The Clippers can always have four shooters on the floor if they choose to, even dipping deep into their bench. Harkless defends multiple positions well enough to justify his average three-point shooting, plus he no longer has a contract bonus incentivizing him not to shoot from deep. Patrick Patterson can nail an outside shot, and Rodney McGruder won’t embarrass himself.
The Clippers are also uniquely suited to attack the Lakers’ biggest defensive weakness, namely transition defense. When they can set up in the half court, they’re rock-solid, but they don’t always get back on defense well. The Clippers have a clear path to fast breaks thanks to their elite steals guys Leonard, Beverley and George, and Harrell is a devastating finisher. After all, the best way to get through Dwight Howard is to throw the ball over him and beat him to the rim. Or distract him with a candy bar.
Do they have worries? Of course. Kawhi seems like he may always be a little banged up, and there’s a limit to how much load management you can do in the playoffs. George is 0-for-5 against LeBron in the playoffs. Doc Rivers hasn’t been a reliable coach after the first round of the playoffs, and you never know if his lingering resentment toward PG-13 might emerge. The Clippers have played a tougher schedule than the Lakers, but 14 of those 21 games were at home. Oh, and the Clips are 3-5 on the road.
But if the playoffs started now, the only teams who could realistically beat the Clippers are the Bucks and Lakers, and the Clips would be favored against both. They may be the No. 2 team in the hearts of Los Angeles fans, but the Clippers are the No. 1 team in the NBA.