Stars collide in La La Land

LeBron James and Kawhi Leonard will come face to face in tomorrow’s National Basketball Association opening clash between LA Lakers and LA Clippers at the Staples Center in Los Angeles.
LeBron James and Kawhi Leonard will come face to face in tomorrow’s National Basketball Association opening clash between LA Lakers and LA Clippers at the Staples Center in Los Angeles. ST ILLUSTRATION: CHNG CHOON HIONG

'Battle for Los Angeles' set to be preamble of special rivalry between LeBron and Leonard

LOS ANGELES • It has been six years since a team other than the Golden State Warriors won the Western Conference, and eight since a team other than the Warriors or the San Antonio Spurs won it, but that appears almost certain to change.

The Los Angeles Clippers added Kawhi Leonard and Paul George to a play-off team, and the Los Angeles Lakers traded for Anthony Davis to complement LeBron James.

But even after those moves, there is still a sense that the conference - and the National Basketball Association (NBA) in general - is wide open.

The first chapter in the most compelling storyline of the new season will be written tomorrow as the Lakers face off against the Clippers on the Staples Centre court they share.

Nine years after Los Angeles last celebrated an NBA championship, the city is being billed as the basketball capital of the world again.

The reasons for the mounting sense of excitement are not difficult to pinpoint.

The Lakers dramatically restructured their roster to provide James with an elite foil in fellow All-Star Davis in a bid to not only put an end to a franchise-record six-year play-off drought, but also to turn the storied team into title contenders.

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  • After five consecutive trips to the NBA finals and three championships, the Warriors were radically remade through the combination of Kevin Durant leaving for Brooklyn, Andre Iguodala being traded, Shaun Livingston retiring and Klay Thompson being sidelined indefinitely with a torn anterior cruciate ligament.

    GOLDEN STATE WARRIORS

    They did their best to salvage the off-season, acquiring All-Star guard D'Angelo Russell (above) in a sign-and-trade with the Nets for Durant.

    However, Golden State still have one of the game's most devastating offensive weapons in Stephen Curry, and their most versatile defender in Draymond Green.

    If Thompson returns this season, they will be the only team in the NBA that could put a line-up on the floor with four All-Stars, although there is no question that the team's championship-level defence has been gutted.

    HOUSTON ROCKETS

    The reunion of James Harden and Russell Westbrook might result in a backcourt that could be more productive than anything the league has ever seen - or a disaster for both players, but whatever the pairing of the former Oklahoma City Thunder duo will be, it will not be boring.

    Westbrook (above) will, however, have to hit a decent number of jumpers - he shot only 29 per cent from beyond the arc last season - for the partnership to work or teams will load up on Harden in the paint.

    MILWAUKEE BUCKS

    As long as Giannis Antetokounmpo (above) is around, the Bucks will be a top team in the East, but losing Malcolm Brogdon is quite a blow to the team's offensive versatility.

    Soaking up his minutes with a combination of Wesley Matthews and Kyle Korver is not ideal, but Milwaukee still have one of the deepest rotations around and should be considered a legitimate contender for a Finals appearance.

    NYTIMES

While few expect a repeat of last season's dismal 37-45 record, they still lack depth, despite the signings of Jared Dudley and Danny Green.

The absence of one of their front-line stars, DeMarcus Cousins, who is set to be out for the season after tearing his cruciate ligament in pre-season, would likely dim their championship aspirations.

The Clippers, meanwhile, enticed Leonard to return to his hometown after he led the Toronto Raptors to their first NBA crown, with the Finals Most Valuable Player forming a formidable partnership with fellow All-Star George, another Southern California native who was lured from Oklahoma City Thunder.

GUNNING FOR GREATNESS

I'm not here for the narrative and to talk much. I'm here to be in the present of this Lakers franchise and team and figure out how we can be as great as we can be.

LEBRON JAMES, LA Lakers forward, on the Lakers-Clippers rivalry.

GUNNING FOR HISTORY

This is a blue-collar organisation. We got the nightlife, we got the LA scene, everything about it, but this group is hardworking and just gritty.

PAUL GEORGE, LA Clippers forward, on his team's chase for their first NBA title.

The central protagonists have, however, been doing their best to play down expectations despite courtside seats for the "Battle for Los Angeles" season-opener changing hands for US$21,400 (S$29,182).

"For me, I haven't really thought about it," James said in a recent interview when asked about the prospect of the Lakers-Clippers rivalry .

"I don't like to harp on rivalries. I love what we're able to do with our ball club and what we have. I'm not here for the narrative and to talk much.

"I'm here to be in the present of this Lakers franchise and team and figure out how we can be as great as we can be."

New recruit Davis was similarly dismissive, insisting the Lakers were setting their sights higher than local bragging rights.

"I'm not sure what the Clippers are thinking," he said. "But I know what the Lakers are thinking - and that's to play basketball.

"Obviously, they have a great team, but we know that for us, it's going to be bigger than a rivalry.

"You know, winning a rivalry game doesn't win the championship. For us, the goal is to win a championship this year."

Others, however, feel the story of the rivalry will be less about the Lakers v the Clippers and more about James v Leonard.

Jason Whitlock, co-host of the Speak For Yourself show on Fox Sports, believes the match-up could potentially surpass some of the NBA's greatest rivalries.

"I thought Magic Johnson v Larry Bird in my lifetime was incredible," Whitlock said. "But Kawhi now coming to take LeBron out? That could end up rivalling Magic and Larry."

While James is attempting to restore Lakers to their place at the top, in what will probably be the final act of his career, the incentives for Leonard are also huge.

For decades, the Clippers have been regarded as an NBA punchline, eternally in the shadow of the star-studded Lakers and their A-list celebrity fan base.

While Lakers fans have toasted 16 championships and 31 conference titles, the Clippers have never gone past the second round of the play-offs.

But unlike their illustrious neighbours, the Clippers have a solid core in Lou Williams, Patrick Beverley, Montrezl Harrell and Landry Shamet and they did not need to trade away half their roster to attain their two new stars.

If Leonard can lead them to their first title, it would secure him legendary status, just like how he was feted by the city of Toronto.

While George will miss the start of the term as he recovers from shoulder surgery, he has insisted the Clippers are ready to spring a surprise on the rest of the league, as they now have the perfect marriage of star power with an underdog spirit.

"This is a blue-collar organisation," the forward told Sports Illustrated. "We got the nightlife, we got the LA scene, everything about it, but this group is hardworking and just gritty.

"That's how I started my career off, in Indiana. That's how I made it in this league. So I feel at home."

AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE, NYTIMES

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on October 21, 2019, with the headline 'Stars collide in La La Land'. Print Edition | Subscribe