As someone who has built a career out of setting expectations hilariously low and doing the bare minimum to slightly exceed them, I understand intimately what both the Lakers and the Clippers were trying to accomplish at their respective media days. Both L.A. teams went out of their way to downplay any new intracity rivalry, despite the fact that Los Angeles is going to have two basketball teams with serious championship potential for the first time in its history. That has not stopped both teams from trying to ignore the other.
Lakers GM Rob Pelinka basically started this Cold War of sorts in his opening press conference of the season, saying that while the media may want to build up a rivalry with the Clippers, the Lakers’ biggest enemy is going to be who they see in the mirror, a.k.a. themselves. (Pelinka is honestly too good at metaphors and phrases to be a general manager. He should be doing my job.) LeBron James, never one to turn down an opportunity to praise his sport, declared Staples Center the winner of the summer, and then mentioned several L.A. sports teams (including colleges and his son’s high school!) that make the city a vibrant town for athletics.
The Clippers followed suit at their own media day. Montrezl Harrell said the team isn’t looking at the budding rivalry, claiming the Clips “don’t buy into the L.A. vs. L.A.” thing. Paul George, who grew up in Southern California, agreed, saying this season won’t be about a “head-to-head battle of L.A.”
Look everyone, I get it. Neither the Clippers nor the Lakers have any incentive to actually acknowledge this rivalry. And any player who even hints at a small distaste for the opposing team is setting themselves up to look foolish. These guys have nothing to gain. They can either a) downplay the rivalry or b) hype it up, then wait for idiots like me who grow a mustache to seem interesting to hold that statement against them for eternity. One is an objectively safer route to take, especially this early in the basketball calendar. But would it kill these guys to have a little fun about all of this?
This is going to be a very exciting NBA season. You and I genuinely don’t have to worry about things like “tampering,” or whether the lack of a juggernaut will affect TV ratings. All we get to do is enjoy a wide-open NBA without a clear-cut favorite for basically the first time in at least a decade. And so much of that fun is going to be concentrated in Los Angeles, which has a richer collection of superstar talent than basically the entire east coast. (I said “coast,” people! Know your geography!)
So forgive me if I would like to see both franchises lean into this rivalry a little bit more. I want LeBron and Anthony Davis to call themselves the best duo in the city. I want PG and Kawhi Leonard to say they are the main attraction at Staples. I want all these guys to actually play against each other in the regular season and not conveniently be load managing whenever the other is on the schedule. (I’m already mad at the NBA for scheduling Lakers-Clippers on opening night, which George will miss due to his shoulder rehab. How did you guys miss this one?)
Again, there’s no good reason I can present to you for why either the Lakers or Clippers should be buying into their rivalry right now. The last thing anyone from either organization wants to do is make a bold public statement and then be judged by that declaration for the rest of the season. It’s way better to say stuff like “it’s a process!” or “we’re taking it day by day” or “the real championship is the team dinners we shared along the way” and bore everyone into submission. But the reality is also this: No matter what, the pressure, attention, and expectations for the Clips and Lakers this year is going to be astronomical. And as much as they can try to avoid each other in the media and potentially on the court, they are going to be compared to each other all year long, both because of where they play, and who plays for them.
So guys, have some fun with it! Most of you are friends, anyway. LeBron once high-fived Paul George during a playoff game. You’re telling me AD and PG have never bumped into each other at a Nike event? Meanwhile, Bron and Kawhi have both taken a Finals MVP off of one another, Bron knocked George out of the postseason three years in a row back East, and the Lakers’ coach (that’s Frank Vogel!) used to be George’s coach in Indiana during those playoff defeats. Not only is there an intracity rivalry, these guys all have history!
LeBron, feel free to remind PG he’s never been able to beat you in the postseason. AD, maybe bring up how much more you cost in a trade than Kawhi. PG, maybe you can get back at Davis by mentioning how you were able to orchestrate your move to L.A. in complete secret. Kawhi, you should neg the Lakers by saying you only knockout dynasties, not upstarts, in the playoffs.
Ultimately, however they try to talk around it, the Lakers and Clippers are going to be intertwined this season. A championship is a zero-sum game. Both teams have sold out for one, and good fortune for one franchise means bad fortune for the other. Neither L.A. team will be able to avoid the other for much longer. With that being the case, I think they may as well embrace the warring to come from Day 1. Even if both teams try to manage outside expectations, it’s impossible to ignore that for the first time in the history of professional basketball, both L.A. teams seemingly have a realistic chance at the game’s most important prize. They can only pretend otherwise for so long.