Posted Feb 29 2012 11:06AM
Years ago, back when his team was the equivalent of a B-list actor in town, Ron Harper was often asked by unsuspecting strangers, curious about his height, what he did for a living. And his answer was always the same:
"I play for Los Angeles."
Not the Clippers. Los Angeles.
It was a way of escaping scorn, and turned-up noses, and using L.A. -- and by extension, the Lakers -- as cover. Yes, for those of you who just became fans of the NBA during Linsanity, the Clippers weren't always this good.
L.A. basketball has always been about the Lakers and Jack and the Laker Girls and Chick and Magic and ... well, you know the deal. The Clippers could win for the next 10 years and still be the tortoise in this race.
But right now, they're in the rare position of possibly owning L.A. for the season. With both of Tinseltown's teams locked in a virtual dead heat for city supremacy and Pacific Division rights, the second half of the season could dictate who'll be the last one standing come the playoffs.
Not that the Clippers are claiming bragging rights just yet. When asked who has the upper hand in L.A. at the moment, Clippers guard Chris Paul said, "We're one-one."
As in, they've split two games.
"Our entire team has great respect for the Lakers and what they've done, and what they're continuing to do," Paul said. "But at the same time, we're doing some pretty good things ourselves. We'll see."
Blake Griffin agreed, saying "We're trying to overcome everybody, not just the Lakers, but I think L.A. is more aware of us now than before."
The Lakers can drastically alter this discussion if they grab Dwight Howard by the trade deadline. But for now, the Clippers hold a slight advantage in the vitals, as we see.
Superstar: Has Kobe retired? No? Well, until he does, this will always be his town. Griffin owns the highlights, but before Paul arrived, Griffin couldn't carry his team to the playoffs. Advantage, Lakers.
New addition: Paul is the best new arrival in town since Pau Gasol, and is uniquely equipped to do for the Clippers what Gasol did for the Lakers, and that's win a championship. Newcomers Troy Murphy, Jason Kapono and Josh McRoberts, all role players, are still waiting to make a difference. You didn't know they played for the Lakers? Advantage, Clippers.
Slumping also-ran: The player formerly known as Ron Artest is also the player formerly known as functional and reliable. What words shall we attach to Metta World Peace, shooting 33 percent (51 from the free-throw line) and no longer a defensive pest? How about "lost" and "inconsistent" and some nights, "dreadful?" Clippers' dead weight was supposed to be Mo Williams, but he's giving 13 points a game and often coming up big. Advantage, Clippers.
Pain: Chauncey Billups pouted on the coast-to-coast trip from New York to L.A. after the Knicks dumped him, but got happy in a hurry. He quickly meshed with Paul and gave the Clippers a pair of clever starting point guards in the backcourt. And then, a month ago, his season (and perhaps career) was done after a torn Achilles. Will that injury cost the Clippers a shot at the conference finals? Andrew Bynum recently received serum for his troublesome knee but at least he's still suiting up. Advantage, Lakers.
Fun: The Clippers are about as close as it gets to a college team. This isn't 12 guys trying to hail 12 cabs. DeAndre Jordan takes pictures of his sleeping teammates on the private charter and posts them on Twitter. At dinnertime on the road, the whole team eats together. Does Kobe do lunch with World Peace? Does he understand World Peace? Advantage, Clippers.
Style of play: The Lakers play a boring, half-court game that may (or may not) favor them in the playoffs but is hard on the eyes. They're averaging 93 points a game. It's a drastic about-face for the "Showtime" franchise. The Clippers? Lob Angeles. Advantage, Clippers.
Staples Centerpiece: The Lakers have lost only twice as the home team this year, in the first game of the season to the Bulls, and then by two to the Pacers. Among their many victims at home are the Clippers. And there are no statues of any Clippers out front. So we know whose house this is. Advantage, Lakers.
The long-term issues involve Paul's desire to sign an extension, Kobe's health after multiple knee operations and two ownership questions. Can the Clippers actually flourish under Donald Sterling? Can the Buss kids successfully follow the footsteps of their father?
We'll get there soon enough. Right now, the most entertaining team, and the team with the best record, and the one with the momentum, isn't the one you're used to seeing. Chris Paul and Blake Griffin can confidently say they play for Los Angeles and nobody will automatically assume the Lakers. That's progress.
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