Charles Dickens begins the first chapter of his novel, “A Tale of Two Cities,” with “It was the best of times, it was the worst of times.” Looking at the regular seasons of the Los Angeles Clippers and Los Angeles Lakers, it’s easy to tell which one had the best and which one had the worst of times—a 45-chapter novel isn’t necessary to identify the distinction.
The 2012-13 season told the tale of two franchises and one city. Ironically, both would experience similar endings.
After assembling a roster that was tailor-made to compete for an NBA championship, the Lakers looked like a team that could make it all the way to the NBA Finals on cruise control with a well-oiled machine featuring four eventual Hall of Famers in Kobe Bryant, Pau Gasol, Dwight Howard and Steve Nash. Instead, the machine turned out to be an old beater fraught with engine misfires, but eventually clanked its way to a 45-37 record en route to the playoffs. By that time, however, the engine was shot—the Lakers succumbed to a spate of injuries and endured a first-round sweep courtesy of the San Antonio Spurs.
Conversely, the Clippers’ season was rife with franchise records, including 17 consecutive wins, 13 straight home victories and a franchise-best 56-26 record that secured the fourth seed in the Western Conference playoff landscape. Given their remarkable regular season run, early rumblings of the Clippers’ first ever NBA championship were even circulated amongst pro hoop aficionados. Given the tumultuous history of the franchise, “championship” and “Clippers” were terms that were seldom used in the same sentence, unless “never win” was included. The team would also suffer a first-round exit at the hands of the Memphis Grizzlies, who ended the series 4-2 after a Game 6 victory last Friday night.
The Lakers and Clippers just don’t share first-round exits, but also free agent dilemmas. On July 1, Howard and Clippers point guard Chris Paul are available to the open market.
Howard can re-sign with the Lakers for a five-year, $118 million contract if he chooses to do so—$30 million more than what he can fetch as a free agent if he opts to forego re-signing. Meanwhile, Paul’s re-signing deal is just as lucrative—five years, $108 million—$27 million more than what he can get in the open market.
Of course, with all the millions that both players have made thus far in their careers, winning should supersede financial gains and each player will probably choose the best opportunity with the highest potential of delivering a Larry O’Brien Trophy. With all the bling that both millionaires can afford, a championship ring is something they can only buy with sweat equity.
Both franchises have accompanying stars who will do their part in convincing each player to stay.
“I think Los Angeles is the perfect spot for him (Howard) to assert himself, kind of put his foot down and have his career really take off and be what it should be. There’s no greater place for centers to play than here in Los Angeles,” said Lakers star Kobe Bryant.
“He’s (Paul) a huge piece to our team moving forward,” said Clippers All-Star Blake Griffin. “He’s going to know that we want him back and we would love for him to re-sign and keep moving forward with this franchise, but ultimately this is his decision. He has to do what’s right for him and his family and we’re going to be behind him.”
If both teams retain Howard and Paul, then more money makes for more problems in the form of the luxury tax threshold. The Lakers are no stranger to exceeding the salary cap in order to assemble the best team possible to compete for a championship, but doing so next season will come at the price of an $80 million penalty. As for the Clippers, they will be on the brink of straddling the luxury tax line assuming they re-sign Paul to a max deal. If Clippers owner Donald Sterling is willing to pay the taxes to construct a championship contender again, it will truly be a touchstone in determining whether he’s scrapped his historical penny-pinching in favor of his competitive team spending in recent years.
Aside from retaining the services of their respective All-Stars, both teams also have coaching quandaries. The Lakers are pot committed to head coach Mike D’Antoni after signing him this past season with a three-year, $12 million deal with an option for a fourth year. Coach D’Antoni’s head has been on the chopping block with the majority of Lakers fans calling for the guillotine to be dropped sooner than management would like. If Howard, who had early difficulties fitting in with D’Antoni’s offensive philosophy and defensive philosophy or lack thereof, demands a coaching change before re-signing, it could force the hand of the Lakers’ brass.
Fortunately for the Clippers, management’s hands are not bound as tightly as the Lakers. Head coach Vinny Del Negro’s contract will be up in June and the Clippers have the freedom to re-sign or replace him as necessary. Needless to say, after a second-round exit last season via four-game sweep and a first-round exit this season, it’s easy to question whether Coach Del Negro has the coaching chops to bring the Clippers to the promise land. With all the high hopes from a remarkable regular season this year, being jettisoned in the first round warrants change and typically, the head coach gets the brunt of the blame.
The offseason could be the preface that foreshadows the tale of the Lakers and Clippers in the 2013-14 season. Then again, given the serendipitous nature of the NBA, it’s never easy to tell who will have the best of times and who will have the worst of times.
Ben Hernandez Jr.
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