Last season, the conversation in the Western Conference was almost wholly focused, at least when it came to “who will win the West,” on the two Los Angeles squads, the Lakers and Clippers, once they assembled superteams in the offseason.
The Lakers had brought in Anthony Davis to play with LeBron James and the Clippers had landed Kawhi Leonard in free agency and Paul George via trade. All season felt like a build to an inevitable conference finals showdown, one that never came after the Clippers blew a 3-1 series lead to the Nuggets in the semis, while the Lakers went on to win the championship in the Bubble. The in-town rivalry between the two teams never felt greater than last season, as during the Lakers dominance, the Clippers were never a threat and once they became one, it was as the Lakers fell to general irrelevance in terms of championship contention.
The animosity between the two teams was apparent, and it stemmed from a variety of things. There were the Clippers billboards touting Kawhi as the new King of L.A. and plenty of trash talk back and forth, but according to Jared Dudley’s new book about the Lakers’ Bubble experience titled “Inside the NBA Bubble: A Championship Season Under Quarantine,” it was Paul George’s boasting about being on that same level as LeBron, Davis, and Kawhi, that irked the Lakers as a team, via Silver Screen & Roll.
We hear some of those guys talking about how they’re the team to beat in LA. It’s fine if Kawhi says stuff like that. He’s defending a championship. We don’t trip if someone like Patrick Beverley is talking trash; that’s how he feeds his family. We get it. We respect the hustle. But we think it’s disrespectful for Paul George, who hasn’t won, to put himself on the level of Bron and AD. This motivates us. When we see those guys around the compound, we don’t really kick it with them. The one exception of course is Markieff, whose twin brother, Marcus, is on the Clippers. This probably keeps tensions from boiling over.
George rather famously struggled in the Bubble playoffs, and for whatever reason seems to elicit extremely strong opinions, particularly from those attached to the Lakers. The feeling that he hasn’t earned that position in the same way Kawhi has through winning is certainly understandable, but it’s rather fascinating that the Lakers would take his personal belief that he’s a superstar in the league as an affront and disrespectful.
In any case, this season is setting up to once again be a showdown between the two L.A. squads in the West, although Denver and Utah are certainly worthy contenders as well, and after the disappointment of not getting a series to settle things a year ago, maybe this year we can see it in action. There’s clearly plenty of motivation on both sides, as the Lakers want to assert and prove their dominance, while the Clippers and George want to show they belong in those conversations.