CLIPPERS AND LAKERS: A SHIFT IN POWER IN THE CITY OF ANGELS
The Los Angeles Lakers are a storied, historic organisation. The epitome of what playing in La-la-Land stands for; flash, loud and out there. They have a list of A-list supporters as long as your arm and their popularity reaches far beyond the realms of the NBA world. In short, they are one of the biggest franchises on the planet, but there is another team who are beginning to stamp their authority on the city and it began some 32 years.
Saturday, November 24, 1984. A 23-year-old James Worthy led the Los Angeles Lakers to their tenth victory of the season as he shot 58.8 percent from the field to end the night with 27 points. Backed up by Magic Johnson - who shot an incredible seven from ten - and Byron Scott, who both finished with 17 - and took another baby step on the road to a ninth championship in their illustrious history.
The campaign ended with the Lakers besting the Boston Celtics in a six-game Finals series as Kareem Abdul-Jabbar added the second of two Finals MVP awards to his collection. But that weekend in November was an equally significant moment. It saw the blossoming of a new battle between two franchises.
The Associated Press labelled it the 'birth of a crosstown rivalry' as the Lakers faced off for the first time against their newly rebranded neighbours; the. They were not a new entity in the league. Formerly the Buffalo Braves and the San Diego Clippers, they had been around the NBA for 14 years, but their relocation to the Los Angeles Memorial Sports Arena marked a moment in history that changed the landscape of basketball in the west coast city for good.
The Clippers had just one aim when they moved to the city, to change the balance of power in the Big Orange. That began with matching the illustrious franchise on the hardwood. Prior to their first encounter, former president of the organisation, Alan Rothenburg left nobody doubting exactly where he wanted to take the franchise: "If we can get our level of performance up to the Lakers without them slipping, and we don't want them slipping, it'd be great for us and great for the NBA."
The battle had begun, but the question remained, how would an organisation with no history in the City of Angels possibly stand a chance of competing with a team who had been a mainstay since 1960 and enjoyed a level of success that could only be rivalled by the Celtics in the NBA? It seemed like there was no chance, but former owner Donald Sterling was determined to break the Lakers' hold. So much so that he relocated the Clippers without prior clearance from the association and sued the league for $100 million when they fined him, however, he dropped the lawsuit when the cost of the fine was decreased.
"If we can get our level of performance up to the Lakers without them slipping, and we don't want them slipping, it'd be great for us and great for the NBA." - Alan Rothenburg, 1984.
They instantly went about ruffling the feathers of the already established organisation, marketing themselves as "The People's Team" upon arrival, due to the prices of their tickets being lower than that of their crosstown rivals. It was a move that did not go down well with the coach of the Lakers, Pat Riley, who took a little jab at their lack of history, insisting: "I felt we've done more the last 20 years to be the 'People's Team'"
It came as a surprise to nobody to see the franchise struggle in their early days. While the Lakers were constantly challenging for a ring, the Clippers were a perennial sub .500 team who had pipe dreams of reaching the playoffs. 1987 and 1988 saw more success for the purple and gold. While the now 16-time champions were accumulating a two-year regular season record of 127-37 and adding two titles to their collection, their not so noisy neighbours were lingering in the doldrums; winning just 19 games in the space of 24 months and finishing bottom of the West. It took the Clippers ten attempts to even register a win over their new rivals.
LACK OF COMPETITION
In truth, the Associated Press' claim that a rivalry between the organisations was blossoming fell flat on its face. A rivalry needs competition, and there was never that between the two Los Angeles teams. Even as the more successful team in the city struggled for nationwide success in the 90s, the Clippers could not provide the competition to breed the intense dislike that is evident in rivalries such as the Celtics and Lakers.
Before reaching the playoffs in 1992, Sterling's franchise had won just five of the previous 39 encounters. There was the usual 'cross-town' competition that was bound to occur, but there was no signs of an intense rivalry between the two organisations coming to fruition. The Lakers hardly saw the Clippers as a threat to their standing in the city.
As the Michael Jordan-led Chicago Bulls continued to dominate the 1990s, the red, white and blue side of LA remained focused on playing catch up with their city rivals. For the Lakers, having tasted so much success, it was about getting back to the promise land.
During the Clippers' short success over the Lakers between their threepeat and back-to-back success', Kobe Bryant played down the notion of any rivalry between the two franchises: "This is such a long season and we enjoy the matchups, as I'm sure they do. But that's where it stays. My theory on that is rivalries are made in the playoffs, not in the regular season. In the playoffs, that's when things kind of heat up. But this is something that the city wants to talk about, and as players, we can't help but respond to that type of challenge.''
NEIGHBOURS BECOME HOUSEMATES
1999 was a significant time for the Clippers-Lakers matchup as it saw the two organisations - alongside the National Hockey League's L.A. Kings - become tenants of the newly built Staples Center - just two miles from the Clippers' former home. It saw matchups between the two franchises be dubbed the "hallway series" given the fact their locker rooms were just 70 yards apart.
But the Clippers' issues were clear for all to see upon arrival. The seat colours within the arena were purple - although that had a lot to do with the fact two of the three organisations who called it home donned that colour. But looking up into the rafters, there was one striking issue; they had no banners. That still stands to this day, while the Lakers have a plethora of achievements they parade proudly, what do you Clippers have? Nothing. Zilch. Nada.
"Even the involved parties have trouble referring to this thing as a rivalry." - Mike Bresnahan , L.A. Times, 2008
Since moving into the arena, the Lakers have only added more to their glittering collection. The legendary threepeat of Shaq and Kobe was followed up by back-to-back titles as Bryant proved he could do it without the bustling center. The Lakers' success after 2000 caused more problems for the Clippers as they were fast becoming an afterthought. 15 years in the City of Angels, before the turn of the century, that had produced just two playoff appearances and one positive win-loss record, was hardly a way to take the power away from their housemates.
Following their previous taste of postseason action in the 1990s, they found their way back to the business end in 2006, but, as became common practice with the Clippers, they fell at the first hurdle. Such was the Lakers' dominance, the Los Angeles Times summed up the feeling in 2008 when they wrote: "Even the involved parties have trouble referring to this thing as a rivalry." As the 3-0 Lakers faced the 0-4 Clippers.
It could have all been so different, though. In the summer of 2004, lifelong Lakers fan and franchise player Kobe Bryant was entering free agency. The historic era with O'Neal seemed like a distant memory as two playoff failures - including a bruising demolition at the hands of the Detroit Pistons in the Finals - led to the Black Mamba questioning his position with the organisation. The Clippers were ready to pounce, they offered him a max, blockbuster contract in the hope they could tempt him to switch allegiances.
However, their efforts proved futile as the shooting guard decided to stay with the purple and gold. Well, we all know what happened next, he led them to two more rings and became arguably the greatest player to ever represent the storied franchise, while the Clippers, well they continued in the same way they had since moving to L.A. finishing outside of the playoffs and looking up enviously.
"This is such a long season and we enjoy the matchups, as I'm sure they do. But that's where it stays. My theory on that is rivalries are made in the playoffs." Kobe Bryant, 2012
Ask Bryant about that moment and his response is varied. Often he will joke that he has no recollection of events. It is clear to see he believes his decision to remain with the Lakers is justified, and there is no arguing with that. He will go down as one of the best to ever grace the hardwood and his supporting cast in the Entertainment Captial of the World have helped him retire with a glittering record of achievements.
Although, the Clippers may feel a little hard done by, the addition of Bryant would have been the mark they needed to finally put themselves on the map in the NBA and even in Los Angeles. Taking a franchise player from your city rivals would have been the signal of intent the blue and red had been searching for since relocating from San Diego. But that signal was just around the corner, and it finally signalled a shift in the on court power.
While the Lakers were being led by Bryant and Gasol to back-to-back rings, the Clippers were putting together a plan that finally saw them become a legitimate threat in the league. After almost 30 years in La-la-land, they were finally ready to emerge from the vast shadow of their neighbours.
The introduction of Lob City completely changed the organisation and after 27 years in L.A, they were finally ready to make some noise. While the Lakers were winning, the Clippers were building and once the bubble around the celebrated franchise burst, a sharp change in fortunes followed.
2011 was a huge year for basketball in Los Angeles. The purple and gold thought they were getting their hands on Chris Paul. However, NBA commissioner David Stern vetoed the move from the New Orleans Pelicans. He joined the Clippers, and just like that, the balance in power shifted. It was the signal fans had been waiting for. The moment that finally established the franchise as an organisation who meant business. For the first time in history, two of the three best players in the city plied their trade in red and blue.
During Paul's inaugural season at the Staples Center, the atmosphere between the two franchises had changed. Both organisations held a legitimate claim to be champions. Blake Griffin summed up the change in approach from Lakers fans in an interview with the LA Times, saying: "The biggest difference between these games [against the Lakers] now and the games my rookie year [is] when we used to run out that tunnel or for the starting lineups, nobody used to boo. They didn't really care. And now you feel the heat a little bit. So I think that says a lot about where we're headed."
The signs of a rivalry were beginning to grow and it reached a peak during an intense encounter at the Staples as the Lakers overcame the Clippers 96-91. ESPN said after the game: "If the Staples co-tenants didn't have a rivalry before [the game], they have one now." However, it was short-lived.
"The biggest difference between these games [against the Lakers] now and the games my rookie year [is] when we used to run out that tunnel or for the starting lineups, nobody used to boo. They didn't really care. And now you feel the heat a little bit. So I think that says a lot about where we're headed." - Blake Griffin, 2012
The Clippers were finally ready to compete, but the problem was, the Lakers were not. The younger franchise swept the Los Angeles series for the first time in their history in 2012-13 as they finished ahead of the Lakers for only the fifth time in 29 years. After a long, hard toil, it was finally time for the Clippers to hang a banner in their training gym as they topped the Pacific Division - finishing nine games ahead of the Golden State Warriors.
In 2012, the balance in power on the hardwood had changed and Lakers coach, at the time, Mike Brown was under no illusion who the stronger team in LA were: "They're a cross-town team and they're a better team. It's sort of a rivalry now."
That night at Staples showed the hunger of fans in Los Angeles to see two franchises competing at the right end of the NBA. During the short time that both organisations were strong, the game drew a city-record for local television viewing. It delivered a 5.9 local rating, blowing away the previous record of 4.8.
Paul, Griffin and DeAndre Jordan are the undoubted big three at the Clippers and, since linking up together, have gone about breaking all previous franchise records. 2012 saw their first ever finish with a win percentage of over 60. Since then, they have never once dropped below that mark - constantly pushing for a .700 win record.
Kobe Bryant's injury plagued years had a terrible effect on the Lakers as the supporting cast did not have the ability to cope in his absence. The guard suffered two years where he hardly stepped foot on the hardwood after surgeries to his Achilles and rotator cuff. With that, the Lakers' form fell off a cliff and they have never looked like returning to the dizzy heights they enjoyed under the tutelage of Phil Jackson.
The Clippers have won 13 of the last 14 encounters between the organisations and they have made moves to make themselves an organisation to be taken seriously in the NBA. For years, the Lakers’ banners would hang proud during Clippers games, but upon the arrival of Doc Rivers in 2014 - a man who was part of the intense Celtics-Lakers battles - he immediately covered the achievements and tried to establish an identity for the organisation.
The 'People's Team' moniker was due to their cheap prices for tickets and was a ploy to try and attract fans to their new product. However, in recent years, they have allowed their basketball to do the talking. It has worked, as the blue and red have consistently outperformed their neighbours in average attendance.
The 2011-12 season saw the Clippers top the Lakers for the first time in their history and they have continued to perform in the top ten for average attendance ever since. However, it says a lot about the popularity of the Lakers that despite lingering around the wrong end of the conference, they were still in the top half of the NBA.
With Kobe Bryant's retirement creeping ever closer, the excitement around Los Angeles has been all about seeing him in action one last time, but the Clippers have still boasted a better crowd record at the Staples Center as they sit fourth in the conference. Although, Bryant's preference to appear in more road games has been a significant factor in attendances for the Lakers.
While there has been a shift in the balance in terms of attendance and on-court performance, the Clippers are yet to crack to the world of merchandise. The Lakers are the Hollywood franchise and it shows in their popularity away from the hardwood.
Despite their drop in form, they were still the fourth most popular team in terms of merchandise - finishing below the Warriors, Bulls and Cavaliers. The Clippers were some way back, but it still shows the advances the franchise have made since Sterling's decision to uproot and invade Los Angeles.
It has been a long, hard road for the franchise. At times, it seemed like they would never be able to emerge from the shadow of their neighbours. But year after year they have formed their own identity and are now a franchise that fans can be proud of. The duo of Griffin and Paul have improved their marketability and popularity immensely; in the latest merchandise statistics released by the NBA, Chris Paul ranked in the top 15 in player sales. In previous years, Blake Griffin had been in top ten.
The Lakers may still hold an advantage in the city of LA and throughout the world - Kobe Bryant's jerseys were the second most popular according to the association - but the Clippers are closing the gap, and Gillian Zucker, who was brought in by Steve Ballmer when he purchased the organisation in 2014, saw a vision for the future of the franchise: "I think the Clippers are well on their way to becoming Los Angeles' team. There's something really magical that's going on here."
The proof is in the pudding, the Clippers are catching the Lakers in all categories. According to the latest numbers from Forbes, the younger organisation are valued at $2 billion - still $700 million behind their co-tenants - which is significantly more than they would have been worth ten years ago.
"I think the Clippers are well on their way to becoming Los Angeles' team. There's something really magical that's going on here." - Gillian Zucker, 2014
The revenue numbers speak volumes about the popularity of each organisation, the Lakers pull in almost double what the Clippers do through revenue. During the 2014-15 season, the Buss family owned franchise raked in $340 million through revenue compared to $176 million for their neighbours. But the 'People's franchise' moniker that was coined upon arrival still holds true, the average fan will spend just $19 at a home Clippers game, compared to $46 for the Lakers.
The Clippers have established their own identity and look likely to be competitive for the foreseeable future. The original aim was to match the Lakers' performance on the court, they have done that some extent, but Los Angeles will always be a Lakers City; they have the history, the tradition and the appeal that comes with that.
But after a near-30-year struggle, the Clippers have become relevant in La-la-land. The Lakers will never disappear from the Big Orange, but the balance in power is shifting and during basketball conversations in the west coast city, the red and blue’s voice is getting louder by the year.