ANAHEIM, Calif. — The NBA’s two teams in Los Angeles, the Lakers and the Clippers, appear to be in very different places.
The former landed LeBron James this summer, arguably the greatest player in the history of the league who is till near the top of his game. The latter traded away the best player in franchise history last season — Blake Griffin — in the name of future flexibility to pursue stars next summer.
But as the two teams squared off in an exhibition game here at Honda Center on Saturday night, it was clear how much they have in common at least in one respect: Their rosters remain unsolved puzzles, with no clear road map to determine how all the pieces should fit together.
“I’m very confident in our guys, and their abilities,” Lakers Coach Luke Walton said. “But we’ve got to keep trying different combinations. Eventually, we’ll be good with it.”
But when is “eventually”? And how many combinations will both teams have to try before they get there? The answers could very well determine just how good both teams will be this season.
Far more focus, of course, will be on the Lakers. When LeBron James is on your team, it’s impossible to escape the spotlight. But for the Lakers to reach their ceiling, one that has engendered plenty of mixed opinions, including this one, it’s going to be up to Walton to assemble a roster full of disparate pieces around James, starting with their young core of Brandon Ingram, Lonzo Ball, Josh Hart and Kyle Kuzma.
Easier said than done.
Ball’s absence from the first two weeks of training camp and all four of the Lakers’ preseason games thus far has created a challenge. Walton said Saturday that Ball could make his exhibition debut alongside James on Wednesday against the Golden State Warriors in Las Vegas, but that still doesn’t leave much time before the start of the season for Ball to get ramped up and ready to go.
Even more challenging is the Lakers' bizarre roster construction. JaVale McGee is the only legitimate NBA center, a point that has left several rival executives scratching their heads. While the Lakers are deep in combo forwards and wing players — including James, Ingram, Hart, Kuzma, Lance Stephenson, Michael Beasley, Kentavious Caldwell-Pope and Svi Mykhailiuk — the only one of them actually capable of playing significant time at center is James.
But James has never shown an inclination to do so and isn’t likely to now at 33 and entering his 16th NBA season. Walton has turned to Kuzma and Beasley as backup centers early in the preseason, but it’s hard to see that being a tenable strategy during the regular season. Unless the Lakers give Walton more size with which to work, though, he will have no other options.
In fact, he may have to lean the other way and go even smaller and faster, something the Lakers have said they are committed to doing and have backed up during exhibition games. With James taking a night off and watching from the bench Saturday, the Lakers tore up and down the court. At one point, Walton even went to an all-guard lineup of Rajon Rondo, Hart, Stephenson, Caldwell-Pope and Mykhailiuk to see how it would look.
“We were scrapping defensively, but we kind of stood around too much offensively,” Walton said of the extreme small-ball look. “We haven’t worked on that very much at all, so we wanted to see a little bit of it and see how it looked. It was good to get it a bit of time.”
It’s a similar situation for Clippers Coach Doc Rivers, save for the “having the best player in the world” part. But while Walton has James and a roster that seems incomplete around him, the Clippers arguably have more pure rotation quality NBA players than just about anyone.
That kind of depth will give Rivers plenty of options if the Clippers suffer any injuries — a particular risk for Patrick Beverley and Danilo Gallinari — and allow him to maneuver in a lot of different ways.
The Clippers feel similar to the Miami Heat, with the difference being that, unlike Miami, they have the potential to grab two max free agents next summer. Multiple sources think Kawhi Leonard is destined to wind up there barring a major change of heart.
The other difference, of course, is that this is the Western Conference, in which as many as 13 teams could challenge to finish with .500 records and at least 11 have credible cases to make the postseason. The Clippers likely are at the bottom of that list, but their depth gives them a chance to be a difficult matchup on a nightly basis while allowing them to boast one of the best second units in the NBA.
“We don’t have a team with a superstar, but I do think we have guys that can become stars, for sure,” Rivers said. “We’ve proven we can [win]; the next question is, ‘How much?’ And the other question, from a coaching standpoint, is because you have so many combinations. ... You have a lot of ways you can go. You can’t get too cute. I’ve learned that. You’ve got to figure out what the best combinations are, and stick with those. But you also can’t have any fear of trying another one, because it’s always about development.”
Therein lies another similarity between the two teams. The Lakers may have James, but this year is about developing those young players and figuring out how they fit around him while deciphering who will be a part of the next great Lakers team.
The Clippers don’t have a player of that caliber, but this year is about developing rookie Shai Gilgeous-Alexander, who is earning rave reviews and showing that there’s enough talent here that, with a star or two, title contention isn’t too far off.
There is much to figure out and not much time to do it. The learning curve on both sides of Los Angeles, however, won’t end with Game 1. In fact, it may last all the way through Game 82.
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