As we pass the halfway point in the regular season, there’s been a lot of talk about the Los Angeles Lakers and their crosstown rival Los Angeles Clippers and which team has the best superstar duo and supporting cast. While the 36–10 Lakers have the best record in the West and second best in the league, the third place 32–14 Clippers are only four games back and have already won both of the head-to-head matchups in the Battle of LA.
Depending on when and to whom you listen, there have been legitimate differences of opinion among pundits whether LeBron and AD are a better superstar duo than Kawhi and PG and who has the better supporting cast. The fact that Leonard had spurned the opportunity to join James and Davis on the Lakers and recruited George to join him on the Clippers only added to the drama and raised the stakes as to which team was the best in LA.
Before the start of the season, the general consensus seemed to be the Lakers’ James and Davis were the better superstar twosome while the Clippers had the better and deeper supporting cast and the matchup edge. As the season progressed, the play of James and Davis and the Clippers’ two wins over the Lakers suggested the consensus might be correct. We’ll learn more next Tuesday when the two teams meet for the third time.
Regular season records and head-to-head wins are no guarantee of what’s going to happen in the postseason and who’s going to win in the playoffs, where winning a series often depends on individual matchups and health. With the season now more than half over, the consensus is both the Lakers and Clippers have major weaknesses that need to be fixed before the league’s February 6 trade deadline if they’re to win the championship.
While we can’t predict what changes teams will make before the trade deadline, the health of the teams’ superstar duos and the chemistry created could give the Lakers the edge over the Clippers in the Battle for LA. Heading into the playoffs, LeBron James and Anthony Davis have a better chance than Kawhi Leonard and Paul George of being 100% healthy and the Lakers a better chance of positive team chemistry than the Clippers.
So far this season, injuries have already reared their ugly head and impacted the Battle of LA. While LeBron James has played in all but two and Anthony Davis in all but seven of the Lakers’ forty-six games, Kawhi Leonard has already missed eleven and Paul George twenty of the Clippers’ forty-six games. Those injuries are why the Clippers have lost four more games than the Lakers and chances are the lead will only grow.
The Clippers’ load management of Kawhi’s and PG’s health issues has had a negative impact on the team’s chemistry, as documented by Sam Amick’s article in the Athletic. The unspoken implication from Amick’s article is Doc Rivers and the Clippers may be learning what Greg Popovic and the Spurs painfully found out. Developing team chemistry with Kawhi Leonard’s load management needs and uncommunicative personality is not easy.
In the Clippers’ defense, as Amick fairly pointed out, the correct term for their special treatment for Kawhi should be “injury” rather than “load” management because of the nature of his injuries and the risk of reinjury. That same argument could be also applied to George. Unlike the Lakers’ LeBron James and Anthony Davis, the Clippers’ Kawhi Leonard and Paul George have both suffered major injuries that could be career threatening.
There is no doubt the Lakers have a better chance than the Clippers of being healthy once the playoffs start and we’ve all seen how often major injuries to superstars have determined who wins the NBA championship. LeBron may be 35-years old and AD may have a history of getting dinged up but neither player has ever suffered a career threatening major injury and chances are they’ll be ready and healthy for the playoffs.
The other major advantage that’s emerged at the halfway point of the season is the Lakers’ superior team chemistry, which has been a direct result of the leadership of superstars LeBron James and Anthony Davis. Unlike the Clippers, who’ve struggled as a team with the load management preferences given to Kawhi Leonard and Paul George, the Lakers have been a team on the same page on a mission from the first day of the season.
What is great team chemistry? It’s Dwight Howard supporting KCP when disgruntled Lakers fans unfairly criticized him. It’s JaVale McGee welcoming Dwight Howard to the team knowing it would cost him minutes. It’s the Lakers keeping DeMarcus Cousins on the roster after he got injured. It’s LeBron James responding “We have enough right now” when asked if the Lakers need an additional piece to win a championship.
While great chemistry is not essential to win a championship, it’s usually the deciding factor when two teams with equally matched superstars and supporting casts meet in a seven-game playoff series because the game of basketball at its finest is still a team game and the better team usually wins. And chemistry is the glue that makes teams play better, play unselfishly, make the extra pass, dive for the lose ball, make the right rotation.
What’s going to give the Lakers the edge over the Clippers in the playoffs is going to be the great team chemistry resulting from the active leadership of LeBron James and Anthony Davis, the respect they earned from playing hurt. All you have to do to see the power of that team chemistry is to watch the Lakers’ bench, including LeBron and AD, celebrate when Quinn Cook, Troy Daniels, or Jarred Dudley make a play, steal the ball, or drain a three.
The Battle for LA will resume next Tuesday night when the Clippers and Lakers meet for the third time of the four times they will meet during the regular season. The game at Staples will be a home game for the Lakers. The outcome of this game could very well impact what moves the Lakers and Clippers make before the trade deadline. With both teams’ superstar duos healthy, team chemistry could and should be the difference maker.
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