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I Used to Rule the World

3.28_DT02013_Lakers_02
04/04/14
In the Magazine
Kobe Bryant of the Los Angeles Lakers pauses on court during their NBA game against the Washington Wizards on March 22, 2013 in Los Angeles. It is the first return to the court by Bryant and teammate Pau Gasol following their injuries. Frederic J. Brown/AFP/Getty

It was the best of climes, it was the worst of climes. It was the age of wisdom (replacing Vinny Del Negro with Doc Rivers), it was the age of foolishness (Kobe Bryant: two years, $48.5 million, at age 35). It was the epoch of belief (the Clippers just off an 11-game win streak), it was the epoch of incredulity (the Lakers on pace to finish with their worst record since moving to Los Angeles in 1960). It was the season of CP3, it was the season of Swaggy P. It was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair.

It is a tale of one city—and two NBA franchises. It is the Los Angeles Clippers and the Los Angeles Lakers.

In a metropolis well-versed in the term tectonic shift, basketball fans are seeking terra firma as the upheaval continues at the Staples Center. The Clippers (47-20), who have never advanced to a conference finals in their 43 seasons of existence in three cities (Buffalo, San Diego and, since 1984, Los Angeles), are one of the hottest teams in the league and perhaps the most dangerous. The Lakers (22-44), who have won more NBA championships in the past 35 years (10) than anyone and are second all-time (16) behind only the Boston Celtics, are poised to finish in last place in the Western Conference.

It's Lob City and Tank City. (Chris) Paul and Pau (Gasol). Mulholland Drive and Skid Row.

The insurrection was consummated on March 6, the most recent contest between these uneasy co-tenants at the Staples Center. The Clippers pummeled the Lakers by 48 points, 142-92. It was, in terms of point differential, both the greatest victory in Clipper history and the worst loss in Laker history. "During the game, all the fans were yelling, 'It's still a Laker town,' " said Paul, the Clippers' all-star point guard and All-State pitch man. "And it is. But...it's going in the right direction."

It's still a Laker town. Mid-March, even as the Clippers were preparing to win a 10th straight game, at Utah, the local airwaves were filled with the melodrama of the purple and gold. Meanwhile, the Lakers were in the midst of a pair of home-and-homes against the league's two best teams, the Oklahoma City Thunder and the San Antonio Spurs, while being forced to start the likes of Ryan Kelly, Kendall Marshall and Nick "Swaggy P" Young. They had lost their last two games, at Oklahoma City and San Antonio on consecutive nights, by 29 and 34 points, respectively.

Bryant, the iconic 18-year Lakers veteran who earlier in the week announced that because of injuries he would not return to play this season, quipped, "After all these years I finally know what it feels like to be a Clipper fan."

And Clipper fans, after so many fruitless decades, finally know what it feels like to pull for the Lakers. Paul, now in his third season with the Clippers after six years with the New Orleans Hornets, is arguably the NBA's premier point guard. He leads the league in both assists (10.9 per game) and steals (2.44).

The difference this season is the emergence of not one but two starters. Center DeAndre Jordan is having a career year, leading the NBA in both rebounds (13.9 per game) and field goal percentage (.663, primarily on face-melting dunks) while being fourth in blocked shots. Sports Illustrated recently did a profile of Jordan—its first such feature on an NBA Jordan since Michael—and called the 6-foot-11 center the "league's most improved player."

But is Jordan even the Clippers' most improved player? Power forward Blake Griffin, whose arrival as the No. 1 overall pick in 2009 heralded the team's "Lob City" era, is finally more than just a man who can leap small forwards (and small imported vehicles) in a single bound. The muscular, 6-foot-10 Griffin is having his most prolific scoring season (24.2 ppg) but also, after years of listening to commentators criticize his midrange game, now possesses a marksman's aim from 15 to 18 feet.

Throw in a trio of veteran three-point snipers—J.J. Redick, Matt Barnes and former Sixth Man of the Year Jamal Crawford—and it is no surprise that the Clippers lead the league in scoring, at 107.7 points per game. The final ingredient is first-year coach Glenn "Doc" Rivers, who led the Boston Celtics to the 2008 NBA championship and jumped from that sinking ship last summer.

The Lakers, meanwhile, are the Lamborghini that just pulled onto the on ramp of the 405 Freeway only to find that a three-car collision up ahead has put traffic at a halt. They are a sleek brand, but at present, they cannot go backward and the jam ahead is not about to clear. Earlier this season, Executive Vice President Jim Buss made Bryant, 35, the league's highest-paid player with a thank-you-for-the-NBA-championships deal of two years, $48.5 million. That, coupled with 40-year-old point guard Steve Nash's $9.7 million contract next season ("I want the money," Nash explained in response to critics who believe he should retire), translates to unwieldy salary-cap room and little production.

Bryant and Nash may have three league MVP awards between them, but both are now old enough to be president of the United States, and combined they played just 16 games this season.

"Not one lick," Bryant said when asked how much patience he'd have next season as the Lakers begin a slow and arduous rebuilding process. That's too bad. Bryant has led the Lakers to five NBA championships, one shy of the man who has been in his crosshairs since the day he was drafted into the NBA at the age of 17, Michael Jordan. He is the most competitive and talented player the league has seen since No. 23 retired.

But the Lakers are not about to reverse their fortunes as long as Bryant and his golden parachute paycheck—as well as Nash's—clogs the team's payroll. Even if the Lakers land a lottery pick in this summer's NBA draft, their roster is not about to compete for an NBA championship. It won't even be the best team in its own building.

There is no Sydney Carton final scene in store for Kobe. No far, far better thing that he does than he has ever done. No far, far better rest that he goes to than he has ever known. Mediocrity awaits. If Kobe Bryant wants a sixth NBA championship, he won't have to change his address. But he will have to switch uniforms.

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