As the Warriors and Stephen Curry Crest, the Lakers and Kobe Fade

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Golden State Warriors guard Stephen Curry drives to the basket against the Memphis Grizzlies during a November 11 game. The defending NBA champion Warriors are undefeated going into a game against the Los Angeles Lakers. Nelson Chenault/USA Today Sports/Reuters

On Tuesday evening in Oakland, California, the Golden State Warriors will attempt to become the first team in NBA history to begin a season with 16 consecutive wins (TNT, 7:30 p.m. PST). While a 16-0 start offers no assurances of a championship—ask the 2007 New England Patriots—the Warriors, who happen to be the defending league champs, are proving that they know how to do an encore.

The Warriors' opponent this evening? The Los Angeles Lakers, a franchise that holds the NBA record for the most consecutive wins in one season (33, in 1971-72), but one that has endured a drought consistent with the state's own arid stretch since winning back-to-back championships in 2009 and 2010.

Golden State (15-0) versus Los Angeles (2-11) involves two California clubs separated by 373 miles of interstate (take I-5 to 580 if headed north) that are headed in opposite directions. The Warriors, with reigning most valuable player Stephen Curry, who has only gotten much better, are cresting. The Lakers, with 37 year-old Kobe Bryant, a 17-time All-Star, are the car that must continue on with a blown tire flapping, knowing that the nearest service station is 100 miles away. The Warriors are to the Lakers right now what a trophy is to atrophy.

"By far, right now, [the Warriors] are the best team in the league," Lakers coach Byron Scott told the Orange County Register. "They don't have that championship hangover. I think they want more. It's scary, because they're not living on last year."

As audacious as the Warriors' start has been, the Lakers' opening has been that moribund. Golden State has won two-thirds of its contests by double digits, including a 50-point waxing of the Memphis Grizzlies. Los Angeles has the worst record in the Western Conference.

Curry, who launches net-seeking rainbows from anywhere on the court or off it, is shooting 51.4 percent from the field, the highest percentage of his career, while also leading the NBA in scoring, at 32.7 points per game. Kobe is shooting 33.1 percent from the field, the lowest percentage of his iconic 19-year career, and the lowest of anyone on the Lakers. Says Scott, regarding the future Hall of Famer's wanton shot selection and general Carmelo-ization (n. "one who believes 'assist' is something a doctor should remove") of the ball: "He has that privilege, basically. Other guys [on the Lakers] haven't earned that right yet."

Curry is shooting for the moon, and that is more than just tracing the parabola of his field goal attempts. Now in his seventh season, the boyish 'baller is arguably the best player in the NBA and inarguably the most entertaining. He possesses the artistry of Pete Maravich, the outside touch of Larry Bird and the killer instinct of MJ. Last Thursday night, Curry tallied 40 points as the Warriors, trailing their nemesis, the Los Angeles Clippers, by 23 points in the first half, surged for a 124-117 win.

Curry is shooting for the moon; Kobe is riding off into the sunset, vainly attempting to ward off a double team from Father Time and the ennui that encroaches as he plays for the worst team of his career. Injuries have dogged the 6-foot-6-inch off-guard the past two seasons, limiting him to 41 games—one-fourth of the Lakers' total—in that span. Where for more than a decade Kobe played the role of Maverick in Hollywood as the Lakers' Top Gun, he has since been reduced to the part of Norma Desmond in Sunset Boulevard: "I am big. It's the pictures that got small."

Like a once-popular film franchise that does not know when to quit making sequels (The Force Awakens), the Lakers have spent the past four seasons chasing the past. In 2012, they signed former two-time NBA MVP Steve Nash at the age of 38 and then watched as back problems limited him to 65 games in two years. That same season, they signed All-Star center Dwight Howard, whose fragile emotional constitution was no match for Kobe's Mr. Miyagi-style mind games. Howard fled Tinseltown after one season.

And then, in late November 2013, the Lakers and Kobe agreed to a two-year, $48.5 million deal, which is to golden parachutes what the Boeing 787 Dreamliner is to a crop duster. The deal assured the franchise that Tomorrowland would not begin until the start of the 2016-17 season, while any hopes of becoming a viable Western Conference contender would remain stranded in Fantasyland.

The Lakers have been through four coaches in the past five seasons, or after Phil Jackson first retired and then headed east to become general manager of the New York Knicks (the Little Bighorn to the Lakers' Pearl Harbor). Too, their luck has been poor: First-round draft pick Julius Randle suffered a season-ending injury in the first half of his NBA debut last year, and, with Kobe playing just 35 games, the Lakers limped to a 21-61 record, the worst in franchise history.

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Los Angeles Lakers Kobe Bryant dives for a loose ball during a game against the Chicago Bulls in 2013. With only two wins for the season, the Lakers meet the Warriors November 24 with the second-worst standings in the entire NBA. Lucy Nicholson/Reuters

Age and injuries have atrophied Kobe's skills—after averaging at least 24 points per game for 13 consecutive seasons, he has failed to do so in the past three, including this one—while only honing his acerbic sense of humor. Last Christmas Day, a Kobe devotee challenged a Twitter follower to a fight after sensing that Kobe, aka "the Black Mamba," had been dissed online. The fan even located a midway point for the two of them to meet—Temecula, California—and then proceeded to go there.

Again, this took place on Christmas.

The other man, who never actually assailed Kobe's greatness but only suggested that Russell Westbrook of the Oklahoma City Thunder was the NBA's premier point guard, failed to show. When Kobe was informed of the incident a couple of days later, he smiled and quipped, "Mamba Army don't fuck around."

Last week, Kobe showed once again that while his body may no longer be steeled for an extended postseason run, his tongue is primed for a Netflix comedy special. When he was asked about Luke Walton, his former Laker teammate who has stepped in as the Warriors' interim coach while incumbent Steve Kerr recovers from back surgery, Kobe quipped, "I used to call [Luke] the next Phil [Jackson]. He's an average [former] player with a messed-up back." (In case you are confused, yes, every character introduced in this story thus far, with the exception of Curry, suffers from chronic back pain.)

Walton, 35, had never been a head coach at any level when Kerr, in early October, tabbed him to steer the Warriors ship until he is healthy enough to return. Here we must note that, before last season, Kerr had never been a head coach, and for his first trick he led Golden State to the NBA's best record (67-15) and an NBA championship.

Walton is actually proceeding at a faster pace. He is 15-0 thus far, after all, although the NBA's arcane rules stipulate that those victories belong to Kerr and not Walton. The apprentice will likely be named the NBA's Coach of the Month while officially compiling an 0-0 record.

"I'm completely OK with the fact that the wins don't count on any record book for me," Walton told SI.com earlier this month. "Our concern here is getting the wins and the team continuing to get better while Steve isn't able to coach. It's an atmosphere that was built when he got here: None of us are out here doing it for credit, none of us are out here doing it for ourselves. It's what we're trying to accomplish as a group."

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Warriors interim head coach Luke Walton speaks with Stephen Curry during a game on November 4. With a victory over the Lakers on November 24, Walton, a former Laker, has the opportunity to give the Warriors an NBA record as the first team to start a season 16-0. Kyle Terada/USA Today Sports/Reuters

Walton does admit that Kerr will text him after a victory and type something like "Thanks for another one in the Win column," but he is also aware that it is too soon to begin crowing. His father, Bill, after all, won 93 consecutive games as a player at UCLA (20 of those with the freshman team).

While the Lakers were extending the Kobe Bryant era—even if the Lakers lose, the Black Mamba still packs the Staples Center, after all—with diminishing returns in the Win-Loss column, the Warriors have welcomed the future. This is a franchise, after all, that is located just a short drive away from the world headquarters of Apple, Google, Netflix and Tesla, to name a few companies. Of the four core players—Curry, fellow Splash Brother Klay Thompson, and forwards Harrison Barnes and Draymond Green—Curry is the oldest at 27.

And yet, though Curry is married and the father of a highly precocious little girl, he is disarmingly cherubic. Witness the mashup from the movie Frozen that he and his wife, Ayesha, posted online last month. To continue the parallel of a certain vaunted film franchise, he is Luke Skywalker (albeit abetted by Walton) wresting control of the galaxy from Darth Vader, aka the Black Mamba, alias Kobe.

The Warriors, at this stage of their maturation, are still the NBA's Rebel Alliance, an earnest and youthful group that plays together. Even if they do play in a metropolis that is far, far away, it is difficult to root against them. The Lakers, who for so long had a death grip on the NBA, have relinquished it as they worship a fading star. The empire will not strike back in this game.

As the Warriors and Stephen Curry Crest, the Lakers and Kobe Fade | Sports