A Tale of Two L.A. Teams

What came out of the All-Star Break as a statistical plausibility is now a stone-cold certainty: for the first time since 2005 and his second season in the NBA, LeBron James — the best and most important player of the past generation — will miss the playoffs.

The Lakers' postseason hopes were extinguished with a 3-loss week — all games at home — that brought a season-long losing streak to 5. Brandon Ingram and Lonzo Ball will be shut down for the year and LeBron probably won't play another back-to-back in the last month of the regular season.

Despite key injuries to LeBron, Ball, and others, missing the postseason is a monumental failure in King James' first season in Los Angeles.

And yet, because no narrative is ever totally perfect in the career of LeBron James, this tailspin also happened to coincide with him passing Michael Jordan for fourth all-time in points scored. Unless LeBron retires much earlier than anyone anticipates, he'll pass Kobe Bryant, Karl Malone, and Kareem Abdul-Jabaar in the coming years and become the greatest scorer in the history of the game. He'll also probably retire as third or fourth all-time in assists, depending on how long Chris Paul plays for.

I've thought for the past couple years that it could merely be a matter of time before LeBron passes Michael Jordan for the greatest of all-time. This season has put almost disqualifying doubts in my mind.

During Jordan's age 34 season in 1998, he won his fifth MVP, 10th scoring title and was dragging a worn-down Bulls team to 62 wins and a sixth championship. Scottie Pippen missed half the season. Even the Hawks had more all-stars than the Bulls that year. LeBron, despite putting up 27-9-8 each game, will miss the playoffs in his age 34 season and helped to destabilize the locker room with the Anthony Davis trade saga.

Furthermore, Jordan was first team all-defense in 1998, while LeBron is becoming a meme for not playing defense.

I could go on and on about the comparison between the best two players to ever play the game. But we can — and will — do that for years and even decades to come.

Remember the first game of that three-loss week last week for the Lakers? You might not. It came against their Staples Center co-tenants, the Clippers, last Monday night.

In a fitting way for the Lakers this season, they couldn't find away to stop a variety of perimeter players and didn't have enough offensive weapons to compensate beyond LeBron's 27 points and a triple-double for Rajon Rondo, and lost 113-105.

After going 6-2 following the break so far, the Clippers are now a pretty good bet to make the playoffs. With just 15 games left, they're four games up on ninth-place Sacramento. And with the West a logjam from third to eighth between Houston, Oklahoma City, Portland, Utah, the Clippers, and San Antonio, it's not inconceivable that Doc Rivers' team could get home-court advantage in the first round.

To say that the Clippers weren't supposed to be in this position is a total understatement. A month ago, the Clippers traded their best player, Tobias Harris for Wilson Chandler, Landry Shamet, and draft picks. Chandler is an expiring contract who hasn't suited up for the Clips yet. Shamet is on a late first-round rookie contract.

In other words, it was a trade where team president Lawrence Frank was punting on the season to gain future assets in exchange for free-agent-to-be Harris, despite the team having a playoff shot. That punting on the season now looks like it will produce a playoff berth.

Lou Williams is averaging 20 points per game once again, and is a leading contender to win his third Sixth Man of the Year award. Danilo Gallinari is quietly having a career year. Montrezl Harrell, like Williams, doesn't start, but has been super efficient. Shamet, a cult hero of sorts in Philadelphia in a bench role, has been fantastic shooting threes in a starting role. Shai Gilgeous-Alexander is overlooked as a rookie in this strong class, but has been very solid.

But there's this, too: with just $49 million in guaranteed money next season, which amazingly includes Gallinari, Williams, Harrell, Shamet and Gilgeous-Alexander, the Clippers will have max money available to spend on a star in the summer. It's not exactly a secret that they'll be pursuing Kawhi Leonard for that slot, and should have cap left over to pay a couple role players.

Incredibly, just a couple years after breaking up the Chris Paul/Blake Griffin/DeAndre Jordan Lob City core, the Clippers arguably have a much more promising future than a team with LeBron James under contract for three more years. There's a very promising future in L.A. for basketball, but the Lakers might not be part of it.

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