Halfway through what has been a busy summer for both teams, we asked our NBA writers to assess the state of the Lakers and Clippers, and to weigh in on who has the best team in Los Angeles these days.
1. The Clippers made the playoffs last year, are bringing back Chauncey Billups and have added Grant Hill. What is the biggest challenge they have to overcome in order to be title contenders this year?
ARASH MARKAZI: They first have to stay healthy. I thought they were in position to make the Western Conference finals last season, before Billups went down, and could have at least given the Spurs a run for their money in the second round if Blake Griffin and Chris Paul were themselves. Aside from health, Griffin and DeAndre Jordan need to develop and refine their games. Both are supremely talented and athletically gifted but far too predictable for opponents come playoff time. If Griffin can improve his midrange game and Jordan can develop some post moves and both can start hitting their free throws, the Clippers will be a tough out for any team when the playoffs roll around.
BRIAN KAMENETZKY: Start with health. Chauncey Billups is coming off major surgery, the type often scuttling careers of players his age. New addition Grant Hill wasn't healthy last season. Chris Paul had his problems in the playoffs, and Blake Griffin lost his Olympics experience to knee surgery. Lamar Odom was a disaster physically and mentally in Dallas last season, and has a great deal to prove. Caron Butler is fragile, and even Eric Bledsoe wasn't fully healthy last season. It would be a shame for health to rob us of our daily "VinnyWatch!" as Clippers fans measure daily how secure Vinny Del Negro's job might be.
DAVE MCMENAMIN: Blake Griffin has to go from emerging star to consistent contributor. As spectacular as the start to his career has been, the Clippers will benefit from him developing a go-to post move and using his athleticism to cause havoc as a weakside help defender much more than if he never caught a highlight-worthy lob and stuffed it home again. And, of course, before Griffin can make those improvements and in turn make the Clips legit contenders, he's got to get healthy and rehab from his knee injury suffered at Team USA camp.
ANDY KAMENETZKY: Beyond inconsistent defense, DeAndre Jordan needs to become a better rounded, more reliable force in the middle. It was rather telling how during the playoffs, Vinny Del Negro often seemed more confident in decided role players Reggie Evans and Kenyon Martin than in the Clips' theoretical center of the future. Some of that was inexperience, but it also reflected the overall development still needed from Jordan.
RAMONA SHELBURNE: The Clippers have clearly moved into win-now mode, meaning their tolerance for youthful mistakes and slumps is far less than it was last year. With Chris Paul in the final year of his contract, the Clippers will have to learn to play with the burden of expectations right out of the chute. That's all fine for Paul, Billups, Hill and the other veterans, but we don't know yet how much DeAndre Jordan and Blake Griffin will grow in one year.
2. With Steve Nash in the fold, can the Lakers, given their emphasis on bigs, and an aging superstar 2-guard, be a running team this season?
ARASH MARKAZI: I don't think they can be a prototypical running team like we saw in Phoenix. The Lakers simply don't have the horses for that kind of style, especially with Andrew Bynum on the floor, but I think they can be one in spurts. Transition basketball with Nash and Pau Gasol will be fun to watch and they'll be able to get out on fast breaks more effectively than they did before, when Derek Fisher was the point guard.
BRIAN KAMENETZKY: I don't think they need to be, necessarily, but they could be better than people think, at least on a points-per-play basis. Pau Gasol gets up the floor well, and if Kobe isn't responsible for pushing he can certainly finish. If they land Dwight Howard, he's devastating on the break. In the end, they're not going to be a pace-pushing team, but their transition game can be about quality, not quantity. Even with Nash, a helter-skelter pace will hurt them defensively.
DAVE MCMENAMIN: Heck to the nope. They don't have the personnel to do that. But that's OK. They can potentially be devastating in the half court with Kobe Bryant, Andrew Bynum and Pau Gasol drawing doubles and Nash and Metta World Peace left alone on the outside for kick-out 3s.
ANDY KAMENETZKY: I doubt it, but that's not necessary, anyway. Steve Nash is a pick-and-roll magician who excels in the half court, and in Kobe Bryant, Pau Gasol and Andrew Bynum, he'll have plenty of quality partners. However, when they do occasionally get out in the open floor, Gasol and Bynum run well for big men, so it should work fine.
RAMONA SHELBURNE: It'll probably be more like "17 seconds or less" rather than the seven-seconds brand of run-and-gun Nash played during his MVP years in Phoenix. I can't see a Mike Brown-coached team that's constructed in the way the Lakers are constructed completely changing styles. Still, the Lakers will run more than they did the past few years and should benefit tremendously from the easy baskets Nash will create.
3. Assuming he returns to full strength, how should the Clippers best use Blake Griffin?
ARASH MARKAZI: The Clippers are using Griffin just fine. He and Paul developed a good chemistry and I would guess that will only continue to get better with a full training camp under their belts. Griffin's injury was a tough pill to swallow for the Clippers, because the feeling from some within the organization was that the time he spent with Team USA was going to help him refine his game and perhaps take it to the next level. Now he must spend most of the summer rehabbing just to be back for the start of camp. It's no secret that once Griffin develops a consistent midrange game and starts hitting his free throws he will be almost impossible to stop.
BRIAN KAMENETZKY: That probably has more to do with Griffin than it does with strategy. Via Hoopdata, last season, he managed to bump up his proficiency from 16-23 feet from 32 percent to 37, but that's certainly not going to strike fear in teams, particularly given how destructive he is at the rim. Meanwhile, his field goal percentage from 10-15 feet actually dropped, from 32.5 to 27.7. Add in his well-chronicled issues at the free throw line, and it really does become a question of how much Griffin can improve his weak spots. If he does, VDN has a lot more at his disposal.
DAVE MCMENAMIN: Of course the Clippers should still bank on Chris Paul's penetration creating easy looks at the basket for Griffin, but what will serve his career longevity the most will be for Clippers guards to almost force-feed him touches in the post and make him figure out a way to create for himself with his back to the basket.
ANDY KAMENETZKY: Hopefully, as a player whose defensive skills match his athleticism, hops and explosion. Whether Griffin holds up his end of the bargain remains to be seen, but given his natural gifts, there's absolutely zero excuse for him not being a better defender.
RAMONA SHELBURNE: Just add water and sunlight and let him grow. Compared to his rookie season, Griffin had a rougher year as a sophomore as teams took their best shots at him night in and night out. They'll keep doing that until he becomes more than a power player and punishes them by hitting free throws. Nobody knows this better than Griffin, though, and here's guessing that as soon as he's healthy, he'll be in the gym working on it.
4. With all the trade talk that's gone on this summer, and with the attitude he sometimes displayed last season, what do you expect the Lakers will get from Andrew Bynum this season?
ARASH MARKAZI: The great thing about Bynum is that he's seemingly been involved in trade rumors from the day he was drafted by the Lakers. At this point it might actually be odd for him not to hear his name come up in a possible deal for someone. As opposed to Gasol and Lamar Odom, who might have been surprised to be on the block, Bynum has essentially lived on the block since he has been in the league.
BRIAN KAMENETZKY: I'm not sure, but I don't think it will have much of anything to do with trade talks. Bynum has been at the center of this kind of stuff more or less since he entered the league. He's been traded for Jason Kidd, Kevin Garnett, Jermaine O'Neal, Dwight Howard, Carmelo Anthony and more. Stars in parking lots have called for his exit. This stuff doesn't bother him. Like most guys entering a contract year, he'll have extra motivation and I think he'll be effective but does anyone really know for sure?
DAVE MCMENAMIN: If he's still on the roster, I expect him to only improve upon his career-best numbers from last season. As much as Bynum's attitude problems seemed to be a distraction last season, it certainly didn't prevent him from grabbing 30 rebounds against San Antonio or from dominating Denver with 10 blocks in Game 1 of the playoffs. Bynum has brushed off trade talk in the past and performed at a high level (remember Jason Kidd, Jermaine O'Neal, Rajon Rondo, Carmelo Anthony and Chris Bosh were all linked to Bynum trade scenarios) and there's no reason to think he can't do that again.
ANDY KAMENETZKY: Until I see evidence of Drew's mercurial nature changing, I expect more of the same. However, I don't think the offseason chatter will specifically worsen matters. Bynum's been reportedly "on the block" since roughly the moment he was drafted, and that never seems to bother him. Frankly, I've never gotten the impression he'd care much about being traded to begin with. In this sense, I doubt anybody will know the difference.
RAMONA SHELBURNE: There really are a lot of ways this could go, which isn't the way you want to feel about a guy you may be about to offer a max contract extension to. But that's where the Lakers and Bynum are. I don't think the trade rumors will bother him as much as folks might assume. He's a smart kid and understands the business. Plus, if he is back in L.A. he'll likely have signed a rich new contract. I'm more concerned about how Bynum's role in the Lakers' offense might change with Nash aboard. He's not the typical "roll" player to play out of the pick-and-roll with Nash. Pau Gasol is actually a better fit. Bynum was moving up the food chain last year, but he will need to wrap his head around these new adjustments for it to work.
5. From starting five to bench to head coach, who has the best team in Los Angeles right now?
ARASH MARKAZI: The Lakers have the best starting five, the Clippers have the best bench and I'll have to give the coaching edge to the Lakers, so I'll say the Lakers are the slightly better team at the moment, but not by much. The Lakers have one of the best starting units in the league with Nash, Bryant, Gasol, Bynum and Metta World Peace but there's still a big drop-off when they go to their bench, despite the recent signing of Antawn Jamison. The Clippers have a strong starting five and have one of the deepest benches in the league now after signing two former Sixth Man of the Year award winners in Lamar Odom and Jamal Crawford, as well as adding veteran Grant Hill.
BRIAN KAMENETZKY: I like the Lakers' top four a lot more, both from a talent and a balance standpoint, and certainly if the Lakers get Dwight Howard it tilts even more in their favor. The Clippers, though, have better depth (assuming health), even after the Lakers picked up Antawn Jamison. If the Lakers can find a guard to put behind Kobe and bring back Jordan Hill, that gap gets less significant. Both coaches have their detractors, but Mike Brown's track record is definitely superior. Overall, it's advantage, Lakers, because top-end talent is what drives success in the NBA.
DAVE MCMENAMIN: The Lakers. By a slim margin. Just because there is a sense of urgency on the part of Bryant and Nash to capture a ring that the young bucks on the Clips just can't quite grasp because the battery life on their leaders' careers (Paul and Griffin) is still quite full. Not to mention, the Lakers' big men tandem is still unmatched, by the Clippers or any other team in the league.
ANDY KAMENETZKY: I'll take the Lakers, because their pieces are easier to blend with Nash on board. Plus, if push comes to shove, the Lakers are the likelier team to come up with a huge defensive stop in a critical moment.
RAMONA SHELBURNE: This is a really tough question. The Clippers have more depth; the Lakers have a better starting five. I'll give a slight edge to the Lakers based solely on speculation at how much Steve Nash will elevate everyone else's games, but if Blake Griffin and DeAndre Jordan can take their games to the next level, the Clippers' blend of youth, athleticism and experience makes them very dangerous.