LOS ANGELES (CBSLA.com) — As the NBA approaches its return on Tuesday, it is clear which LA team is entering the regular season with higher expectations.
One team, whose history is rich to the point most professional sports franchises could only dream of, is loaded with seasoned veterans who know the game better than the greater part of the NBA. But with an aging roster comes the inevitable worry of injuries and physical limitations on the court; couple that with the presence of a head coach who has yet to win over one of the largest and most loyal fan bases in sports, and there’s a hint of a potentially precarious season.
The other team, whose recent seasons have established the formerly irrelevant franchise as nothing short of a powerhouse in the Western Conference, includes some of the most talented young athletes in the league. The addition of a new head coach who’s known for his basketball IQ and high-caliber game plan has convinced many that the final piece needed for a deep postseason push has been found.
While the Clippers seem to have supplanted the Lakers as the city’s stronger team, both had clear goals in mind as they finished their final preseason tuneups and prepared to open the regular season against each other.
With no clear timetable for the return of Kobe Bryant, all eyes turned toward point guard Steve Nash and power forward Pau Gasol at the Lakers’ practice facility in El Segundo during their final preparations on Monday.
Gasol, who shot a career-low 46.6% from the field in 2012-13 and started only 42 games as he struggled with a torn plantar fascia, did not hesitate to mention the key concern going into the season.
“Health is always a key,” Gasol said. “And if we get Steve Nash 100 percent, we get Wesley Johnson 100 percent, and we can get Kobe back, that’s when we can actually start measuring ourselves and then actually feeling good about what we have.”
Nash, however, is already dealing with lingering neck issues, and his ability to start the Lakers’ first two games, back-to-back, is already in question.
“I don’t really know what to say about that yet, because we haven’t really faced it,” Nash told reporters. “I don’t know if I’m going to play back-to-back games or not, I don’t know how I’ll feel, and I don’t know how it’ll affect the team. One thing I think is to our advantage is Jordan [Farmar] and Steve Blake are playing great, and are two really good guards that I think have gotten better and maybe are underrated.”
Lakers Coach Mike D’Antoni, entering his second season at the helm, considers his team up to the challenge of starting the season on a positive note.
“This is fun,” D’Antoni said. “This is what we live for, and this is what we do, and the crowd will be excited. Everybody’s got a chance to win a championship right now, so that’s what we’re going for.”
Ten minutes away, at their own practice facility in Playa Vista, the Clippers welcome the idea of opening their season against their Staples Center roommates.
“It’s big for the city, you know what I mean,” Clippers point guard Chris Paul said. “It’s a division game for us. We’re in each others’ back yard, so we need the win really bad and I’m sure they want it too.”
Other Clippers are not acknowledging the matchup as anything apart from a must-win season opener against a Western Conference team.
“We definitely want to hit the ground running,” Clippers center DeAndre Jordan said. “People are going to hype this game up to be more than what it is, but it’s just our Game One, and a Western Conference team that we have to beat, and a team in the league that we have to beat. That’s it.”
Doc Rivers, beginning his first season as coach of the Clippers, led the Boston Celtics to an NBA championship in 2008 and an NBA Finals appearance in 2010. He enters the season with the opinion that the Lakers-Clippers rivalry is rather fabricated.
Rivers, who is no stranger to a “rivalry” status with the Lakers, recognized the accomplishments of the 16-time NBA champions, and acknowledged that the Clippers need to continue to grow and accomplish more in order to consider themselves the Lakers’ rivals.
“I don’t know, honestly, what kind of rivalry we have — the Clippers — versus the Lakers,” Rivers said. “The Lakers have been pretty dominant. We’ve won of late, but I think it’s gonna take us a lot more to call it a rivalry, honestly. We have to do a lot more stuff, and then we can call it a rivalry, but I don’t think we’ve done enough yet.”
While the anticipated return of the legendary Bryant to the court is grounds enough not to rule out the Lakers making a long postseason run, the clear shift in momentum in Los Angeles — perhaps for the first time going into a new season — has brought forth the question of whether the dominant colors at Staples Center will remain purple and gold, or whether they will be red, white and blue.
Rivers himself is of the assumption that the Lakers may be stronger than they are receiving credit for.
“They’re gonna be a good team. I hear all this stuff about what they’re not gonna be. I think they’re gonna be a pretty good team.”