LOS ANGELES, United States, Oct 20 – The first chapter in the most compelling storyline of the new NBA season will be written on Tuesday as LeBron James and the Los Angeles Lakers face off against Kawhi Leonard and the Los Angeles Clippers.
Nearly 10 years after Los Angeles last celebrated an NBA championship, the Californian metropolis is now being billed as the basketball capital of the world.
The reasons for the mounting sense of excitement are not difficult to pinpoint.
The Lakers dramatically restructured their roster to add the talents of Anthony Davis to their line-up, providing James with an elite foil as he bids to turn the iconic franchise into championship contenders.
The Clippers, meanwhile, secured the Los Angeles-born Leonard from the Toronto Raptors after the 28-year-old led the Canadians to the NBA Finals crown.
Leonard will form a formidable partnership with six-time All-Star Paul George, another Southern California native who was recruited from the Oklahoma City Thunder.
The glittering casts of the Lakers and Clippers are virtually guaranteed to deliver blockbuster entertainment.
And the clamour for tickets is such that courtside seats for Tuesday’s season-opener at the Staples Center were changing hands for $21,400 each on Friday.
But while the basketball world is eagerly anticipating what is being hyped as the “Battle for Los Angeles”, the central protagonists have so far been doing their best to play down expectations.
– Aiming high –
“For me I haven’t really thought about it,” James said in a recent interview when asked about the prospect of the Lakers-Clippers rivalry.
“I don’t like to harp on rivalries. I love what we’re able to do with our ball club and what we have. I’m not here for the narrative and to talk much.
“I’m here to be in the present of this Lakers franchise and team and figure out how we can be as great as we can be.”
New recruit Davis was similarly dismissive, insisting that the Lakers were setting their sights higher than local bragging rights.
“I’m not sure what the Clippers are thinking,” Davis said. “But I know what the Lakers are thinking – and that’s to play basketball.
“Obviously, they have a great team, but we know that for us it’s going to be bigger than a rivalry. You know, winning a rivalry game doesn’t win the championship. For us the goal is to win a championship this year.”
Others however wonder whether the story of the rivalry will be less about the Lakers vs the Clippers and more about LeBron vs Kawhi.
– Punchlines no more –
Jason Whitlock, co-host of the Speak For Yourself daily show on Fox Sports, says the Leonard-James match up could potentially surpass some of the NBA’s greatest rivalries.
“I thought Magic Johnson vs. Larry Bird in my lifetime was incredible,” Whitlock said. “But Kawhi Leonard now coming to take LeBron out? I think that could end up rivaling Magic & Larry.”
While James is attempting to restore the Lakers to their place at the top table in the NBA, in what will probably be the final act of his career, the incentives for Leonard at the Clippers are also huge.
For decades, the Clippers were regarded as an NBA punchline, eternally in the shadow of the star-studded Lakers and their A-list fan-base.
While Lakers fans have celebrated 16 NBA Championships and 31 Conference titles, the Clippers have precisely zero titles to their name. Leonard leading the Clippers to a first NBA crown would secure immortality in his hometown.
George, who like Leonard was also courted by the Lakers this year, says the attraction of the Clippers rests in the franchise’s underdog spirit.
“This is a blue-collar organization,” George told Sports Illustrated. “We got the nightlife, we got the L.A. scene —everything about it — but this group is hardworking and just gritty.
“That’s how I started my career off, in Indiana. That’s how I made it in this league. So I feel at home.”