In another week they might have Los Angeles all to themselves. Soon after that, we'll see if the Clippers are merely renting or ready to own the town outright.
They're leading the Grizzlies in their first-round playoff series, still winning and throwing lobs inside Staples Center like no other basketball team this season. When you hear about the gloom and doom and turmoil and massive letdown involving L.A. basketball, that topic is confined to the other tenant, the Lakers, who may not make it to May. Their main guy, Kobe Bryant, is sitting at home tweeting, while his teammates are overmatched against the Spurs, trying to avoid a severe beatdown.
L.A. has two teams heading in opposite directions, one fading, the other flourishing. Yes, unlike Cliff Paul and Chris Paul, the Lakers and Clippers aren't looking too much alike at the moment. Wouldn't it be weird if the city is hosting the NBA Finals in two months and the Lakers aren't involved? Better question: Would Kobe tweet about it?
"Our main goal is an achievable goal, and that's to win a title," said Caron Butler. "Going into the playoffs and having so many guys playing well is a big plus for us. We have a deep bench and we can go to anyone and anytime."
Not sure if the Clippers can get that far, or even beyond the first round against Memphis. Although Game 1 was an easy L.A. win, the Grizzlies didn't win 56 games this season by mistake. They can make it a series and even rally to take the series. Tony Allen has already promised the Grizzlies will be more physical Monday in Game 2, and a slower, tougher game would be exactly what Memphis wants and needs at this point. Without Rudy Gay, now a Raptor, the Grizzlies can't win a shootout. They can only win ugly. This is the playoffs and sometimes, stuff happens. Strange stuff.
But here's what is undeniable about L.A. basketball: This is the best Clippers team ever and the most disappointing Lakers team of all time. The Clippers had everything go in their favor this season: Luck, health, a division title, an easier path through the playoffs, home court advantage and a franchise player who's both on the floor (unlike Kobe) and off the charts in terms of leadership.
"There's a lot of confidence with this team right now," said Jamal Crawford, a leading candidate for the sixth man award. "There's nothing we feel we can't do."
It's the polar opposite with the Lakers. They're down 1-0 against the Spurs, who won 58 games, healed in time for the first round and in Game 1 took perhaps the Lakers' best punch. The nucleus of the Spurs -- Tim Duncan, Tony Parker, Manu Ginobili -- have been together a decade. The starting five that the Lakers put on the floor Sunday have been together, oh, about five seconds.
With Kobe and his repaired Achilles confined to the bed and the computer, where he's tracking the Lakers, Paul is suddenly the best player in an L.A. uniform. He was terrific (no surprise) in Game 1 against the Grizzlies -- a big reason why the Clippers won by 21. Not many players are more valuable to their team, because Paul has so many roles: scorer, distributor, defender and leader. And he does them all equally well.
"We're a reflection of him," Butler said.
He'll also be an unrestricted free agent this summer and, in years past, the Clippers would be freaking out right about now. With their history of losing and bad luck and comical decision-making, keeping a player like Paul would be a stretch. Half the league would be making plans to steal him away. And yet, almost nobody expects Paul to leave, which says how far the Clippers have come in every way imaginable.
That's why it's fair to wonder if the Clippers are forcing a changing of the guard in L.A., a city so identified with the Lakers and -- historically anyway -- so dismissive about the Clippers. Nobody can imagine the Clippers swapping places with the Lakers; that would take a decade of winning titles combined with the Lakers going completely stale. But is it really beyond the realm of possibility that this spring could mark the start of the Clippers outplaying the Lakers and keeping it that way for a while?
Let's look at why this can happen:
Ownership. Donald Sterling is no longer the bumbling, embarrassing voice of the franchise because he has wisely withdrawn his influence. Simply by shutting up and lying low, does that make Sterling the best basketball owner in town, when his contemporary is Jim Buss?
Stability. The Clippers are built to win now and for the near future, assuming, of course, they keep Paul. Blake Griffin is signed long-term and the team's salary cap situation is fluid enough where the Clippers will have money to spend. Griffin, Crawford, Butler, DeAndre Jordan and Eric Bledsoe are all under contract for next season and Paul should join them. The Lakers are in a state of uncertainty, mostly because of Kobe's injury situation and also because next season is the last on his contract. Pau Gasol has one season left on his contract and could be involved in trade discussions this summer. Steve Nash is about to turn 40. The signing of Dwight Howard this summer should be a formality. If not -- uh-oh.
Franchise player. Again, Kobe is on the clock. Whether he plays at a high level next season or even beyond next season is questionable. Paul turns only 27 in two weeks and is in his prime. The city also finds him likeable, for what it's worth, which makes him the perfect face of a franchise known for frowns.
Results. The Clippers won 56 games and the division title and their core is healthy, young and productive. The Lakers squeezed out the next-to-last playoff spot on the final day of the season and their core is old, gimpy and, for the most part, on the downside.
Coaching. Mike D'Antoni will never be accepted anytime soon in L.A., if only because the team chose him over Phil Jackson. Speaking of whom, could Jackson replace Vinny Del Negro this summer? Advantage Clippers if that happens.
Intangibles. The Lakers will always be a destination place for free agents. Mitch Kupchak is a solid general manager, while the Clippers, run by Gary Sacks, are somewhat unproven at the top.
The deeper they go into the playoffs, the more the Clippers will make a case for their staying power. And if they're the only team in L.A. still active come May, then they'll have the city to themselves. Laker fans won't suddenly jump ship, but if they love basketball, they'll only have one local team to follow, if not root for.
For now, anyway, the Staples Center is home to only one team that's leading in these playoffs and only one team with a reasonably long shelf life this spring and summer. If all goes well for the Clippers -- meaning, really, really well -- they could ride Paul to June and bring a different kind of buzz to L.A.
The city would belong to them. But, are they renters or buyers? As you know, the price of basketball supremacy in L.A., like real estate, is beyond the reach of most.