By Don Wanlass
Last summer, as the NBA playoffs began in a bubble in Orlando, Florida, many of us were anxiously anticipated the Lakers and Clippers meeting for the first time in a playoff series.
Unfortunately, the Clippers forgot how to hold on to a lead in the conference semifinal series against Denver and we were deprived of that series.
In the off-season, the Lakers seemingly strengthened their roster — signing Montrezl Harrell away from the Clippers — and the Clippers seeming got older without getting better, losing head coach Doc Rivers in the process.
The Clippers also lost JaMychal Green, Maurice Harkless and Landry Shamet from their rotation, while adding Serge Ibaka, Nicholas Batum and Luke Kennard.
When the Clippers lost all three pre-season games, it looked like they would take time adjusting to new coach Tyronn Lue and the Lakers looked ready to pick up where they left off after winning a championship in the Orlando bubble.
Now a month into the 2020-21 season and the Lakers and Clippers have the best records in the NBA, along with the Utah Jazz, which at 10-4 is tied with the Clippers half a game behind the Lakers, who are 11-4.
The Clippers are still adjusting to Tyronn Lue as he adjusts to his new team. They also have been playing with a subpar Lou Williams, the supersub who normally provides offense off the bench. Williams has been slowed by a hip injury while also learning to play without Harrell, his second-unit sidekick for the last few seasons.
Kawhi Leonard and Paul George have been the focal point of the offense, as expected. Both have averaged more than 24 points a game while playing 34 minutes a night.
The Clippers also have been getting solid efforts from Ibaka, who has supplanted Ivica Zubac from the starting lineup, averaging 11.8 points and 6.2 rebounds in the process and providing tough defense and a wider scoring range.
Nicholas Batum is averaging almost 10 points a game and Patrick Beverley brings defensive intensity and veteran leadership to a team that doesn’t utilize a true point guard.
Off the bench, Marcus Morris is scoring 11.8 points a game off the bench and providing muscle underneath. Zubac, now 23, is still wildly inconsistent while filling Harrell’s role off the bench.
Luke Kennard, acquired in an of-season trade, is averaging 9.3 points off the bench while shooting better from three-point range (.521) than inside the arc (.511).
Only Williams is struggling. The player who has averaged 14.4 points a game during his more than 1,000-game career, is averaging only 9.3 points so far. He is learning to work with Zubac the way he worked with Harrell, while dealing with a hip injury.
If he gets going, the Clippers will be even tougher to beat.
The Lakers, besides a late flop to Golden State Jan. 18 that saw them blow a late lead, have been rolling along. They are 7-0 on the road this year, but only 4-4 at home.
Dennis Schroder has been better than advertised at point guard, taking some of the ball-handling burden off of LeBron James, who is averaging 23.7 points a game to lead all scorers while also averaging 9 rebounds and 7.9 assists.
Anthony Davis is averaging 21.3 points a game while Schroder is averaging 14.8 points a game and 4.7 assists.
The other guard, Kentavious Caldwell-Pope is averaging 10.1 points a game.
Center Marc Gasol is off to a slow start, averaging more rebounds than points per game, but Harrell is still providing his off-the-bench presence, averaging 14 points and 7.4 rebounds a game behind Gasol.
Kyle Kuzma finally seems to have settled in as a role player off the bench and is averaging 10.9 points a game, giving the Lakers six players in double figures.
The only weakness for the Lakers so far has been their interior defense. They have missed JaVale McGee and Dwight Howard’s forcefulness playing opposing team’s big men.
Gasol is too old and Harrell too short to defend inside post players, but fortunately for the Lakers, inside post players are a dying breed in this three-point-shooting era and the Lakers still have an inside presence on defense if Davis is in the game. He is averaging 1.9 blocked shots a game.
Behind James’ leadership, the Lakers are going to be a precision team most of the season. They won’t bring concerted energy every night, but will pick and choose their spots as the season continues.
Look for them to show maximum effort Jan.21 when they face the Milwaukee Bucks. The Bucks, who had the best overall record in the league last year, are currently second in the Eastern Conference behind Boston, but with two-time most valuable player Giannis Antetokounmpo, the Bucks are a forcer to be reckoned with and James always likes to test the best.
That dream playoff matchup between the teams that share Staples Center could be just a year late.
INTO THE OFF-SEASON: The Los Angeles Rams enter the off-season this week after a 32-18 loss to the Green Bay Packers Jan. 16 with more questions than a playoff team should have.
That magic that head coach Sean McVay seemed to possess when he took the Rams to the Super Bowl in his second year as head coach behind young quarterback Jared Goff seems much longer than two years ago.
Goff has fallen out of favor after not improving as fast as other young quarterbacks such as Buffalo’s Josh Allen or Houston’s DeShaun Watson. His lack of mobility in this era of athletic NFL quarterbacks cost the Lakers a game to the Seattle Seahawks in week 16 and was glaringly visible the next week when his backup, John Wolford, defeated the Arizona Cardinals to get the team into the playoffs after Goff suffered a broken thumb against Seattle.
With Wolford suffering a neck injury in a wild-card round of the playoffs win over the Seahawks, Goff was back in the starting lineup against the Packers.
He performed adequately without his favorite receiver Cooper Kupp, but not enough to defeat Aaron Rodgers and the Packers in Lambeau Field in January.
The Rams are at a crossroads. If McVay is the coaching genius he appeared to be his first two years on the job, he needs to either fix Goff or find a replacement, hard to do when the Rams have committed so much salary to Goff.
McVay also must find a new defensive coordinator again after Brandon Staley moved down the hall at SoFi Stadium when he agreed to coach the Chargers next year.
Staley is the new boy genius head coach in town and he has a young quarterback in Justin Herbert, who is bigger, more mobile and has a stronger arm than Goff.
Both the Chargers and Rams hope to play in front of live audiences next year after playing in an empty SoFi Stadium this year.
SoFi Stadium also is scheduled to host the Super Bowl next year. The Chargers and Rams would both love to be there.
Which team is better suited to get there is up for debate as the NFL off-season looms.
FALLEN STARS: A few years ago it seems the world was shattered every week by the death of a star musician. So far, 2021 is having the same affect on athletes.
Two weeks ago it was Tommy Lasorda. This past week it has been Jon Arnett and Don Sutton.
Arnett might not be well known to many Los Angeles sports fans today, but for 15 years in the 50s and early 60s, he was a big man on Vermont Avenue in South Los Angeles. He was a star on offense and defense at Manual Arts High School before taking his talents up the street to USC where he played offense and defensive back and returned punts.
He was an All-American selection in 1955 and was 10th in Heisman Trophy balloting the following year.
He still ranks in the top 25 in USC career statistics in yards rushing (1,898), punt returns and kickoff returns.
After graduating from USC in 1956, he continued to star at the Coliseum for the Rams, earning all-pro honors in 1958 when he led the NFL in punt returns, and playing in the Pro Bowl after his first five seasons. After spending seven years with the Rams, he finished his NFL career playing three years for the Chicago Bears.
Arnett died Jan. 16 of heart failure at his home in Lake Oswego, Oregon, USC announced. He was 85.
Sutton is more familiar to local fans because he came around later, joining the Dodgers in 1966 and staying in the Major Leagues for 23 years.
Sandy Koufax and Don Drysdale were the pitching stars for the Dodgers when Sutton broke in with the team, but it is Sutton whose name sits at the top of the list of Dodgers pitchers with the most career wins, innings pitched and strike outs.
During his career, he won 324 wins, 233 with the Dodgers. He started 756 games, a mark topped only by Nolan Ryan and Cy Young. His 5,282.1 innings pitched are seventh all-time and his 58 shutouts are 10th.
He only won 20 games in a season once in his career and never threw a no hitter, but he threw five one-hitters.
Sutton pitched in an era of four-man rotations where starting pitchers were expected to throw seven or eight innings so most of his career totals will never be equaled by modern pitchers.
After pitching 15 years with the Dodgers, he signed with the Houston Astros as a free agent in 1981. He bounced around with the Milwaukee Brewers, Oakland A’s and Angels before rejoining the Dodgers in 1988 for his final season in the big leagues.
An elbow injury that year forced him to the disabled list for the first time in his career and he was released in August so the Dodgers could call up rookie pitcher Ramon Martinez.
In retirement, Sutton became an announcer with the Atlanta Braves and Washington Nationals.
He died at his home in Rancho Mirage, California, Jan. 19 at the age of 75.