For all the 35 years they have shared Los Angeles, the Clippers have languished in the shadow of the Lakers, even when the level of basketball each team played didn’t match the attention they drew.
This season, the signing of LeBron James was supposed to return the Lakers to local dominance. To the delight of the city’s other franchise, it hasn’t.
Instead, the Lakers (30-33) enter Monday’s game against the Clippers (36-29) looking up at them in the standings and trying to make sense of their season.
“If we want to get to the goal that we’ve set for ourselves in the season, we have to believe in each other ... we have to trust each other. That’s what it comes down to at the end of the day,” Lakers guard Josh Hart said. “We can’t not pass someone the ball or not make a rotation, or get our heads down when something doesn’t go our way. We have to as a unit when adversity starts, we have to come together.”
Even with James, the Lakers didn’t expect to compete for a championship this season. Their front office made it clear they had a two-year plan and that by the start of next season they would have a roster capable of doing so.
But none of the parties involved — not Magic Johnson, Rob Pelinka, Jeanie Buss nor James — thought missing the playoffs was possible.
After a 2-5 start, the Lakers played as though they were capable of not only reaching the playoffs, but making a run in them. They were fourth in the Western Conference when James suffered an injury that changed their season.
But James’ return did not spell the end of the Lakers’ problems. The same week he returned, they started their failed attempt to acquire Anthony Davis.
At the trade deadline the Clippers chose to think first about the future, clearing salary-cap space and shipping off leading scorer Tobias Harris and Boban Marjanovic in a deal that brought them more draft picks than players. The Lakers prioritized their present. James also hadn’t been shy about his desire to play with Davis, with whom he shares an agent.
The public nature of the trade discussions cast a pall over the Lakers’ locker room. Even though their young players — all of whom were at some point offered to the New Orleans Pelicans for Davis — did what they could to avoid thinking about it, the situation eroded trust within the organization. Ivica Zubac wound up being the only young player the Lakers moved — and they sent him to the Clippers.
Since then, the Lakers have lost to bottom-feeding teams in Atlanta, New Or-leans and Memphis. On Saturday they suffered their worst loss of all, at Phoenix, which has the worst record in the NBA.
The Lakers sit 41/2 games behind the San Antonio Spurs for the eighth and final playoff spot in the West with 19 games to play. They’re five back of the Clippers, who sit at No. 7.
“We’ve just got to continue to go,” forward Brandon Ingram said. “I’m personally not worried about anybody outside this organization, worried about a story or anything. I’m going to continue to worry about us every day — how we can get better in practice, how we can come together to the games and be prepared and focused and just be worried about the next night.”
The Clippers don’t have such travails. They beat the New York Knicks, the worst team in the Eastern Conference, by 21 points Sunday at Staples Center.
It caused Zubac to muse that the Lakers typically didn’t win games in that fashion.
On Monday he’ll have a chance for revenge, and the Lakers will try to avoid being buried even deeper.
CLIPPERS AT LAKERS
On the air: TV: SpecSN, Prime; Radio: 570, 710, 1330
Update: The Clippers began a run of eight straight games at Staples Center on Sunday. The Lakers won the teams’ last matchup 123-120 in overtime on Jan. 31. The Clippers won the first 118-107 on Dec. 28. Their final meeting of the season is April 5.
Follow Tania Ganguli on Twitter @taniaganguli