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Clippers vs. Lakers: Kawhi Leonard and Paul George in a role reversal

Oklahoma City Thunder v Portland Trail Blazers - Game Two
Paul George, a native of Palmdale, will join forces with Kawhi Leonard on the Clippers next season.
(Steve Dykes / Getty Images)

They were viewed as future Lakers long before they were free agents. They were thought to be the local saviors of a storied franchise that had fallen on hard times.

The recruiting pitch to Kawhi Leonard and Paul George was always going to be an easy one for the Lakers. If you grew up in Los Angeles, dreaming about playing basketball in your hometown, there’s only one team for which you want to play.

No one dreams about playing for the Clippers. Blake Griffin was drafted there. Chris Paul was traded there only after a deal to the Lakers, his preferred destination, fell through.

You end up on the Clippers. You don’t choose to go to the Clippers.

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That all changed Friday night with the biggest moment in Clippers history.

Leonard not only chose the Clippers over the Lakers but he also recruited George, who demanded a trade to the Clippers after spurning the Lakers last summer and refusing to meet with them before re-signing with Oklahoma City.

The Lakers have always had their eyes on Leonard and George. Leonard was born in Los Angeles and grew up in Moreno Valley. George was born and raised in Palmdale. The Lakers wanted to trade for them and later wanted to sign them as free agents. They failed on both fronts and now will watch Leonard and George team up with the team down the hall.

It was an unprecedented move by two Southern California kids who don’t need to be told where the Clippers rest on the hierarchy of sports teams in Los Angeles. There is no suitable comparison to the Lakers and Clippers dynamic anywhere in the country. The Mets aren’t the Yankees but they’ve won the World Series twice, the Jets aren’t the Giants but they’ve won the Super Bowl, and the White Sox and Angels aren’t as beloved as the Cubs and Dodgers but they’ve both won the World Series. The Clippers have never made it past the second round of the playoffs.

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From 1976 to 2011, the Clippers franchise had four postseason appearances, three winning seasons and one playoff series win. During the same stretch, the Lakers went to the playoffs 33 times, the NBA Finals 16 times and won the championship 10 times.

None of that mattered to Leonard and George, who weren’t highly recruited and largely ignored by USC and UCLA when they were coming out of high school. Leonard chose San Diego State when he received no offers from schools in power-five conferences while George chose Fresno State over Pepperdine and Santa Clara. They bet on themselves over history and tradition then, just as they’re doing now.

The Clippers have posted a winning record for eight consecutive seasons, an unprecedented level of success for the once star-crossed franchise, while the Lakers have had the worst winning percentage in the league over the past six seasons. But nothing the Clippers have done on the court over that time comes close to what they were able to accomplish on Friday.

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It was a franchise defining moment that will forever change the perception of the team long viewed as the Lakers’ “little brother.”

Who would pick the Clippers over the Lakers? Who would refuse to meet the Lakers but demand a trade to the Clippers? Leonard and George are now the answers to two questions that are no longer rhetorical when talking about Los Angeles basketball.

It’s the most recent and significant move for a franchise that has been reshaping and redefining itself since Steve Ballmer purchased the Clippers five years ago for $2 billion. They have the wealthiest owner in professional sports, one of the most accomplished coaches in Doc Rivers and one of the most respected front offices led by Jerry West, Lawrence Frank, Michael Winger, Trent Redden and Mark Hughes. It has become a destination franchise in a city home to the league’s signature franchise.

As much fun as “Lob City” was at times, the Clippers were never championship favorites during the six seasons Paul, Griffin and DeAndre Jordan were together. They were a top-five team but always on the outside looking in when the conference finals rolled around. For the first time in the franchise’s history, the Clippers will enter next season as championship favorites after adding two of the top eight players in the league. In fact, half of those players will call Staples Center home next season.

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After the Clippers acquired Leonard and George, they became 3-1 favorites to win the championship next season, according to Westgate Las Vegas SuperBook. The Lakers, who had been the favorites, moved down to 5-1. The Clippers’ odds were 16-1 and the book sold just one ticket on them since July 1 for $10 at those odds. No one saw the Clippers doing what they did on Friday, not even Vegas.

The Lakers will always be the most popular team in Los Angeles. No offseason transaction can overcome the 60 years of history and success the Lakers built in this city. But the Clippers, for the first time since moving to Los Angeles 35 years ago, officially stepped out of the shadows of the Lakers. Two of the best players to ever come out of Southern California decided to come home in the prime of their careers to play for the Clippers, not the Lakers. They both had a chance over the last two summers to sign with the Lakers but chose the Clippers instead. It was a monumental decision and seminal moment for a franchise that will never be viewed the same way again.


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