We already know who LeBron James thinks is going to have the best year.
On his first day of work this season, James held a microphone perfectly, the Lakers’ logo pointed expertly at cameras focused on his leaner frame and rested face, and delivered the quip of the day.
“Everyone is talking about the big winners of the summertime,” he said grinning. “Is it the Nets? Is it the Clippers? Is it the Lakers? Actually, it’s Staples Center. Staples Center is the biggest winner of the summer.”
It’s hard to argue with the man — especially when you consider how big of a circus Tuesday night’s season opener between the two teams figures to be, with more media scheduled to attend than there are seats. And the sellout crowd should be hot — playoff-level intensity — because so many people in town are eager for the season to begin. They’re eager to see James and Anthony Davis team up, to see Kawhi Leonard put on a Clippers jersey.
And they’re eager to find out which team is better.
That’s not the question, though, that fans should be concerned with now because “Who’s better?” won’t be answered for months, and when it is, Tuesday will probably have little to do with it.
A more interesting question that people are asking leading into the Clippers-Lakers season opener is which team is under more pressure to win a championship.
Your first instinct is probably to look at the Lakers, a team that threw almost all their young players and future first-round picks on an airboat and sent it to New Orleans for Anthony Davis. And if things don’t go well, Davis, an unrestricted free agent at the end of the season, can walk and find himself a better situation.
Your future — and maybe the end of LeBron James’ prime — tied to a player who could walk away next July? That’s pressure.
But it’s nothing compared to what lies ahead for the Clippers, a franchise-defining two-year window to try to undo a past that’s full of embarrassing stories and even more embarrassing losses.
When Kawhi Leonard signed with the team, and didn’t sign for the maximum years possible, it put a ticking clock on the Clippers’ shot at a championship. Like the Lakers, to secure that chance, the Clippers put their future on the line to get a chance.
Unlike the Lakers, the Clippers’ second star is coming off of shoulder surgery and set to miss a good chunk of the season right from the start. And unlike the Lakers, the Clippers’ chance might be the only one they have.
Think about the events that had to go just right to get the team to this point — from Chris Paul wanting to be dealt to Houston, with the Clippers recouping three incredibly important players in Lou Williams, Montrezl Harrell and Patrick Beverley, to Philadelphia sending the Clippers the capital to help pull off the George deal.
Some of it seems sustainable. Ownership, in particular, is an enormous asset that the Clippers will be able to use as long as Steve Ballmer is willing to spend on things like extra assistant coaches and general managers and upgrades to a practice facility that he’s leasing.
Other parts are just too hard to replicate. Winning multiple trades in a row, landing the best free agent, being in position to trade away the future — these things don’t usually happen twice for a team without much of a track record.
For the Lakers, on the other hand, Davis and James both wanted to be on board after the worst stretch of futility in the franchise’s history. They didn’t sign up because of shrewd moves, wealthy ownership or an exciting core that played every possession with a bulldog mentality. They wanted to be Lakers because that still means so much — even after the recent losing.
If this goes awry, the Lakers will still have that. They’ll still have the gold uniforms, the statues outside Staples Center, the banners in the rafters and the trophies overlooking their practice floor. They’ll still have appeal.
If the Clippers can’t capitalize, there’s so much more at stake. They could be heading toward a new building with no stars on the roster, with no picks at the top of drafts and, still, with no meaningful trophies. They go to Inglewood with nothing except wasted momentum.
With the season one day away, Clippers coach Doc Rivers went back to one of his favorite phrases, one that he’s used a lot this preseason and one he’ll keep using — “pressure is a privilege.”
He’s saying that pressure only comes with capabilities, with opportunities. The Lakers and the Clippers both have it, and they’re both privileged enough to begin this season with a lot of expectations.
But only the Clippers have nearly everything at stake. And that’s real pressure.