Column: The stars did not align for L.A. this All-Star game
The NBA will hold its season’s biggest party Sunday at Staples Center, the 67th All-Star game, and the building will be filled with the cacophony of glamour.
There will be bursting fireworks. There will be thumping music. There will be deep-throated ooohs and aaahs as the $1,800-a-ticket crowd connects with the millionaire basketball magic.
Listen closer. In the distance there will be scratching, and squeaking, and maybe a little bit of whimpering.
Can you hear it? Can you see them? Outside, standing on Figueroa, noses pressed against the window, their hands flattened to the glass, will be a couple of locals awkwardly locked out of their own house.
The Lakers and Clippers are hosts, but they’re not invited.
It’s a celebration of Hollywood, but no player from Hollywood’s teams were deemed cool enough to warrant entry. In one of the bleakest moments in this city’s NBA landscape in more than two decades, the best players in the league are partying on the Lakers and Clippers court, and yet the two home teams can’t get past the bouncer.
For only the third time in the 56 All-Star games that have been played since there was an NBA team in Los Angeles — and for the first time in 22 years — the game does not contain a Los Angeles player.
There are no Lakers, and why would there be? Kobe Bryant is off prepping for the Oscars. The last two Lakers to make the team besides him were Dwight Howard and Andrew Bynum. That is not a misprint. There were no Lakers last year either. This is the first time since the Age of Sedale Threatt — nearly 25 years ago — that the Lakers have been shut out in consecutive seasons.
There are also no Clippers, and of course not. The last time the two most perennial Clippers All-Stars were on the Staples Center court, one of them was cursing the other, who stormed away while tearing off his shirt. Now both are gone.
Chris Paul is snarling somewhere in Houston. Blake Griffin is freezing in Detroit. DeAndre Jordan is waiting for a lob. Lou Williams was lost in all the madness.
The biggest stars on the Lakers and Clippers are guys who rant from the sidelines, and while LaVar Ball and Steve Ballmer certainly don’t belong in the same sentence, neither one is getting the rock.
It’s a bad look. It’s a Kwame-Brown-in-a-Lakers-Uniform bad look. It’s as Sitting-Behind-That-Double-Wide-Clippers-Bird bad look.
It’s the first time in six Los Angeles-hosted All-Star games that a hometown player has not been on one of the teams. It’s the first time in 13 years that a host city did not have a player in the game, excluding the 2007 event in Las Vegas.
It’s embarrassing because Southern California is a basketball mecca, with six players with local roots chosen for this game, easily the best represented area, a group containing DeMar DeRozan, James Harden, Russell Westbrook, Paul George, Klay Thompson and Kevin Love (out with injury).
It’s downright humiliating because the Lakers franchise has the second-most championships in the NBA with 16, and the Clippers have been one of the most entertaining teams in the NBA for the last six years.
At first glance, it makes no sense. But at second and third glance, it makes perfect sense.
Since the Lakers last won the title in 2010, three local basketball calamities have changed everything. In three consecutive seasons, on three different occasions, a monumental shift occurred that eroded and eventually decimated the landscape.
The Lakers and Clippers were leveled by the mindless, the mournful, and the maddening.
First the mindless, which is a nice way of saying insane, which is the best way to describe what happened at the start of the 2011-2012 season when the league decided not to allow the New Orleans Hornets to trade Chris Paul to the Lakers.
David Stern, then league commissioner, said he refused to approve the trade because the Hornets, who were then under NBA control, weren’t getting enough in return. To that, I can only say the same thing pretty much everyone associated with the Lakers have been saying for years: Bull. Bull. Bull.
The Hornets would have loaded up with Lamar Odom, Luis Scola, Kevin Martin, Goran Dragic and a first-round draft pick. It was a great trade for New Orleans. It was an era-shifting trade for the Lakers. It even benefited the Houston Rockets, who would have acquired Pau Gasol in the deal.
The trade was good for everyone but the whiny small-market NBA owners who complained that the Lakers get all the good players. One such complaint was famously registered by Cleveland owner Dan Gilbert. Stern listened, and caved, his explanation of “basketball reasons’’ more truthfully described as “big baby reasons.’’
The legacy of Stern will be forever marked by this moment, but that’s nothing compared to what happened to the Lakers. They were built to win another championship or two had Paul and Bryant played together. Instead, just two years after winning consecutive titles, the Lakers disintegrated, forced to trade Odom to Dallas because he was so upset, losing the full attention of Gasol because he felt betrayed.
And, oh yeah, it led them to eventually trade for Steve Nash, and has there ever been a more decimating deal in team history? It was the first year of the post-Phil Jackson era, and it quickly became chaos. Just ask Mike Brown.
Meanwhile, Paul instead was traded to the Clippers, which seemed like a good idea at the time, but … we’ll get to that later.
The second calamity was a mournful one. In February 2013, Dr. Jerry Buss died, the Lakers suffering the immeasurable loss of basketball’s greatest owner. As if anyone needed confirmation of Buss’ strong leadership, they quickly saw it in the impact of his absence. It sent the Lakers into a tailspin from which they are still recovering.
By order of Buss, his son Jim was placed in charge of basketball operations, and he essentially ran the club into the ground. Nine months later, the Buss family honored their father’s memory by giving Bryant a two-year, $48.5-million extension even though he had not yet recovered from an Achilles’ tendon tear. The deal was a powerful show of heart, but in terms of wins and losses it failed miserably.
The size of the contract and Bryant’s unwillingness to make nice with potential free agents essentially halted the Lakers’ progress. The Buss family basically paid nearly $50 million for a farewell tour and a 60-point finale. While that was sweet, it led to the two worst records in franchise history, a combined 38 wins over two seasons. Only now that Jeanie Buss has finally taken control do the Lakers seem to be coming out of those woods.
The third calamity happened on a Tuesday night in Oklahoma City in 2014. At the time, the Clippers finally seemed to be moving into the glamour space vacated by the Lakers. Their racist-remarking owner, Donald Sterling, had been thrown out. They had just won a first-round series against Golden State despite all the distractions. They had three great players, an inspirational new coach and the love of a basketball nation.
And then, in the final 13 seconds of a pivotal Game 5 against the Thunder in the second round, Paul gave it all away. With the Clippers holding the ball and leading by a basket and perhaps headed home on the verge of advancing to the Western Conference finals for the first time, Paul threw a bad pass. Then he committed a dumb foul that led to three Russell Westbrook free throws. Then he lost a dribble that clinched the Thunder’s stunning 105-104 victory.
Two turnovers and a bad hack, all in those 13 seconds.
“It was just bad basketball,’’ Paul said at the time.
Turns out, it was more than that. It was the onset of the destruction of the only championship hope in Clippers history. From that moment, the hard-charging Paul began losing the locker room that he once ruled with an iron fist. Blake Griffin began fighting back. DeAndre Jordan stopped having fun.
Everyone talks about the three-games-to-one collapse against the Houston Rockets the following season, but the chemistry began falling apart on a night in Oklahoma City when their leader stopped leading.
Paul eventually asked out of town. Griffin was eventually tossed out of town. It didn’t stop the drama.
When Paul and Griffin met on the court in different uniforms last month, they nearly came to blows. Then, when Griffin played his former team a week ago, he walked off the court afterward without shaking anybody’s hand. Lob City had been shuttered and condemned.
“We were an ‘almost’ team,’’ coach Doc Rivers said last month. “It will haunt me forever.’’
Both teams have promised that the haunting will end soon. The Lakers are clearing cap space for LeBron James and Paul George. The Clippers are clearing cap space for the 2019 free agents like Kawhi Leonard, Jimmy Butler and local guy Thompson.
Four of those potential saviors will be playing on the Staples Center court Sunday. It will be wonderful. It will also be weird. Hopefully, it will not be construed as tampering if, sometime before the game, the Lakers and Clippers work up the courage to ask each of them their most pressing question during this long, glorious weekend of hosting the game’s most entertaining spectacle.
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