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Column: The Lakers-Clippers season opener has the unmistakable ring of the past

Clippers forward Kawhi Leonard and Lakers forward LeBron James stand next to one another during a game in March.
Kawhi Leonard, left, couldn’t help the Clippers exorcise their playoff demons while LeBron James helped the Lakers win the franchise’s 17th title last season.
(Harry How / Getty Images)

Had a fun conversation with Lakers forward Jared Dudley on my radio show the other day. The comment that stood out the most was one the always entertaining journeyman offered about the Dec. 22 season opener against the Clippers.

“It’s perfect that they get the front row for the ring ceremony,” he said of the Clippers.

Shade so perfectly executed, Sunbrella should make him a pitchman.

The summer of ’19 signing of Kawhi Leonard and trade for Paul George, the “L.A. Our Way” billboards, the constant Clippers championship talk on national TV and occasionally in these pages . . . and to what end? A postseason that went no deeper than where Vinny Del Negro took them. Dudley said that while teammates laughed after the Clippers’ Game 7 loss to the Denver Nuggets in September, the Lakers remain respectful of the Clippers’ talent, if not their history.

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The question is how much do the Clippers respect themselves? Not as individuals or athletes— losing a series doesn’t impact any of that— but as Clippers. Leonard and George are from Southern California and steeped in the region’s basketball culture. They grew up hearing the same jokes about the franchise’s futility as the rest of us. They know the history, they know that in the 1998 draft that included Vince Carter, Dirk Nowitzki and Paul Pierce, the Clippers made Michael Olowokandi the No. 1 pick.

Above all, they know that their acquisitions were more than a year in the making, an obsessive quest by a front office that also had heard one too many Benoit Benjamin jokes.

They know they hold the cards.

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So yeah, Leonard, George and company know they are talented, but are they proud? Not of the names on the back of the uniform, but of the logo on its front?

As much as I love the whirlwind of free agency, as much as I champion the player empowerment it has created, I also love the narrative of “the franchise,” which continues to diminish as mercenaries overrun loyalists and force fans to choose between rooting for players and rooting for laundry. Players such as LeBron James, Leonard and George these days belong less to a fan base or franchise than to, say, Twitter, Instagram, their personal brands.

James’ roots are Midwestern and he had reasons beyond basketball for coming to L.A., but his identity is unmistakably purple and gold. Leonard and George might be able to commute from their hometowns — which has created its own set of headaches — but are they really home?

When they look up at the rafters from the floor of Staples Center on Dec. 22, Leonard and George will take in the same view that has been a decades-long sales pitch for the Lakers’ front office: NBA championship banners, all belonging to the Lakers.

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When they cast their glances in front of them, they will see another team’s ring ceremony.

“I think it’s perfect that they get the front row for the ring ceremony.”

Lakers Jared Dudley, on the Clippers-Lakers Dec. 22 opener

These Clippers are not the Donald Sterling dumpster fire of the 1980s and ‘90s. From owner Steve Ballmer to new coach Tyronn Lue to President Lawrence Frank and consultant Jerry West — the staff is as smart and competent as any in the NBA. The assembled talent is championship-level, if flawed. But does that roster care if it wins a title specifically for the Clippers?

If those players do, that front-row seat for the Lakers ring ceremony will be more than awkward for them. It will be painful. It will hurt — like your ex-wife’s wedding invitation arriving on your birthday kind of hurt. That’s the response I hope to see.

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I’m just not sure if we will. Let’s start with George’s comments on the “All the Smoke” podcast this week in which he went heavy on Doc Rivers’ role in the Clippers’ postseason self-immolation and light on awareness of his own failures. Hard to learn from your mistakes if you don’t think you made any.

The Clippers’ first-half season schedule features a six-game road trip starting in late January followed by a six-game homestand in February.

Speaking of mistakes, the ring ceremony will enable Leonard and George — two players the Lakers wanted — to second-guess their past decisions and rethink their futures. Both have the option of becoming free agents at the end of this season. The clock is ticking, half of their guaranteed time in the Southland already having expired without a title. If the season ends in disappointment again, will they be tempted to look for greener pastures, however much George protested otherwise Friday?

James has worn three uniforms in the last decade — he’s no Michael or Magic in that sense — but everywhere he has gone, he was the greener pasture, and he knew it.

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The 2020-21 season, its schedule officially unveiled Friday, starts with the Lakers getting the rings the Clippers thought they were getting when they pulled off the seminal acquisitions of the 2019 offseason. Will it end with payback for the embarrassment of last season?

Or will it end with two hired guns shrugging off another early exit and entering free agency knowing the losing belongs to the Clippers — and not them?


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