Preseason basketball, admittedly, can be pretty devoid of meaning. Everyone is all hopped up on opportunity and optimism, eager to flex those new 15 pounds of sinew. The rosters are long and the rotations are experiments. You get goofy stat lines like Michael Carter-Williams dropping 19 points, or Meyers Leonard leading the Portland Trail Blazers in scoring. Wins feed the machine. Losses don’t count. It’s all just a hastily scratched out preamble.
This is especially true if you’re someone like LeBron James — going through it all for the 16th time, getting used to seeing yourself in purple as much as anything else, running with a roster of lessers who will be responsible for learning new roles and tweaking their games so you can mostly just do your thing and stay volcanic.
You could be forgiven for looking at this Saturday’s matchup between the Clippers and the Lakers and thinking you’d be better off catching up on Better Call Saul before the real NBA season starts and your evenings are filled. LeBron may only play 20 or so minutes, and who knows how many of those will be in lineups that might actually see the light of the regular season. It’s a warm-up for a player who already lives his life molten lava hot.
But don’t get it twisted, this Lakers-Clippers matchup is a game you should be watching.
First of all, it’s still going to take your eyes a while to adjust to LeBron in a Lakers uniform. Might as well get the reps in now. Slightly more importantly, this is the first tangible battle for the soul of L.A.
On the legacy front, this is barely a rivalry. In the 34 years since the Clippers came to town, the Lakers have beaten them a nice round 100 times in the regular season, two-thirds of the games they’ve played against each other. The Lakers have 16 championships. The Clippers have fewer than that. That Lakers have had Hall-of-Famers like Magic Johnson, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Shaquille O’Neal and, eventually Kobe Bryant. The Clippers have this iconic photo of Darius Miles, Quentin Richardson, Corey Maggette and Lamar Odom.
But more recently, this matchup has had some actual heat. Since 2011-12, when Chris Paul ended up in Los Angeles but not with the Lakers, the Clippers have won 22 of their 27 regular season matchups. As the Buss family battled it out for control of the Lakers and turmoil (non-Knicks tier) ran through the front office, Steve Ballmer stepped in and invested in the Clippers bringing stability and vision. The Clippers are now treated as a legitimate free agent destination, at least by the people who cook up rumors. They have been linked to every big name target over the past few years, up to and including LeBron James — both the summer he left Miami and this summer when he finally ended up in L.A.
Los Angeles may still be a Lakers town, but at the Clippers have at least made it a conversation.
LeBron chose the Lakers and the city of Los Angeles was undoubtedly one of the perks. This team provides some advantages on the court, but off the court, he gets a platform for his son’s burgeoning basketball career, a different quality of life for his family and the opportunity to connect himself deeper into the world of entertainment.
LeBron came here to own Los Angeles. As a basketball player. As a business mogul. As an icon. As a celebrity. As the next standard-bearer for the weighty legacy of the Lakers, one of the league’s most decorated and venerated franchises. To succeed in all that owning, he has to be successful off the court. He has to make a difference and make creative business decisions that matter. On the court, he has to win basketball games and help shape this Lakers young core so that they are prepared to carry the standard when he is no longer up to the challenge. He has to earn the grudging respect of the Kobe die-hards and prove that he deserves to wear the purple and gold.
And, of course, LeBron has to beat the Clippers, remind them of who is the big brother, who has the banners and the accumulated gravitas. He’ll get plenty more chances to make that statement but Saturday night is his first chance to throw down the gauntlet, to sketch out the borders and mark Los Angeles as his territory. It may only take him 18 minutes to do it, but I guarantee it will be worth watching.
And, well, if all that doesn’t do it for you, maybe groove out on Lance Stephenson, JaVale McGee and Michael Beasley getting some preseason buckets?