‘Success ain’t nothin’ without the grind,’ proclaimed hip-hop icon and famed lyricist Jay-Z in a recent XXL article.
He was speaking on the issue of the career of a hip-hop artist, staking the claim that an emcee must go through literal and metaphorical battles, a la Marshall Mathers, to truly enjoy the perils of success.
With hip-hop and basketball’s obvious kinship, it’s only natural to ascribe Jay Z’s concept to the NBA.
In Los Angeles, our teams have been through the grind.
The Lakers waited years for Kobe to mature, while the Clippers sat through countless drafts in search of a franchise player. But finally, during the 2001-2002 NBA season, everything came together.
L.A. basketball was sittin’ on top of the world like Brandy and Ma$e.
The perception of Laker indestructibility showered down upon the city as L.A.’s darling basketball team outclassed their less-experienced northern neighbors in the de facto NBA finals.
As far as the Laker faithful were concerned, it tainted their dynasty as much as Michael Jordan’s subtle shove tainted his legendary last shot.
As for the rare anomalies in greater L.A. who didn’t bleed purple and gold (myself included), the Clippers served as a fresh alternative.
The ‘other’ L.A. team grew tired of their nickname, and skied beyond expectations with youthful athleticism and excitement not seen since the ABA.
Sure, their season featured more ups and downs than Mariah Carey’s music career, but it was clear that the Clip Kids had finally outgrown their footnote status to big brother Laker.
Spoiled with a blend of championship-caliber and high-wire basketball, the fans and the teams grew complacent.
The Lakers failed to improve in the subsequent off-season, and while the Clippers took a step forward on paper by trading for former assist-leader Andre Miller, they failed to secure contracts for any of their core players.
The rest, as we know all too well, is history.
The Lakers started their season 11-19 and never recovered, shrouded in the myth that they could ‘turn it on whenever they could.’
The Clippers, on the other hand, simply faded into oblivion somewhere around the All-Star break, when it became obvious that players looking for contract extensions does not make a playoff team.
Everyone in Southern California tried to triangulate the reason for this basketball catastrophe.
The pseudo-fans, the ones who only hang up their car flags when their teams are winning, read every sportswriter’s opinion on the internet and regurgitated them verbatim in their living room/dinner table/bar conversations as if they were experts.
But the real fans knew that their precious teams simply weren’t prepared for a championship/playoff seasons from the get-go, despite what they tried to believe.
This past summer, L.A. basketball fans found themselves surprisingly with nothing to celebrate.
When desperate fans realized that the WNBA wasn’t yet defunct, they looked to their Sparks for hope, eventually hitting rock bottom.
So this past Lakers/Clippers off-season was particularly critical, as the teams needed to find the path back to the realm of respectability.
The Lakers approached the off-season with a hunger torpid since their furious fourth-quarter comeback against the Trailblazers back in 2000.
By signing two future hall-of-famers in Gary Payton and Karl Malone, they set the tone for the rest of the West’s elite.
Their starting five, outside of Rick Fox, looks like it’s been created in a PlayStation 2 game without trade restrictions.
The Clippers, ever the j.v. team, didn’t fare nearly as well.
With all their restricted free agents signing offer sheets with other teams, the value of their own players were determined by the market.
Throw in several players publicly lashing out at the organization, and ‘lil brother had a hard time keeping up.
By the end of the summer, the Lakers had spent under $10 million to sign two of the greatest players of our time, letting go of some supposed contributors and a guy named Robert Horry who’s apparently made a few key baskets in his career.
At the other end of the spectrum, the Clippers spent $124 million locking down a reliable yet unspectacular workhorse in Elton Brand and a spectacular yet unreliable high-flyer in Corey Maggette.
The Clippers did have a high lottery pick, but they went with Chris Kaman.
Kaman, a center from Central Michigan whose best asset, as described by scouts, is his ability to shoot with both hands, is a skill that would be extraordinary if he were trying out for his junior high’s intramural team.
Worst of all, three former lottery picks and three-fifths of the starting lineup were let go without any form of compensation.
With L.A.’s basketball prestige in the state of emergency, the Lakers hit the clutch-three while the Clippers watched from the bench.
Truth is, the differences between these two teams lie far beyond the discrepancies of talent.
The Lakers’ strong management team that put winning basketball games over wringing out profits is what truly separates them from the Clippers.
In the end, the Clippers will always be Ja Rule to the Laker’s Tupac: flashes of brilliance, nothing to show for it, and hardly close to legendary.
As the new NBA season is upon us, the Lakers are ready to reap the benefits from their summer of clawing back, while the Clippers are still perpetually grindin’ without direction
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