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NBA OPENING NIGHT | Mark Heisler | ON THE NBA

Emperor of L.A. has new clothes

Clippers are city's ruling NBA force, at least on court, but reality still lags behind perception

October 31, 2006|Mark Heisler

Now, for the comeback all of Lakerdom has been waiting for ...

Oh, they've already had it?

We've had some changes locally. Our laughingstock is now the kingpin. Our royalty is between coronations. The Clippers are indisputably on the rise, and the Lakers are indisputably up against it.

(Not that the Clippers have entirely stopped being the Clippers. Who else puts their coach, Mike Dunleavy, in charge of the basketball operation, makes him the point man in player contract negotiations, while letting his contract run out?)

The gap between the teams is wider now than the two games the Clippers finished ahead of the Lakers last season. Little as it was appreciated, the Lakers had a storybook season. Surprising as their rise was, the Clippers may have been just warming up.

Perception is still catching up. Off the floor, the gulf is still as wide as the price of their courtside seats: $2,200 for the Lakers, $1,200 for the Clippers.

Everyone knows this is still a Lakers town and only a cataclysm could change that.

Oh, that's already happened, too?

The ground trembled last spring when the Clippers made the second round of the playoffs after the Lakers went home. TNT's ratings in this market for its Clippers games against the Suns were more than 10% higher than for its Lakers games.

Remember Jack Nicholson showing up at a Clippers game in Phoenix, and Elton Brand noting after they lost it in double overtime, "We're not sure Jack will be invited back"?

Of course, that was only a couple of weeks out of the 22 seasons the teams have been in town together.

On the other hand, there may be a bigger cataclysm coming.

The Lakers' preseason was a horror show. On media day, normally given over to best-case scenarios, Phil Jackson gave a farewell address and left to have his hip replaced. Kobe Bryant, assuring fans "sometimes less is more," announced the knee on which he'd had arthroscopic surgery in July wasn't ready.

Bryant, the conditioning zealot who was always ahead of schedule rather than behind it, missed all of this month's exhibitions. So did Chris Mihm, who was joined on the sideline after four games by Kwame Brown. With the improvement in teams below them like the Rockets, Jazz and Warriors, the Lakers hadn't been a lock to make the playoffs this season before they started falling like dominoes.

Now there's an eerie calm. With the exception of the flashes shown by Andrew Bynum, no one can cite any actual good news ... but they're still the Lakers, aren't they?

That's the problem and has been from the moment Shaquille O'Neal left town.

They're not those Lakers any more. This may be a promising young team but it faces Death by Expectation, as was just suggested by owner Jerry Buss when he mused, "If we get the dominating center, I think we could win it."

I'll give him that.

Amid such expectations, last season was merely acceptable. It was actually a wonder, climbing 11 games in the standings from 11th place to seventh with theretofore-unknown Smush Parker at point guard, Brian Cook starting more games at power forward than Brown and Lamar Odom's average dropping to 14.8 points.

By contrast, in the 1996-97 season when O'Neal and Bryant arrived, they climbed five games and went from No. 5 to 4.

To everyone's surprise, last season's mantra -- anything can happen in the playoffs with Kobe -- came true, at least long enough to take that 3-1 lead over the Suns.

The swoon that followed sent everyone home desolate. Instead of any sense of accomplishment, there was a debate over whether Bryant, who once commuted all season from Colorado and had to be given intravenous fluids after flying into San Antonio the day of a pivotal win in the Western semifinals, had "tanked" in Game 7.

Now there's a nightmare scenario: The Lakers don't make the playoffs this season and, with their salary-cap strategy punted down the road and no reinforcements in sight, an exhausted Bryant asks to be traded.

Lakerdom has been in denial since O'Neal left. Few, including Buss, who set out to build an exciting new team around Bryant, or Kobe, who was a free agent and chose to return, understood how hard it would be, let alone that it could not be done quickly.

Few understood that only going deep in the playoffs in a conference loaded with better teams than they were would be acceptable, but those expectations were there from the beginning.

Lakers history includes just such a miracle turnaround in the '90s, from the retirement of Magic Johnson and the arrival of O'Neal and Bryant. No one seems to remember that it took five seasons.

This is the start of the third season since O'Neal left. It might seem longer, but for a dynasty it's but a tick of the clock.

mark.heisler@latimes.com

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