- Ric Bucher, NBA Reporter, ESPN The Magazine Senior Writer
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LOS ANGELES -- There's nothing wrong with claiming that Kobe Bryant lifted a certain NBA franchise and then dropped it on its head.
Just make sure to get the name of the franchise right. Lakers? Wrong. Try the other team in town.
Apparently those suffering withdrawal from the Shaq-Phil-Kobe soap opera days hoped to get a drama fix off suggesting the Clippers might actually be better than the Lakers, despite finishing as a runner-up in last summer's Kobe Sweepstakes. Or that Bryant actually erred by choosing to stay with the purple and gold. (When concocting goofy theories, it's essential to have more than one. That way, you can switch back and forth and avoid having to swallow that one misguided theory.)
In any case, the dramatists must return to the drawing board after the Lakers' 103-89 win Wednesday night in the first regular-season game between the two franchises since they battled for ol' Crazy Eight's free-agent signature.
"I never heard anyone say they were better than us, but I guess we answered that question," said Lakers swingman Caron Butler.
None of this, by the way, should be construed as a knock on the Clippers. In a miraculous turn of events, they've actually built a team with a solid work ethic, character and promising talent, three elements rarely associated with the Clippers. And they have, in rookie point guard Shaun Livingston, the kind of nascent superstar around whom a championship-contending team can be built. But anyone who thinks that any or all of that makes them better than the Bryant-laden Lakers is hitting the Thanksgiving hard cider waaayyyyyy too early.
As Bryant demonstrated Wednesday night at the Staples Center, there's no substitute for a superstar who knows precisely what it takes to win meaningful games. While Kobe finished with 23 points, 11 assists and six rebounds, all you needed to know came in the final minute of the first quarter -- Kobe drove the lane and kicked the ball to the left corner for Luke Walton to bury a wide-open 3 and then stopped an attempted buzzer-beating answer by Quinton Ross at the other end. All of which produced a 29-24 cushion for the Lakers going into the second quarter.
That's the way good players close periods -- and the way good teams win.
"With us having one of the best players to ever play the game, it's just crazy to count us out," said Butler. "Every night you're going to see double teams on Kobe and that's going to give the rest of us time and open looks."
The Clippers don't have a player right now capable of doing any of that consistently -- but not too long ago, they had reason to believe they might.
When Bryant said, "I want to be a Clipper," in a Newport Beach Four Seasons Hotel with GM Elgin Baylor, coach Mike Dunleavy, team president Andy Roeser and Bryant's agent, Rob Pelinka, as witnesses, he promised instant legitimacy in the only form owner Donald Sterling would pay top dollar to purchase -- that form being a superstar with an impeccable work ethic, several championships on his resume and at an age that suggests he has several more in him. (And you can have whatever opinion you want of Kobe -- that's how decision-makers throughout the NBA view him.)
Bryant made his declaration without a hint of sarcasm or a wry smile, and without being anywhere near April Fool's Day. It wasn't, "I'm going to be a Clipper," but it was close. There's nothing Bryant enjoys more than defying conventional wisdom, and a superstar free agent agreeing to join the Clips would certainly qualify. He also has an exquisite sense of timing, and no Clips team in recent memory has had the talent and versatility this one has.
Of course, the Lakers could offer him, thanks to league rules, a contract worth $30 million more than the Clippers could.
"Doesn't matter," Bryant said.
So, for 10 glorious days the Clippers had reason to let their imaginations run wild -- about the tickets they'd sell, the games they'd win, the respect they'd earn.
They dreamed the dream right up until Bryant called to say he wanted to talk one last time to the Lakers before making his decision.
"That's when I knew there was a chance he'd changed his mind," said Baylor.
Which he did. Whether it was out of gratitude for the Lakers sticking by him through his Colorado ordeal or his accountant giving him 30 million noogies or some undisclosed perk only Lakers owner Jerry Buss could offer (your turn to let the imagination run wild) doesn't matter. Bryant chose the Lakers, thereby scotching any notion that the Clippers will supplant them as the best team in town anytime soon.
That's not merely because of Bryant, either. In Butler, Brian Grant, Lamar Odom and Chucky Atkins, the Lakers have four starters on teams that have won at least one playoff series. The Clippers, for all of their promising talent, have collectively seen exactly one hour, 10 minutes of playoff action (Mikki Moore logged 42 playoff minutes for the three-and-out Pistons four years ago, and Rick Brunson has 28 minutes in his back pocket). Discount the value of knowing what it takes to win and having performed under pressure at your own risk. Me, I'm going with the guys who have been there and lived to tell about it.
As for the Clippers surpassing the Lakers anytime later ... well, it depends on how much later. The first problem is Sterling, who -- despite my proclamations for Livingston, the nice pieces Baylor has assembled and the sound principles Dunleavy is instilling -- has never shown much patience if it meant having to pay while he waits. Besides, as long as Buss hasn't paid the cover for the celestial Skybar, I have to believe he'll maintain his track record and put the requisite pieces around Kobe to chase another title. If there was a reason to believe otherwise, it wasn't this season's first two weeks. It was those 10 days back in July, when Kobe opened his arms to the Clippers -- and then crushed them.
Ric Bucher covers the NBA for ESPN The Magazine and collaborated with Rockets center Yao Ming on "Yao: A Life In Two Worlds," published by Miramax and available in bookstores beginning Sept. 29. Click here to send him a question for possible use on ESPNEWS.
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