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The Golden Breakdown: A retrospective on the Warriors-Lakers “rivalry”

The Warriors took care of business against a team hyped up as their rivals for this season. However, that rivalry never really materialized, due to several factors. Breaking down the Warriors’ season against the faltering Lakers.

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NBA: Preseason-Golden State Warriors at Los Angeles Lakers Stephen R. Sylvanie-USA TODAY Sports

I know what you’re thinking.

Rivalry? What rivalry?

And yes, at least this year, it never has been much of a rivalry. In fact, when you think of the more notable NBA rivalries of this era and the past, the Warriors and the Lakers aren’t really the two teams who come to mind when one thinks of storied rivalries.

The rise of the Warriors to the top hasn’t really coincided with excellence from the Lakers — when one team is at its peak, the other team just happens to be toiling and languishing in the NBA’s proverbial garbage heap. It’s as if the Warriors and the Lakers are governed by Isaac Newton’s third law of motion — for every reaction, there is an equal and opposite reaction. For every Warriors victory, every accolade awarded them and every ounce of success they achieve, it must always be accompanied by a bout of misery, misfortune, and failure from the Lakers, and vice versa.

For most of known NBA history, the Warriors played the role of the plebeian, the blue-collar, poverty-stricken social class that fights over every bit of scrap. Every loss reminded them and their fans of their place in society, and it gave them virtually no hope that they would ever climb out of their current predicament to one day rule over those who once looked down upon them.

On the other hand, the Lakers have always been considered the flagship franchise of the NBA, the team decorated with accolades that the rest of the teams in the league can only dream of having — 16 NBA Championships, 31 Conference titles, 23 Division titles, and 11 retired numbers (with two of them belonging to the same player). Their list of NBA legends to have played for them is extensive — George Mikan, Elgin Baylor, Jerry West, Wilt Chamberlain, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Magic Johnson, Shaquille O’Neal, and Kobe Bryant. They have had it all, and for most of their existence, the franchise and its fans knew nothing but excellence. Such excellence came with it expectations that the franchise will always find one future Hall-of-Famer after another to continue its tradition of winning.

Let’s face it — the Lakers aren’t the golden boy franchise of the NBA anymore. Times have changed, and the rest of the league has evolved in several aspects. Strategies and tactics have changed, front-office machinations have changed, and even the demographics and preferences of the fanbases have changed. There is now a generation of NBA fans who have never known how it feels like to have a league ruled by the Lakers. Everything around that franchise is rapidly changing — but it seems like they themselves are struggling to adjust and adapt to those changes.

The Lakers still believe that they can rely on established star power to punch their way toward a 17th championship. After having drafted and “developed” a core of young players through the draft, the braintrust and power brokers of the team are still trying to attract big-name talent to their organization.

And for once, they actually did manage to snag a big fish — perhaps the biggest fish of them all. But in truth, they didn’t need to do much work to reel that fish in — the bait itself did much of the work.

The Lakers’ big splash in free agency is upstaged

NBA: Los Angeles Lakers at New Orleans Pelicans Derick E. Hingle-USA TODAY Sports

Everyone expected LeBron James to leave the Cleveland Cavaliers. He had brought a championship to the city, delivered on his promise to provide Cleveland a taste of what if felt like to be at the top of the world. It came at the expense of the 73-9 Warriors, who blew a 3-1 lead and lost a championship that was essentially theirs for the taking.

The Warriors came back with a vengeance, acquiring Kevin Durant and winning the next two titles at the expense of the Cavaliers — which prompted James to think of leaving Cleveland for a second time for much greener pastures (and another place with beaches).

So when Magic Johnson met with James at his mansion, he used every bit of his charm and personality to woo James — but it may have all been unnecessary. The bait was always there for James — the allure of Los Angeles, the possibility of mingling with the glitterati of Hollywood (and making movies with them), and raising his children in a family-friendly environment. Johnson might as well have smiled and not talked, and James would’ve still signed.

So on July 1, 2018, James committed to a 4-year deal with the Lakers — a noticeably more solid commitment from him than any contract he signed during his second stint with the Cavaliers. As expected, everyone went absolutely bonkers over the news — James would be joining arguably the most storied franchise in the NBA, and would be the latest big name to wear the purple and gold.

It was easily the biggest news of the 2018 offseason.

Until it wasn’t.

James thought that he could finally escape being upstaged by the Warriors. But even his signing with the Lakers itself was upstaged by the shocking acquisition of DeMarcus Cousins by the Warriors, completing the five heads of the monstrous dragon that represented the five All-Star lineup of the NBA’s current overlords.

Furthermore, James’ move from the “weaker” conference — one that he has historically lorded over — was questionable from a competitive basketball perspective. Why would he pack his bags for a conference that is more of a bloodbath than an episode of Game of Thrones? Is it because he wanted a much bigger challenge? That mindset is commendable — but it doesn’t do much for his chances at winning another title.

Additionally, he would be setting himself up to face his fiercest archrivals four times in a year, due to the fact that he would be sharing a division with them. James has familiarized himself with losing to the Warriors 4 times in a year — would another year of possibly losing another 4 games to them be really more to his liking?

The Lakers weren’t really given much of a chance to contend in the Western Conference, especially against the Warriors. But it still made for a possible gold mine of ratings. The narrative was there — the newest Los Angeles Laker, LeBron James, facing off against his biggest foe. It was James vs. everyone else yet again, only this time, he was wearing a different and much more appealing uniform.

That fateful Christmas Day game

I’m not going to sugarcoat the Warriors’ highly-anticipated Christmas Day game against the Lakers. Quite simply, they got their backs handed to them. The Lakers — comprised of James, a young and promising core of Lonzo Ball, Brandom Ingram, Kyle Kuzma, and Josh Hart, and the “Meme Team” of veterans such as Rajon Rondo, JaVale McGee, Lance Stephenson, and Michael Beasley — absolutely destroyed the Warriors.

On national television, on a holiday where thanks, praise, and generosity were the prevailing sentiments, the Warriors were given everything but thanks, praise, and generosity by the Lakers.

There’s often a tendency by some to overly react from a single game. This one game was the opportunity for Lakers fans — and LeBron fans — to overreact. Many expected the Lakers to be overwhelmed by star power that is married to a well-oiled offensive system. Instead, they punched back and took a risk with a huge haymaker that managed to find its target.

It was arguably the biggest victory of the season for the Lakers — but it came at a huge cost.

The Lakers did manage to win against the Warriors by a score of 127-101, but in the end, it became nothing more than a Pyrrhic victory. James’ injured groin would sideline him for 17 games, the longest time he has had to sit out due to an injury over the course of his long career. With James going down, the Lakers’ started their downward spiral that ultimately led to them missing the playoffs for the sixth year in a row.

Without James, the Lakers get dominated by the Warriors the rest of the way

The next meeting between the Warriors and the Lakers had less luster and hype — understandable, given that the Lakers were missing the services of James. This time, the Warriors made sure to win against their lesser opponents on MLK Day by a score of 130-111.

Their next meeting would be on February 2 back at Oracle Arena, where the Warriors would win by a score of 115-101. At this point, the Warriors had a non-rusty DeMarcus Cousins in their fold — and he would say hello to the Lakers in the loudest way possible.

The Warriors signing Cousins to a bargain contract managed to upstage the acquisition of James in the offseason. In this sequence, he upstaged Kyle Kuzma in the most savage manner.

Behind the scenes of this victory by the Warriors, the Lakers started to fall apart on the court as well as off it. The sudden trade request of Anthony Davis — a client of Rich Paul, who infamously represents James — virtually revealed the Lakers’ desire for making their young talent expendable. The locker room chemistry was in shambles, and doubts about James’ leadership emerged. While James was out of commission, the Lakers went 6-11. Their playoff hopes started to dwindle, and even with his eventual return, the Lakers botched enough games, sat on their laurels for way too long, and did not take matters into their own hands often enough.

For a sixth straight year, they will be missing the playoffs. For the first time since his second season in the NBA, James will not be featured in an NBA playoffs.

And last night’s defeat to the Warriors — a 108-90 shellacking that featured elite superstar talent against a team comprised mostly of G-League players — was the final nail to the coffin of what was anticipated to be the start of a fierce rivalry between the two teams.

The hopes for a rivalry developing between the Warriors and the Lakers aren’t fully dead yet. The Lakers can still possibly contend next year. They might finally sign one or two stars to complement James, and who could possibly help them get over the hump and into the playoffs. They might finally get a coach who is more to their (and James’) liking.

Or they may make mistakes all over again, just like how Magic Johnson and Rob Pelinka made several in the lead up to this season (as well as mid-season). They may fail to sign anyone of significance. James might very well be content to ride out the twilight of his career by staying on the fringes of contending in the West, all while forging business partnerships, cultivating his forays into the entrepreneurial world, and producing movies, as well as focusing on raising his kids within the warm confines of Los Angeles.

That’s completely fine. James has already done a lot in his career; he has nothing much left to prove. He deserves to go out in any way he wants, even if it means wallowing in mediocrity for the rest of his career.

Meanwhile, the Warriors won’t wait for a rivalry to develop — the Warriors don’t wait for anyone or anything, for that matter. They will take matters into their own hands, as they have consistently done these past five years. And they will keep excelling and winning championships while they still can.

This much is clear — the tables have completely turned. The downtrodden have become the oppressors. The kings have become mere commoners. The throne that once belonged to the Lakers is now firmly in the grasp of the Warriors.

And they’re not letting it go any time soon.

Seventy-eight down, 4 more to go.

Stay Golden, Dub Nation.

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