In a town where perception is reality, get ready for a season of the surreal.
The Lakers aren't the Lakers. The Clippers aren't the Clippers.
Kobe Bryant isn't Kobe Bryant. Steve Nash isn't Steve Nash. The Buss aura isn't the Buss aura.
The Clippers coach is not the Clippers coach. The Clippers expectations are not the Clippers expectations. Lob City has been leveled.
This town's 2013-2014 hoops rave.
It will start with Tuesday's opening night at Staples Center, when the Lakers will play the Clippers in a game that can be deemed surreal even before the opening tip. In front of a Laker home crowd, on one of the most traditionally glittering Laker nights of the season, the Clippers are favored by 8 1/2 points.
When new Clippers king Doc Rivers made the celebrated decision to hide the Lakers championship banners with posters of his players during Clippers home games, he was simply making a move that will mirror the next six months.
This is a season when nothing will look the same.
The Lakers are the team with the unsettled head coach, unsteady ownership and seemingly certain path toward the NBA lottery. The Clippers are the team with the championship leadership, star culture and realistic path to the NBA Finals. The Lakers, with lovable guys like Great-Wall-tobogganing Chris Kaman, will be lots of fun. The Clippers, who have been placed on organizational lockdown by the controlling Rivers, will be all business. The Lakers will be the feisty Davids, the Clippers will be the pressured Goliaths.
From the moment the Clippers' Chris Paul drives past the Lakers' Shawne Williams to score the season's first basket Tuesday, every belief that this town has long held about its basketball teams will be questioned.
Who is Kobe?
Folks around town have been asking this question for 17 years, only now, it's more than rhetorical. Who will Kobe Bryant become after he recovers from last spring's season-ending torn Achilles' tendon injury? And will this new Kobe be playing his last season as a Laker?
There is no doubt he will return as soon as possible, the guess here being a dramatic debut on Christmas against the two-time defending champion Miami Heat. But once he does come back, what then?
Will he still be the kind of player who can help the Lakers and their potential high-priced summer free-agent signings into a 2014 push for a championship? Most athletes would lose several steps after undergoing this sort of surgery at age 35, but Bryant has continually defied time, so who knows?
If Bryant does return at a level even close to his rejuvenated self of last season, will he and the Lakers eventually agree on his value when his contract expires next summer? Bryant and Lakers ownership have both said he should remain a Laker, but believe nothing until it happens. Because the Lakers hope to sign two younger high-priced free agents this summer, Bryant would probably have to return to the team at one-third of his current $30-million contract value. What if he thinks he can make better money and has a better chance to finish his career as a champion somewhere else?
Who is Nash?
A couple of months ago, there was real hope in the Lakers camp that Steve Nash had recovered from his nagging injuries to again become the flashy player that Lakers fans are dying to embrace. That hope has since been obscured by the training camp reality that, at age 39, Nash may never regain his basketball magic. His game, and his future as a Laker, will be a season-long saga worth watching. On second thought, maybe not.
Who is in charge?
This will be the start of the first full Lakers season without the leadership of the late Jerry Buss. Since the death of the legendary owner last February, they have been swept out of the playoffs in the first round, endured a fan mutiny against their head coach and suffered through an embarrassing pursuit of Dwight Howard.
The Lakers claim that two Busses have replaced one Buss, with Jeanie Buss running the business and Jimmy Buss running the basketball side. But there remains a clear leadership void. Until Jerry Buss' voice is replaced with another singular voice — not a chorus — the Lakers' aura will remain silent.
Who is Doc?
Doc Rivers has brought a Boston Celtics championship ring to the Clippers sideline, where the Clippers coach will have complete credibility and control for perhaps the first time ever.
While this is a good thing for a Clipper Nation that long pleaded for stability and consistency, it is uncertain how Rivers' controlling methods will affect the players. His veteran Celtics like Paul Pierce loved him. A younger Celtic named Rajon Rondo did not. The Clippers are a mixture of both.
Who is CP3, and Blake, and D.J.?
When Blake Griffin announced this fall that Lob City was history, he was saying that the high-flying, high-risk game run by Chris Paul and directed toward the likes of him and D'Andre Jordan is history.
It was fun to watch. It was also doomed to postseason failure. Rivers hopes to change that by transforming all three key players into more businesslike versions of themselves, guys who rely more on fundamentals than alley-oops, guys who talk less and think more. This might take some of the screams out of the Clippers' college-style Staples Center crowd, but it is almost certain to add more wins to the scoreboard.
Those wins could send the Clippers to the NBA Finals at the same time the Lakers are headed for the NBA lottery. The season of the surreal will be officially completed next summer when Lakers are found quietly and carefully hanging a Nick Young poster over that Clippers championship banner.