OAKLAND – One team has long been associated with glamor and celebrity and, of course, annual playoff appearances that often end with an NBA championship.
That would be the Lakers, kings of California basketball.
The other team was routinely browbeaten and bullied, so vastly inferior for such long stretches that rare trips to the postseason felt like a trip to nirvana.
That would be the Warriors, humble NBA laborers who became downright subservient in the presence of the Lakers.
Or so it used to be.
The Warriors in recent years have reversed the script. They’re defending NBA champions. The Lakers are one of the worst teams in the league. Still, when the Warriors step onto the court Sunday afternoon at Staples Center they have a chance to kick the Lakers in a place they’ve reached only once before.
A Warriors win would complete the second series sweep of the Lakers in the 54 seasons the teams have spent in California. It would be the first series sweep since the Lakers moved to Staples in 1999.
Times indeed have changed, as the teams have essentially reversed roles. The Warriors are 55-5 and on top, suddenly a global sensation, with celebrity spectators flying in. The Lakers are 12-51 and at the bottom, their mystique molding over.
“We watched all their games on national TV,” Stephen Curry recalls of his childhood in Toronto and North Carolina. “We knew when they were on TV. We didn’t get to stay up late on weeknights to watch the games, but that was the only time we might have missed them.
“I’m very aware of what they did with the three-peat with Shaq and them. I was in the league for the last two, so I know all the championship runs for sure.”
The Lakers, who moved to California in 1960, have won 11 championships on the West Coast. They made the playoffs in 49 of 56 seasons – with this season being the first time they’ve come up short three years in a row.
More to the point, the Lakers have spent nearly all of those seasons owning the Warriors, who went 16 consecutive seasons without winning the series before managing a 5-0 sweep in 1993-94. They won three of five the next season, before going the next 18 without winning a series.
The Lakers, meanwhile, won five NBA titles during that span, a three-peat (1999-2002) and back-to-back (2008-2010).
“It’s just a different vibe,” Curry says of LA during his first two seasons in the league. “The lights were different. Back then, that was when they were in the middle of their championship era. It was just a different vibe for sure.
“With that stage lighting and the purple and yellow, you know what team that was.”
Nowadays, it’s the Clippers that sell out every game. They have evolved into the best team in town, and it’s not close, even though LA fans still fawn over the Lakers.
“It’ll always be a Laker town,” Warriors coach Steve Kerr says. “The Lakers brand is just embedded in that city. They’ve won so many titles. This is just a down period for them.
“The Clippers obviously have the better team, and they’ve got a lot of fans, too, but that’ll always be a Lakers town.”
Lakers star Kobe Bryant, coping with a sore shoulder, may not play Saturday. And if he does, it generally doesn’t make much difference. The Lakers are 9-41 when he starts, 3-10 when he doesn’t.
With Bryant retiring, an era is ending in Los Angeles. An era of Warriors-Lakers basketball has ended, and another dramatically different one is under way. No two teams in the league better tell the story of how the balance of power in the NBA has shifted the Warriors and Lakers.
From 1995-96 through 2012-13, the Warriors were 13-58 against the Lakers. Since then, the Warriors are 9-2.
A win Sunday would make it 10-2. It’s not a record, but it’s an illustration of transformation that delights the Warriors and their fans.