OAKLAND — An entourage unto themselves in recent years, the Warriors will spend a couple days sharing Las Vegas with the Lakers, who now have LeBron James, who is no less than an entourage unto itself.
This could be fun, even more so once they return to California to compete in games that matter.
When the teams meet for a preseason game Wednesday night at T-Mobile Arena, it marks the unofficial beginning of a natural rivalry decades delayed because the Warriors weren’t up to the task of being a “rival.” Warriors-Lakers history is profoundly one-sided; for the 35-year span from 1977 to 2013, the Warriors were 45-123, losing the regular-season series 32 times — including eight sweeps of four to six games.
That changed five years ago with an NBA version of “Trading Places,” the Warriors rising to the franchise peak while the Lakers were tumbling harder than ever before. The Warriors since 2012-13 are 16-4 against LA, 13-3 under coach Steve Kerr.
“This is probably the first time it’s lined up,” Kerr said Tuesday, recalling the 1987 playoff game in which Sleepy Floyd scored an NBA-record 29 points in one quarter.
“For Warriors fans, that’s probably the biggest moment of the Laker-Warrior rivalry. But I’m sure the Lakers never looked at it as rivalry all those years when they were dominating.”
Which is why these next few seasons are so fascinating for followers of both teams. Each fan base believes its team has the goods to beat the other. That’s a direct result of the Lakers signing James, who opposed the Warriors in each of the last four NBA Finals as a member of the Cleveland Cavaliers.
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The teams aren’t exactly equals, but the presence of James raises both the profile of Warriors-Lakers as well as the intensity of the four games they will play this season.
“The times we’ve seen him, he’s always been at the top of the East or in The Finals, so those games are always intense,” Klay Thompson said. “I expect him to greatly improve the Lakers. They’ve got a bunch of guys who are proven now.”
Warriors fans have had no more fun hating recent Lakers teams than fans of the great Lakers teams had despising . . . wait, there never was any despising. That energy went to the Celtics and the 76ers and the Spurs and, ever so briefly, the Kings. The Warriors were irrelevant.
As irrelevant as the Lakers have been since future Hall of Famer Kobe Bryant got old, got hurt and retired.
But the seeds of hatred have always been there, because of the geography. The teams exist a 50-minute flight apart. It’s a five-hour drive, six with traffic.
“It could be music, it could be art of movies, or as a destination,” said Thompson, who grew in Lakers-crazy Southern California. “There’s always a NorCal-SoCal debate. That’s what makes it so great.”
There is a reason the Lakers make their first visit to Oracle Arena on Christmas Day, in prime time for the East Coast. The same reason compelled the schedule-makers to send the Warriors to face the Lakers on Martin Luther King Jr. Day, the league’s other marquee date.
Yet one stroke of a pen by James did not make the Lakers a legitimate championship contender. They’ve added a terrific scorer in Michael Beasley, a fabulous playmaker in Rajon Rondo, a vertical presence in JaVale McGee and a human Alka-Seltzer in Lance Stephenson.
None of these players, however, figure to dramatically improve a mediocre defense, much less the league’s 29th-ranked 3-point shooting percentage.
“We both have to prove we’re good,” Draymond Green said, downplaying the early-season significance of the games. “We haven’t proven we’re good this year. They haven’t proved they’re good either.”
That doesn’t often happen. It should this season. The Warriors are favorites to win their third consecutive title. The Lakers are projected to make the playoffs for the first time since 2013 — because they have LeBron.
That’s enough to spark debate and have fans waving their respective flags. The geographical component adds flavor, but the level of competition has reach the heights worthy of a true rivalry.
Warriors-Lakers isn’t there yet. But it’s coming. Thank the basketball gods and the beauty of free agency that it’s coming.
“This will be fun,” Kerr said. “We’re in the same division and both teams have a lot of talent. The atmosphere is going to be great, even in the preseason. People are going to be really looking forward to it.”