This September, the Los Angeles Clippers became the 13th team in NBA history to lose a playoff series after leading 3-1. Their Western Conference Semifinal loss to the Denver Nuggets ensured that their season ended with a whimper – not with the bang they had expected. The Clippers were picked by many to win the NBA championship, but that honour eventually went to their city rival, the Los Angeles Lakers.
Their status as favourites came with the signing of two-time Finals MVP Kawhi Leonard in free agency, and the team’s trade to acquire All-Star Paul George from the Oklahoma City Thunder. The Clippers also boasted one of the deepest rosters in the league, containing Patrick Beverley, Lou Williams and Montrezl Harrell, and a head coach in Doc Rivers that already had an NBA title to his name.
In the end, this all counted for nothing. In Game 7 of the Denver series, George scored only 10 points and hit the side of the backboard with a three-point attempt, while Leonard, who some were calling the best player in basketball at the time, finished with just 14 points. Ultimately, it cost Doc Rivers his job, as he parted ways with the organization later in the month.
The season ended in disappointment, but it ensured that this season is one of the most important in the history of the franchise.
Tyronn Lue, who spent last season as an assistant for Doc Rivers, is the team’s new head coach and was hired in October. Lue was in high demand this summer due to his previous success with the Cleveland Cavaliers, where he won the 2016 NBA championship. But the Clippers managed to hire the 43-year-old, and his first task is to steady the ship.
Lue can take charge of personalities. When he first took over from David Blatt in Cleveland, his handling of LeBron James made a statement to the entire team. Also, Kevin Love had previously praised Lue’s coaching ability, and commented upon how he was able to improve the Cavaliers’ performances in time for the playoffs.
This is exactly what the Clippers need, as chemistry issues that arose over the course of the regular season came to a head in the postseason, and derailed any possible championship run.
Some players, including Beverley, Harrell and Williams, reportedly resented how Kawhi Leonard was handled by the team. They felt that his load management program afforded him preferential treatment. He was able take games off, which regularly led to him being late for team flights.
Lue has commanded respect from his players and unified a locker room before, and will have to do so again in Los Angeles if the Clippers are to be successful.
And the Clippers have to be successful. This year may be their final chance for some time.
When Leonard joined the Clippers in the summer of 2019, he only signed for two guaranteed years, with a player option for the third, meaning the 2020-21 season could be his last with the franchise. This was, according to Tom Haberstroh, to allow Leonard to sign a much larger max deal in 2021. But with the financial implications of the Coronavirus pandemic looming, it’s unclear what kind of money he would be entitled to in the future.
George’s contract also runs out at the end of 2021, and again, has a player option for the 2021-22 season. The two All-Star level players the Clippers have on their roster might not even be with the team this time next year – putting even more pressure upon the franchise to win its first NBA championship now. In fact, the team only has four players signed until the end of 2022.
Big man Ivica Zubac could see more playing time under Lue due to reigning Sixth Man of the Year, Montrezl Harrell, leaving the Clippers and signing a two-year deal with the Los Angeles Lakers in free agency. Many were clamouring for Zubac’s minutes to be increased during this year’s postseason, due to a combination of his own effectiveness and Harrell’s struggles, and Rivers was criticized for not playing the Croatian. But with Harrell’s departure, their depth, one of the Clippers’ biggest attributes, would undoubtedly be affected.
Also, if the Clippers weren’t able to secure a championship this year, and Leonard and George decided to leave, the team wouldn’t even be able to rebuild through the draft.
Rivers revealed earlier this year that the Clippers also had to obtain George in order for Leonard to sign with the team. To get George from the Oklahoma City Thunder, Los Angeles had to trade five first-round picks, along with promising young guard Shai Gilgeous-Alexander and forward Danilo Gallinari. They also gave the Thunder the rights to swap first-round picks in 2023 and 2025, and in another trade sent a 2020 first-round pick to New York for Marcus Morris. The Clippers don’t have full control over a first-round draft pick until the 2027 draft. Despite dealing away the team’s future, owner Steve Ballmer seemed pretty excited when he managed to land Leonard and George.
The Clippers also need to become successful to help fill their new $1.2 billion arena in Inglewood, which they plan to open in 2024. Ballmer has spent heavily to try and distance the Clippers from their rivals, the Los Angeles Lakers, who they currently share an arena with.
But those same Lakers are the NBA champions. If the Clippers are to win it all, they’ll have to get through a team that has LeBron James and Anthony Davis, and are the favorites for the 2021 title. James is again considered to be the best basketball player in the world – a title that, this time last year, belonged to Leonard.
The bubble obviously had an impact on the Clippers’ playoff run. Players were leaving and returning to the campus, or struggling with injuries, meaning Rivers had no chance to build his rotation or develop team chemistry. But there are no excuses left for the organization this year. They’ve bent over backwards to create this team and coaching staff, and the future of the franchise is at stake.
It’s a sink or swim season for the Los Angeles Clippers.