Back in early September at the Orlando Bubble, the LA Clippers led by Kawhi Leonard and Paul George took a commanding 3-1 Semi-Finals series lead over the Denver Nuggets. The latter had just overcome a devastating 3-1 deficit in the First Round, and now for the second straight year, it appeared they weren’t made for the Conference Finals. However, the West’s final round has haunted their competitor infinitely more, who despite having numerous All-NBA talents like Bob McAdoo, Elton Brand, Chris Paul, and Blake Griffin, had never reached the Conference Finals in their 49 years.
History tends to repeat itself, especially in the NBA, as the resilient Nuggets channeled every ounce of talent, they had to tie the series at 3 a-piece, and just like 2015 against the Houston Rockets, the 50th-anniversary Clippers collapsed in the seventh game, falling short of the Western Conference Finals yet again. Their two superstars combined for horrific 10-38 shooting, their top-5 defense gave up 40 points to Jamal Murray, and the world was robbed of an anticipated Finals showdown between the Los Angeles powerhouses.
Lack of leadership, loss of cohesion, and poor chemistry between the stars and role players led to LA’s embarrassing downfall. Head coach Doc Rivers was soon after fired after another underwhelming finish, Sixth Man of the Year Montrezl Harrell left in free agency for the rival Lakers, and George became Twitter’s favorite punching bag for evaporating on the big stage.
The front office knew the only way to recover was to retool for a more successful playoff campaign. Following an active offseason of hiring, signing, and trading, the team shot back up to the top of the Western Conference, knocking off the champion Lakers in the opening game and surging to a 16-5 record through January. When they started dealing with injuries and shortcomings late winter, they shuffled again to prevent falling further.
Since April 4th, LA is 11-4 over their last 15 games, which includes a seven-game win streak in which they exploded on offense. With seven games remaining (as of May 3rd) they sit in 4th-place, which is lower than their 2nd-place finish last season, however, they seem to be clicking at just the right time on the brink of another playoff appearance.
We don’t know how this campaign will end, and it would be fair to say we expect another failure. But we know that smooth sailing never made skilled sailors, and if anyone’s taking that message to heart, it’s LA following last year’s collapse. They appear more skilled, more confident in the second half’s and more assured they now have the right core.
Let’s see, pun intended, how the Clippers are righting the ship, to obtain their first Western “-ship” in franchise history.
- A Brand-New Captain
Doc Rivers helped bring the Clippers to heights they’d never seen before, as a perennial 50-win team that regularly made the playoffs and headlines as “Lob City”. They ran the league’s most exciting and high-powered offense, and Rivers played a critical role in elevating Blake Griffin and DeAndre Jordan into All-NBA caliber players. His tenure, while it should be remembered for unprecedented highs, will now likely be remembered for the inability to succeed in the Western Conference playoffs.
Multiple-time champion Tyronn Lue was hired this past fall as his replacement, with the task of navigating the Clippers to unchartered waters in a manner like his days in Cleveland, where he took over the wheel and helped bring the Cavaliers their first championship in franchise history (2015-16). An enormous amount of credit for his three consecutive Finals appearances as a coach does fall to LeBron James of course, but Lue was the man who engineered several comebacks (including 3-1 in the NBA Finals) and made sure the team didn’t lose their confidence. Those two elements and his philosophy of floor spacing and deep shooting are what made him the perfect hire for the Clippers.
Record-wise, you might not see much of a difference (.681 to .662 winning percentage), and media-wise, you probably don’t hear much talk about a championship, but make no mistake about it: The Clippers are playing better this year. Their superstars are much more team-focused and efficient, their bench is manufacturing points a lot more freely, and they’re shooting 3-pointers with unbelievable accuracy. The real test will be this spring’s NBA playoffs where the world will be awaiting another disappointing performance, yet the new captain has the team headed on a different course and it might ultimately be the reason they overcome rocky waters.
- Heavy Anchors
The “Lob City” trio of Chris Paul, Blake Griffin, and DeAndre Jordan couldn’t reach levels of the postseason many fans had expected for years. The point guard while excellent was typically unable to outperform opposing superstars, the power forward while dynamic was often injured and without the heart to shine, and the center while imposing was limited offensively. The newcomers Kawhi Leonard and Paul George each had the capacity to take over and the ability to thrive on both ends of the court, yet last year they showed rare lapses offensively and leadership in trying times.
Leonard learned his teammates weren’t as tough as the Spurs (2013-14 Champions) and the Raptors (2018-19 Champions), and that he could not prevail dominating individually. George learned he needed to perform better as a teammate since his shooting wavered off and it dragged down the team’s offense. Even though they’re among the game’s top all-around players, they seemed very one-dimensional late against the Nuggets, and in the end, the unit with the better leaders advanced.
In 2020-21, we’re seeing improved versions of each and it’s making the Clippers a lot more well-rounded. Leonard is having his best distributing season-to-date (5.1 APG) and it’s led to vast improvements in his efficiency (25.5 PPG on 52% FG, 40% 3PT), making him a legitimate MVP candidate because of his offense alone, and the same improvements can be said for George who’s having his best season as a secondary scorer (23.7 PPG on 47% FG) and playmaker (5.2 APG). The heavy anchors are largely responsible for the climb in team efficiency and deserve praise for leading as better teammates this year.
- Better Materials
Great depth has been a staple, pun intended, for the Clippers over the last decade, summed up by five Sixth Man of the Year awards and nine playoff berths in ten years. Role players with great shot creating, shot-blocking, slashing, and passing have made LA a tough opponent every single postseason. Last year’s mix of Landry Shamet, Maurice Harkless, and JaMychal Green certainly brought floor spacing, but their productions were all limited without full offensive games.
This year’s new mix of Luke Kennard, Nicolas Batum, and Serge Ibaka has shaped LA for even stronger performances. Kennard is a terrific shooter (46% 3PT) who can also create and cut, Batum is great off-the-catch and can also facilitate plays (2.3 APG), and Ibaka is a great post scorer who can also block shots (1.2 BPG). What’s been more impressive about this group is that they’re efficient AND productive, who can each erupt for 20 on any given night.
The hope with these new players is that they’ll take pressure off the superstars and provide more options if they begin to slump. With Kennard in his first real winning situation away from Detroit, Batum back to being a high-functioning role player like in Portland, and Ibaka affirmed as an every-game starter like in Oklahoma City, these pieces must feel very comfortable and more than ready for this year’s challenge.
- Commanding Stations
While the Warriors and Rockets are largely responsible for molding today’s professional game, the Clippers were one of the first teams to succeed with a heavy 3-point attack. The sharpshooting backcourt of Chris Paul and J.J. Redick elevated the team’s scoring and made them a dangerous playoff team. In overtime, they became less proficient with the deep ball and began heading towards a rebuild.
Perennial All-NBA players Kawhi Leonard and Paul George reenergized the offense the minute they arrived and helped LA return to being an efficient shooting team. In their first season, they sat in the middle of the field in terms of volume (13th), so they sent out their sharpshooters for heavy scorers to raise their offensive ceiling. With Kennard, Batum, and the re-signed bench tandem Reggie Jackson (4.7 3PA) and Marcus Morris (5.1 3PA), they’ve shot up to top-5 in 3-point field goals and jumped their offensive rating by four points (113.9 to 117.9).
Though the roster was designed to simply provide more shooting volume, coach Lue has designed the offense to spread out and share the ball more. The slower, more patient, more team-friendly scheme has allowed Leonard and George to grow as distributors and resulted in the greatest, high-volume 3-point shooting season for a team in NBA history (41.6% on 34.5 attempts per game). Everyone in the rotation, sans center Ivica Zubac, is not only commanding their spots but also knocking down shots at an unprecedented rate, giving LA the league’s best 3-point attack and scariest arsenal come playoff time.
- All A-Board
Ever since the Chris Paul trade, the Clippers have done a wonderful job building up their talent pool, and they remain one of the most active organizations reshuffling their roster each year. Without any of the “Lob City” Big 3, they still made the playoffs in 2018-19 because of their tremendous trade packages and player development. The newfound competitive culture and wise management stemming from owner Steve Ballmer and executives Lawrence Frank and Jerry West have made LA an attractive landing spot for star players.
Swaying Kawhi Leonard and Paul George away from the iconic hometown Lakers was a huge victory, but it set an even bigger notion that the Clippers were a legitimate destination and that they were serious about winning. Reggie Jackson and Marcus Morris each found their way to the team mid-season and signed up to stay the following off-season, and around the same time, recent NBA champion Serge Ibaka passed on other teams to play for them as well. Although large salaries and the beautiful city are major factors, probably the most important influence in all of their decision-making is title contention and a committed front office.
Just like last year’s efforts to bolster the roster, LA made a splash this year by sending long-time sixth man Lou Williams back to Atlanta in exchange for Rajon Rondo, fresh off his championship heroics with the Lakers. When former All-NBA center DeMarcus Cousins was dumped by Houston, LA was quick to scoop him up for the bench unit. The Clippers, already equipped with a loaded roster, continue to make moves to boost their playoff chances, and it’s believed that this year’s additions will be more meaningful considering their resumes and talents.
Here’s how George can impact a game
(video courtesy of InStat)
In their 50-year history, the Clippers whether in Buffalo or San Diego or Los Angeles have never reached the Conference Finals, which also means they’ve never reached the NBA Finals or won the NBA Championship. They are notoriously a losing franchise that is constantly overshadowed by their iconic same-city rival and 17-time NBA Champion Los Angeles Lakers.
Though over the last decade, behind new ownership and coaching, the team has emerged into of the league’s superpowers and has been called home by several all-time greats. Last year should’ve ended the 50-year stretch of misery and culminated with at least a Conference Finals berth, but instead, history took its toll and the Clippers found themselves falling short of their goal, which was achieved by the Lakers of all teams.
This year gave LA a clean slate putting the extended season, underwhelming coaching, and chemistry issues behind them. They now have new pieces they were missing last year, a new offensive scheme that best utilizes their talents, and a new style of play from their vengeful superstars.
The Clippers are 10-3 in Kawhi Leonard’s last 13 games and have likely secured home-court advantage for the first round of the playoffs. At full strength, they’re capable of winning multiple games in a row, proven by their recent six and seven-game win streaks. Injuries have however prevented them from coasting through a smooth regular season, forcing the Clippers to become more skilled and rely on different sailors. After such a devastating postseason loss and needed change at the wheel, this year was more about just righting the ship, but it may now end up in just the right place.