2019-20 Team Obituaries: Los Angeles Clippers
In the NBA, only one team can be crowned champion. The other 15 playoff teams that fall short should not be disregarded though. Here at Off the Glass, I will be writing the "obituaries" for the teams that didn't get to hoist the O'Brien Trophy.
Yet another team with big-time title aspirations to suffer an early exit, the Los Angeles Clippers' never expected to land in this Obituary series. But death by a thousand cuts, many self-inflicted, this contender built on the fly didn't even make the Conference Finals.
LA's vacillation over the last 24 months was what NBA dreams are made of. Last season they were scrappy and fun, led by Tobias Harris and Danilo Gallinari, who were each able to bounce off each other offensively rather than step on each other's toes. The team overachieved in the rubble of Lob City.
Then Harris, a near All-Star on an expiring contract, was sent to Philadelphia for quite the haul of draft capital. The Clippers didn't want to pay his next contract; the 76ers did.
They weren't done after the Harris trade. A flurry of other moves didn't just keep them afloat. It gave LA new life. The Clips went 18-8 after reshuffling the deck to finish 48-34 and get into the 2018-19 playoffs.
The squad's top three in minutes played were rookie Shai Gilgeous-Alexander, enforcer Patrick Beverley, and backup Montrezl Harrell. Lou Williams was LA's leading shot taker by a good margin. They were as tartan as a team approaching 50 wins can be.
The Clippers forced the Golden State Warriors to six games in the opening round of the postseason. Head coach Doc Rivers deserves credit for taking a plucky team and overachieving like hell.
Soon everything changed for the Clippers. The reigning Finals Most Valuable Player—and the man who beat those same Warriors—was looking to come home to LA to build his own legacy.
Kawhi had a vision for his new club, and soon the Clippers traded for Paul George. And boy did he cost a pretty penny: Los Angeles sent Gilgeous-Alexander, Gallinari, four unprotected first-round picks, one lottery-protected first and two pick swaps to Oklahoma City. OKC was able to garner this immense package because Leonard wasn't going to LA without George; the Clippers were in a position where they had to pay the price for both.
The cost was exorbitant, but the reward was obvious. Leonard and George formed a hell of a duo on the wings: both can defend almost everyone on the planet, create offense for themselves, generate buckets for others, and shoot with elite efficiency off ball. Leonard is a proven championship-caliber first option, and George's skill set make him - on paper - an ideal No. 2.
Buttressed by the holdovers from 2018-19, the Clippers also had good balance. Ivica Zubac, who cost nothing to bring in, started at center while Harrell went on to win the Sixth Man of the Year award. With Williams and Beverly, the Clippers had some of the snarl of the previous year's club to pair with the new stars.
Add in some finishing touches, namely a Green re-signing and the addition of Maurice Harkless, and the Clippers had one of the most complete teams in the league. They were balanced, versatile and deep. They had the high-end talent to compete with anyone and the roster diversity to do so in many ways. They were heavily favored to be one of the last team's standing.
The regular season was inconclusive and full of injuries. The Clippers seldom had their entire squad, but when they got some facsimile of it, they were very good.
Leonard and George each missed considerable time. The former had a chronic injury that dampened his workload (and forced the league to define load management), while the latter battled nicks and bruises all season.
Beverley and Landry Shamet each missed chunks of the season, too. Unlike the previous season, when five Clippers played over 1900 minutes, not a single Clipper hit that mark in 2019-20. Every night someone important was out of the lineup.
A substantial chunk of this was by design. The organization knew what its end goal was (a championship) and treated the regular season as a warm-up. The team was good enough to coast through the doldrums of winter, so why not save itself for the playoffs?
This plan was not foolproof, and one reserved for established teams. The Clippers were still a new product, with the ink on Kawhi's contract still drying. LAC needed chemistry and cohesion.
A first-round match up against the Dallas Mavericks underscored the above. The Mavs pushed LA to six games, and often looked like the team in control.
Led by Luka Dončić, the Mavs had an all-time offense built around his strengths. Dončić was masterful, even hitting a game-winning buzzer beater in Game 4 to tie the series up at 2-2. His supporting cast had a pretty balanced scoring effort too, but they simply didn't have enough juice—especially without Kristaps Porzingis.
Dallas' second star suffered all kinds of bad luck in this series. First he got an unnecessary technical foul in Game 1, his second of the game, which was automatic grounds for ejection. Then he suffered an injury in Game 3 that forced him to miss the rest of the series. His elite floor spacing from the 4/5 was effective when he was out there; problem was, he didn't see the floor nearly enough.
And even with those fortunes going Los Angeles' way, it took six games to win the series. Dallas was far better than your average 7 seed, but a title hopeful with an upper hand in both talent and depth should have made quick work. LA's inability to take care of business was alarming.
The Clippers' underwhelming performance continued in round two. The Denver Nuggets weren't far behind in talent, and had superior depth to back it up. The Nuggets were fresh off their own first-round slugfest against the Utah Jazz, a series that went the distance, as the Nuggets had to claw back from a 3-1 deficit to advance.
Lightning struck twice for the Nuggets. Denver once again came back from another 3-1 series deficit. The Clippers had at one point built up a seemingly insurmountable lead, even pacing the Nuggets by 17 late in Game 5.
But Jamal Murray and Nikola Jokić just wouldn't go away. Denver's stars and supporting cast just seemed to get better as the situation became more dire. LA began to buckle as the Nuggets really got going.
Murray and Jokic were the perfect duo to expose LA's weak links at the guard and center positions. Lou Williams and Montrezl Harrell sputtered. Playing one of them at a time became difficult; deploying both together was impossible.
Add in some lackluster performances from the Clippers' stars, most notably a combined 24 points from the duo in Game 7, and LA's season was over. Just like that.
The exorbitant cost to bring in Leonard and George would be justified if the Larry OB belonged to the Clippers. Now LAC has to deal with a stunned locker room and two stars both with player options for next offseason. New head coach Ty Lue has a lot on his plate.
That makes LA's offseason one of the most desperate in the league. Not only has the organization already sacrificed an arm and a leg just to recruit their stars, it also has serious needs for next season that may cost another limb.
Center was going to be a need regardless of Harrell's playoff performance. He's due for a new contract, and after his performance in the playoffs, the Clippers likely aren't itching to sign him. Their ideal candidate to fill this role would be some ring-chaser who would take a discount to play a significant role, possibly starting when Zubac can't go.
If they want to spend big on this role, which may be necessary if JaMychal Green opts out, Serge Ibaka would be the ideal choice. He can take Green's minutes as a two-way 4 (and 5 in a pinch) while also being Zubac's backup. He's the ideal suber-sub for a contender's frontcourt.
If they want to go the bargain-bin route, several cheaper names exist too, such as Nerlens Noel, Aron Baynes, Tristan Thompson and Dwight Howard. The latter two have recently won championships, and the former two are likely in pursuit.
The same math applies to the guard position. Using most of their available money, the non-taxpayer's mid level exception (nearly $10 million per year), could get them Goran Dragic, likely the best fit and talent match of anyone they can realistically add at any position.
If he's not available they can either try to re-sign Reggie Jackson, or go after one of Kris Dunn (restricted), Trey Burke or Shabazz Napier. None of those names greatly fit LA's needs, but that's the risk you run in this price range.
And even though they have telegraphed their intent to re-sign Marcus Morris, another wing/forward body of that ilk can't hurt. They can offer Morris up to $18 million a year via Non-Bird Rights, though they should be able to get him for cheaper.
If the full MLE doesn't get used on the former two positions, they could use most of it to attract Jae Crowder. If most of it is used on a guard and/or big, they could make use of the rest on someone like Glenn Robinson III. The options are there.
Basically the Clippers are looking to run it back with some minor tweaks. A big trade probably isn't on the horizon; they're going to ride it out with Leonard and George, and re-evaluate in a year.
In the meantime, have your hand over the panic button.