What Went Wrong with the Clippers?
Updated: Oct 4, 2020
2020 has been filled with unexpected news and bizarre twists around the world, and in the NBA Bubble, the theme has been no different. The Los Angeles Clippers, widely viewed as the frontrunner for the NBA championship, were eliminated in the Conference Semifinals following a blown 3-1 series lead to Nikola Jokic, Jamal Murray, and the surging Denver Nuggets.
The pressure was on the Clippers this season to deliver their first championship in team history. They came up way short of even the most pessimistic expectations.
The problem with this Clippers roster is that it was built for the present, not the future. LAC’s bonafide title window as constructed was always going to be about two seasons. They just squandered this year.
To revisit the headliner trade last summer, the Clippers sent away rising star Shai Gilgeous-Alexander, an efficient scoring forward in Danilo Gallinari, their own first round picks in 2022, 2024, and 2026, the Heat’s first round picks in 2021 and 2023, and the rights to swap picks in 2023 and 2025 to the Oklahoma City Thunder in exchange for Paul George.
After next season, both Kawhi Leonard and Paul George can opt-out of their current contracts and leave LA in free agency. Should this be the scenario, the Clippers would be left in a lengthy rebuild with no control of their own first-round picks until 2027.
This could have echoes of the 2013 blockbuster deal between the Boston Celtics and the Brooklyn Nets, a move that ended in disaster and turmoil for Brooklyn. Like the Nets, the Clippers severely mortgaged their future for a chance to win now. If the Clippers don't win it all in the next few seasons or if either Kawhi Leonard or Paul George leave in 2021, this could go down as an even worse transaction.
After their colossal collapse against the Nuggets, the Clippers will enter the offseason forced to regroup and assess how the year ended in such disappointing fashion. There are many questions that surround the franchise entering their offseason, but the most glaring question is what exactly went wrong considering the Clippers seemed to be in complete control of the series after four games?
Fourth Quarter Inconsistencies
Simply put, if you want to win games, your best players need to perform consistently every night. This is heightened during the playoffs. In the fourth quarter of Game 7, with the season decidedly on the line, Leonard and George were nonexistent. They combined for 0 points in the fourth.
Leonard ended Game 7 with 14 points on 6/22 from the field, with only two points on 1/11 shooting in the second half. George, who has a reputation of underperforming in the playoffs, finished with 10 points on 4/16 shooting, with only three points on 1/7 shooting in the second half.
Leonard and George shot an abysmal 2/18 in the second half of an elimination game. They were getting a handful of good looks that just weren’t falling, but in a Game 7 scenario against an overachieving Nuggets team, one bad game meant a one-way plane ticket home.
Lack of Chemistry
On paper, the 2019-20 Clippers were supposed to be one of the deepest, most well-rounded clubs in the NBA. That said, a lot of roster turnover and injuries meant the roster spent minimal time actually playing together. This brought up legitimate concerns about chemistry. The team lacked a sense of urgency, heart, and cohesion with one another. Lou Williams said it all:
Williams missed two of the seeding games to quarantine, Montrezl Harrell missed all eight seeding games following the death of his grandmother. Kawhi had been load managing throughout the season, and George dealt with a lingering shoulder earlier in the season.
The club didn’t have time to gel. Down the stretch, this became quite apparent. Compared to some of the other team dynamics in these playoffs, even a casual observer probably got the sense that the Clippers were a bit cold.
Doc Rivers is a proven coach but has been on the wrong side of history a few times in his career. Rivers is now the only coach ever to blow three 3-1 series leads in the playoffs. Some blame his lack of in-game adjustments for the Clippers’ messy situation and premature exit.
Whether Rivers deserves part of the blame or not is difficult to judge since as fans, we are not getting a behind the scenes glance of what goes on in the locker room. However, in the NBA, that is precisely what happens when a team with high expectations underachieves, many will start to play the blame game on the head coach.
Look no further than Mike Budenholzer and the most disappointing team out East this postseason, the Milwaukee Bucks. Nevertheless, Rivers is expected to return as head coach next season and will be under a tighter microscope while his team’s title window approaches a potential closure.