Going into the 2018-19 season, reporters and fans around the world thought the Clippers had no chance of making the playoffs, but the team overcame the probability and made their identity. They went on to play one of the greatest teams of all time, the Golden State Warriors, led by Steph Curry and Kevin Durant, and took them to six games with great performances from rookies Shai Gilgeous-Alexander and Landry Shamet. The team exceeded expectations, and finally there was a sense of optimism for the future for one of the worst teams in pro sports.
Entering the offseason, the team had enough money to afford two max-salary players, while keeping key players such as the sixth man of the year Lou Williams, undersized yet hard-working center Montrezl Harrell and infamous point guard Patrick Beverly, who represented the team’s grit and grind identity. The Clippers had their eyes set on the reigning finals MVP and two-time champion Kawhi Leonard, who at this point in his career is considered one of the best players in the world. Leonard is a player who is gifted offensively and defensively, with a killer instinct reminiscent of players like Michael Jordan and Kobe Bryant.
However, there were obstacles in the way. Leonard had just won a title with the Toronto Raptors, and the Clippers’ rivals across the hallway, the Lakers, had just put a dynamic duo together with LeBron James and Anthony Davis, and they were pushing for Leonard to join them. Leonard wanted to go to L.A. because he grew up in California as a kid and wanted to be near his family, but the question was which team.
Then July 5th came; Leonard had become one of the most anticipated free agents of all time, and helicopters were following his every move. It was near midnight, and his decision was made: he had chosen the Clippers. Not only that, but the team traded for Paul George, a bonafide superstar from the Oklahoma City Thunder who could also play on both ends of the floor. Even with the team trading away five first-round picks, two pick swaps, Danilo Gallinari and the promising rookie Shai Gilgeous-Alexander, there was finally hope for this once doomed franchise.
After acquiring two top-10 players, the Clippers instantly became true title contenders. Not only did the two superstars make the team highly praised, but the bench was brought back from the year before, which was statistically the greatest bench of all time, averaging 53 points a game collectively, which is almost unheard of. The team also had Doc Rivers at the helm, considered one of the best coaches in the league ever since he won a title with the Boston Celtics in 2008. Furthermore, the Clippers have the richest owner in all of sports, former Microsoft CEO Steve Ballmer, who enthusiastically led the Clippers to where they are today. Finally, there is Jerry West, who is a mastermind in the game of basketball. He had helped create the Lakers dynasty and the Warriors dynasty, which are considered some of the best teams of all-time, winning many championships. With all this in mind, many considered the Clippers to be the new favorites to win the championship.
The Regular Season
There was a lot to take away from the short regular season, both good and bad. The Clippers started out strong, beating the Lakers on opening night despite missing George. Then reality struck, and the team suffered some bad losses to worse teams such as the Pelicans, Grizzlies and Hawks. This issue of underestimating teams was something that would foreshadow the future of the season; the team as a whole didn’t give lower teams respect and didn’t put the same effort on the floor as they would with the Lakers or better teams.
Despite that, the Clippers had many good wins that maintained the team’s expectations of winning it all. At the same time, injuries occurred throughout the year, and Leonard was playing under a load management strategy, which is when a player sits out some games to avoid injury. Overall, the team ended with 49 wins and earned the second seed in the loaded Western Conference, an impressive accomplishment considering the challenge the Western Conference presents.
It was clear that Leonard was very good at his job and deserved every penny he was being paid, averaging 27 points, 7 rebounds and 5 assists, with shooting splits of 47% from the field, 38% from three and 88% from the free throw line. George didn’t quite play to expectations for a player of his caliber during the regular season, but fans held out hope for an emergence in the playoffs. The bench continued to play well, with the duo of Lou Williams and Montrezl Harrell leading the way. Ivica Zubac, the team’s starting center, improved greatly and became one of the best rim protectors in the league, while also showing off new skills on offense. Landry Shamet, now in his second year, played decently well, although many expected him to develop more quickly.
Before the trade deadline, the Clippers made a three-team trade with the Washington Wizards and New York Knicks. The Clippers would trade Moe Harkless, who was a decent starter; Jerome Robinson, a young player who ended up being a bust; and a first-round draft pick to get Marcus Morris, who was having a career year and would fit perfectly on the team. They also received Isiah Thomas, who they released right away and who has yet to find another team. Along with this, the team signed Reggie Jackson in the buyout market, adding a much-needed playmaker who would come off the bench.
The NBA bubble was a location in which 22 teams would stay and not leave until the season was over and a champion was crowned, in order to stop the spread of the coronavirus. This decision by the league worked to near perfection in the long run, and not one person contracted COVID-19. Fans saw this arrangement as both a positive and negative for the Clippers: positive because it gave players like George time to rest their injuries during the lockdown, negative because there was little time to build more chemistry. The first three warm-up scrimmages were both promising and worrisome: George looked very good, but the same thing couldn’t be said for Leonard, who was very inefficient from every spot on the floor. The eight seeding games were very encouraging; the team played not only well but together, which was something that rarely occurred during the pre-pandemic regular season. Despite the absences of Williams and Harrell, who had been averaging a combined 36.8 points off the bench, the Clippers lost only to the Lakers during this stretch. In a game against the Pelicans, the team made 25 threes, a franchise record and only two away from the all-time record set by the Houston Rockets. Things were looking good for the playoffs.
The Mavericks (Round 1)
After the eight seeding games, the Clippers secured the second seed in the West. This means the Clippers would go on to play the seventh-seeded Dallas Mavericks, led by Luka Doncic and Kristaps Porzingis, two young talents with a bright future. Many believed the Clippers had the opportunity to sweep them or maybe take them in five games because of the team’s perimeter defense, which was the best in the league statistically. The first few minutes of Game One for the Clippers was some of the best basketball they had played all year, taking a very large lead early because of the effort on both ends of the floor. But the Mavericks came back and took control of the game, led by Doncic’s stellar play. In the beginning of the third quarter a small fight broke out, and Porzingis was thrown out of the game. His impact was missed and the Clippers won.
The Clippers had an all-around bad performance in Game Two. In Game Three, they resumed the strong play fans were hoping for. But Game Four went to overtime, and in the final minutes the Clippers were up two points with five seconds left on the clock. The ball was given to Doncic, and for unknown reasons Rivers decided to put in Jackson, the worst defender on the team; Jackson ended up guarding Doncic, who took an unorthodox shot… and made it. The Mavericks won and tied the series two to two, a major disappointment for the Clippers and their coach. The Clippers came out angry in Game Five, winning by a whopping 43 points. Then, with the chance of proceeding to the next round in sight, the team took one more win and advanced to the conference semifinals. The Mavericks played very well, and they will be a huge threat to the league in the future.
The Nuggets (Round 2)
This is where things would get nerve-racking for those supporting the Clippers. The Denver Nuggets are an elite team led by Nikola Jokic, arguably the best center in the league, and Jamal Murray, who was playing out of his mind so far in the playoffs. In the first round, the Nuggets had come back despite being down three games to one against the Utah Jazz. With all that said, almost everyone believed the Clippers would win this round because of the team’s depth and defensive prowess. The Clippers took a three-to-one lead over the Nuggets, one win away from the first conference finals in the team’s history. Then they lost Game Five, but there was still hope. When they lost Game Six too, that hope dwindled. Game Seven arrived, and the Clippers took a lead by the end of the first half. Then fans witnessed one of the biggest chokes in NBA history, in terms of the expectations for a team. Leonard and George, the Clippers’ prized superstars, combined for only five points in the second half . The team proved unable to make a shot in the fourth quarter, and just like that the season was finished.
What Went Wrong?
This may go down as one of the best teams in league history not to win a title, or at least one of the most hyped. The blame goes to many different people, but one person receiving a lot of the criticism is head coach Doc Rivers. Despite the Nuggets fighting their way back into the series, Rivers didn’t change his game plan. Effort from the team was another issue, especially after they had built up a lead. Underestimation was also a problem, as the Clippers failed to take lower-seeded teams seriously. This issue was seen early and never fixed, another sign that changes to the coaching staff were in order.
The Clippers need to make changes if they want to win a title next season, but fans have reason for optimism with Jerry West in control. One key focus will likely be the point guard position. Patrick Beverly is a great asset for the team, but he doesn’t have the skill set to lead the offense; the Clippers could consider moving him to shooting guard and finding a new starting point guard. If Ballmer was willing to spend the money, they could pursue a free agent like Fred VanVleet, an All Star-level player who won a championship with Leonard in Toronto. Another free agent is the Heat point guard Goran Dragic, who just finished a strong performance in the NBA Finals against the Lakers.
The Clippers might also consider not re-signing Harrell, who is small for his position and doesn’t provide what the team needs to win. He will want a very large contract as well, which would make it difficult for the Clippers to add other high-quality players to the roster. Another need is a new backup center, with candidates including the Raptors’ Serge Ibaka and Marc Gasol and the Thunder’s Nerlens Noel. All of these players are free agents and would fit great with the team, although Ibaka might be the ideal choice among the three. When it comes to resigning current players, the Clippers have good reason to bring back Marcus Morris and Jamychal Green. Both played well this season and can continue to contribute in the near future .
Finally, the most important move has already been done; on September 28, the Clippers parted ways with Rivers. They ended up selecting their assistant Tyronn Lue, who has a championship in his resume with the Cleveland Cavaliers as head coach. Lue is known for speaking his mind and doesn’t allow anyone to challenge his position and take over. Out of the candidates reported, he was seen as the best choice by fans and the media. The team also hired some new assistant coaches to bolster the staff even more. One notable signing was Kenny Atkinson, former Brooklyn Nets head coach, who is known for player development. Finally, there is Daniel Greg, who represents a culture every team wants, which is winning. If all goes well during the offseason, the Clippers should come back as title contenders once again, with the opportunity to correct the mistakes of this past season.