It’s stunning that this is where the Clippers are after the Denver Nuggets completed another 3-1 comeback, taking Game 7 104-89 and the second-round Western Conference playoff series on Tuesday. This season was ticketed to be the Clippers’ ascendancy, not a derailment — but things move quickly in the NBA.
After such an odious loss, it must be pointed out that the Clippers’ season has been a failure. It must be reported that stars Kawhi Leonard and Paul George are one season away from having the option to enter free agency.
And any discussion about the Clippers’ situation must be prefaced with an explanation of those stakes. L.A. traded a potential franchise cornerstone in Shai Gilgeous-Alexander and unprotected first-round picks in 2022, 2024 and 2026 (plus pick swaps in 2023 and 2025) to the Oklahoma City Thunder for the ability to compete for titles with George and Leonard right now. The Clippers traded away their 2020 first-round pick for soon-to-be free agent Marcus Morris Sr.
They’ve backed their way into a pinch point. This offseason, the Clippers can offer George a contract extension for up to three years. With everything traded, they are compelled to offer it. But George currently holds the choice to become a free agent in 2021 (due to a player option) or 2022, and there’s a reasonable chance he could pass on a Clippers offer. Leonard has the same deal.
Where that would leave the Clippers before the start of next season is exactly in the same spot as a host of other teams like the Miami Heat, Dallas Mavericks, Toronto Raptors and New York Knicks: standing at the precipice, plotting a leap of faith. The Bucks, who have taken up residence on the cliff’s edge with Antetokounmpo taking some time before deciding whether to sign an upcoming contract extension offer, wouldn’t mind the company.
Once that business is pushed aside, many around the league think the Clippers will feel the need to do a top-down analysis of how things went so far astray from their title-favorite status.
In some cases, like Montrezl Harrell and Lou Williams going into tailspins in the Florida bubble after extended absences due to deaths in the family and quarantines, there were just unforeseen circumstances that went against them.
But many of the flaws that ate away the Clippers over this past week in the three consecutive losses were not new.
There are some schematic issues, surely. Perhaps coach Doc Rivers didn’t use enough pick-and-roll plays when the offense stagnated. Perhaps relying on a bench that was high on scoring but low on defense was a mistake. Perhaps Patrick Beverley should have stopped trying to be such a pest on defense that he was constantly in foul trouble. Perhaps George’s streaky offensive game needed to be smoothed out. Maybe Leonard’s incredible shotmaking skills made him less prone to be a playmaker for teammates under playoff pressure.
These are all reasonable and contributing factors to what happened. But the Clippers were prudently constructed to be able to adjust to any opponent. They can play big, they can play small, they can play fast, they can play slow, they can put out a shooting lineup or a rebounding lineup. They should have, in theory, survived any of these issues.
Leonard has two rings that prove that. And here’s one for his thoughts as he tries to get some offseason sleep: Had he stayed in Toronto, he almost certainly would have been closer to ring No. 3.
This is going to be a bitter offseason, but not one that rival executives expect will bring huge change. The Clippers will likely try to re-sign free agents Harrell, Morris and JaMychal Green (if he opts out).
With that George trade, they are in deep now and they need all the supporting characters they can keep; if not to totally run it back, then to at least retain the possibility for trades. If they are willing to take on long-term money in an uncertain financial and salary cap landscape, league sources believe the Clippers could cobble together some players on their roster to execute a trade to bring in more talent.
Their owner’s worth is currently north of $70 billion, and Steve Ballmer isn’t likely to express concern about the luxury tax.
As hard as it is to believe, despite having two of the three highest finishers in the Sixth Man of the Year voting with Harrell and Williams, the Clippers might need to revamp their bench — and those contracts might help.
As one rival executive said: “You’ve heard of the saying, ‘In for a dime, in for a dollar?’ Well, they’re in for 95 cents, in for a dollar.”
The poker reference is a good one. You can debate whether L.A. just had a pair of aces cracked on the river card by the Nuggets or if their hand was just a combo draw that missed. However it’s classified, it was the correct move. The only true option is to weather the loss and try to play the hand again in hopes the odds even out with the team the Clippers have put together.
That is what pot-committed looks like. The reward was supposed to be a glorious window of title contention that would make irrelevant Leonard’s decision not to sign for the maximum four years in the summer of 2019.
But when the dust settled on that midsummer coup, the reality was that the Clippers secured only two years. Now the first year has been squandered.
As dizzying as this might be to comprehend, the clock has started ticking.