IN THE MOST surprising result of these 2020 NBA Playoffs, the L.A. Clippers lost in a Game 7 against the young, unproven Denver Nuggets. It was a horror story for the seemingly better L.A. team, as whispers of the fabled “Clippers Curse” returned to haunt a franchise that hasn’t been able to exorcise its playoff demons.
These Clippers, in a year where the Warriors dynasty was put on hiatus (or ended altogether), were supposed to have the depth, star talent, and two-way ability that made them the clear-cut title favorites.
Yet, as the buzzer sounded in Game 7, and reports of players asking out of the game after 3-minute stretches due to sheer exhaustion, Paul George postgame comments to the media and teammates drew “bewilderment” and ire from fans and teammates, and Doc Rivers wallowed in the wake of another 3–1 series loss, everything we knew about these L.A. Clippers went up into flames.
In recent days, Rivers was fired by billionaire owner Steve Ballmer, whose “instinct” led him to make a change (Ballmer, for the record, is among the shortest tenured team owners in the league). Additionally, both Paul George and Kawhi Leonard gave their approval of the firing, which was notable because Leonard in particular sought to play under Rivers when making his free agency decisions.
Now, George is a potential trade candidate, as his soon-to-be free agent status could compromise L.A. if they are unsuccessful in winning another championship.
So how did we get here? How did the Clippers, a team favored to win the title from the opening seconds of their opening-night victory over the Lakers all the way until the fourth quarter of their Game 7 against the Nuggets, manage to collapse yet again?
OUR STORY BEGINS on April 30th, 2017.
After a grueling seven-game series against the Utah Jazz, Chris Paul was finally done. He’d been trying, for the better part of six years, to turn the trio of him, Blake Griffin, and DeAndre Jordan into a championship team. Yet, another injury to Griffin and another early playoff exit sealed “Lob City’s” fate: Paul was ready to leave, and he had his eyes set on Houston, Texas.
In leaving, however, Paul chose a sign-and-trade, giving back to the franchise whom he had led for six seasons. He forced Daryl Morey to trade for his contract, one which he could have opted out of, and in exchange, the Clippers received Montrezl Harrell, Lou Williams, and Patrick Beverley, with other minor assets included for financial purposes.
Very quietly, Lawrence Frank, who had taken over basketball operations from Rivers in the year prior, felt confident about the move.
He dubbed the three players he received the “Paul Haul,” and he felt the combination of the three could help build a culture.
Beverley was an unheralded player who had a long and winding road just to make an NBA roster, but by the time he was sent to L.A., he was a known commodity as a pesky defender and three-point shooter.
Williams, for as synonymous as he has become with the new iteration of the Clippers, wasn’t a sure thing at the time. He, after winning Sixth Man of the Year with the Raptors, had played a mediocre half-season with the Rockets, and now he felt that his future was in question in the NBA.
Harrell was an energy big who was used as a pick-and-roll screener in Mike D’Antoni’s offense. Due to his smaller size, however, D’Antoni left him out of the rotation for much of 2017, going for the length of Clint Capela and the sturdiness of Nene instead. Slowly but surely, the Clippers realized they traded for a gem in Harrell.
The Clippers tried to be competitive for one more season, trading for Danilo Gallinari and resigning Blake Griffin to a massive contract — while citing a “Clipper for life” slogan to Griffin to convince him to stay.
After a rash of injuries devastated the team, Frank went in another direction: he traded Griffin, the supposed “Clipper for Life, ” for Tobias Harris, an unheralded but talented forward.
It was in 2018–2019 where everything became clear for L.A. Harris had a career season under Doc Rivers, garnering serious All-Star consideration. Gallinari wasn’t far behind, having finally gotten healthy for the first time in years. Beverley was rejuvenated, playing 78 games and shooting 39.7% from three, and the bench combination of Lou Williams and Montrezl Harrell was devastating their opposition.
Overall, the Clippers, who were counted out by many and criticized for passing up on Michael Porter Jr., were on a near 50-win pace. Lawrence Frank, Jerry West, and the Clippers had larger plans, however.
L.A. sent many team employees, including Ballmer, to watch Toronto Raptors games, playing a strange game of cat-and-mouse that bordered on obsessiveness and led to a tampering fine at one point. But their message got across: they were willing to do anything to sign the mysterious superstar.
At the deadline, with Harris having passed over a $90 million extension, one which would have enabled to Clippers to keep him, sign Leonard, and fill out the rest of the roster with quality role-players, Frank made another difficult decision — they would move on from Harris.
Though it’s tough to quantify, it’s clear that Harris made a major impact on the disposition of those unheralded Clippers. He was professional and cordial, yet equally amicable; he was the glue that kept the “Paul Haul” Clippers alive.
That made it all the more tough for the Clippers to deal Harris, whom GM Michael Winger described as the “the kindest, most respectful player you’ll ever meet.”
Months later, the Clippers scrapped, clawed, and fought tooth-and-nail against the title-favorite Warriors in a six-game first-round series. They had the league’s attention, they had nearly $60 million in cap space, and they made it known they were hunting for a star.
Moving forward to this season, with the 2020 L.A. Clippers, as billboards with slogans such as “Street Lights over Spotlights” and “Driven over Given” dominated their ads in SoCal, it is clear that the 2020 iteration of the Clippers were holding on to an illusion of the past version of their team: the grit and toughness they talked about was more fallacy than reality.
THE CLIPPERS REGULAR season, in the beginning, was mostly uneventful.
Kawhi Leonard developed his playmaking skills and had the best offensive season of his career, Lou Williams and Montrezl Harrell were threats off of the bench, and Paul George, after returning from two shoulder surgeries, looked fantastic.
However, on any given night, the Clippers gave up leads and took entire games off — most notably because Leonard and George practiced “load management” so often for their knees and shoulders respectively that the two were seldom on the court at the same time.
The result was that the Clippers fabled closing lineup — Beverley, Williams, Leonard, George, and Harrell — were not totally effective, as most close games devolved into Leonard and George isolations.
George’s performance noticeably took a nosedive, before a hamstring injury took him out of the lineup for three weeks — another impediment on the chemistry needed in the Playoffs.
As a result, with Leonard essentially being a game-to-game player, and George being hampered by injury, Doc Rivers allowed a blasé attitude — all while a 35-year-old LeBron James played 94.36% of his team’s games to carry the Lakers to the #1 seed.
If one had to point to the team’s priorities at this time, they wouldn’t have many options. This L.A. team was purposefully losing games to rest in the regular season, chose not to build team chemistry, and truly appeared to be bored with the process of building a championship team — which was reminiscent of the 2017 Cavaliers or the 2018 Warriors, but the problem was that the Clippers were not champions yet.
Still, when all the cards were on the table, it seemed the Clippers would prevail. In particular, on Christmas Day, the Clippers forced James to shoot 12 three-pointers (he made only 2), and they stopped Anthony Davis from doing much damage on the interior. Meanwhile, Kawhi Leonard scored 35 points and grabbed 12 rebounds.
Poor performances from the many of the Clippers players meant that the Lakers still had a chance, with the clock winding down, at a deficit of three points. Yet, miraculously, Patrick Beverley blocked LeBron James, deflecting it off of him, and winning the Clippers the game.
Beverley yelled in excitement as Steve Ballmer joyfully egged him on while sitting a few feet away court-side, and James and the Lakers quietly left the court.
Unfortunately, this was the peak of the Clippers season; one of the few times they lived up to their gritty reputation. And, as many in the sports world say: the NBA season truly begins after Christmas — meaning the Clippers’ season had peaked right as their dominance should have started.
IF THERE IS another criticism to be had of this L.A. Clippers team (and there are many to choose from), one particularly damning aspect of their team was their fixation with the Lakers.
As previously mentioned, their advertising was solely centered on being the “relatable” team in L.A., one that represents the hard-working, blue-collar people of SoCal — yet they often appeared entitled to a title that wasn’t won yet.
However, though it was excusable for the players to be fixated on beating the Lakers (in previous years, Chris Paul and Doc Rivers made the team cover the Lakers championship banners at home games), it is simply inexcusable for the front office to do so as well.
When Rajon Rondo wasn’t performing well in L.A., and reports of the Lakers being interested in the retired Darren Collison surfaced, the Clippers interfered, with reports surfacing that they too would offer Collison a contract.
Later on, when Reggie Jackson became available after a buy-out, the Clippers snagged him — and yes, Jackson was linked to Lakers at one point.
But the story does not end there. As Kyle Kuzma disappointed in a sixth-man role, the rumors of a trade sending Kuzma and salary to the Knicks for Marcus Morris Sr. Within days, it was the Clippers who shipped Jerome Robinson, Maurice Harkless, and a first-round pick to NYC — both getting a solid player in Morris but also spiting the Lakers yet again.
Harkless had been a central part of the roster as a defender, and he quickly became integrated within the locker room. That made it even more damning for the Clippers front office to dangle him in trade rumors all season long.
While Rivers, in recent weeks, has rightfully been criticized for not building chemistry with his team, he essentially had to coach three iterations of the same team: the pre-Paul George Clippers, the pre-trade deadline Clippers, and the post-trade deadline Clippers.
Unsurprisingly, on a team where his skillset was redundant, Morris Sr. struggled to find a rhythm, and though the Clippers were rolling before the season’s hiatus, they still played as though they were a collection of talented players and not one true functioning team — which would haunt them later on.
THOUGH THIS SENTIMENT was not publicly expressed, some in the Clippers organization reportedly felt that the “bubble” environment would help the team create more chemistry.
That quickly went out of the window as Lou Williams and Montrezl Harrell left the bubble for personal reasons, and Patrick Beverley suffered a lower-body injury that hampered him.
After the seeding games, it appeared that Paul George was “back,” no longer strained by his hamstring and finally looking like the MVP candidate that the team traded for. Yet, it took less than two games for George to return to playing inefficient basketball in the postseason, as he shot less than 40% from the field and made just 33.3% of his threes in 13 postseason games.
When Harrell and Williams returned, they too were a shell of their former selves, with Williams shooting 23.5% from three in the postseason and Harrell being targeted on defense by both the Mavericks and Nuggets.
It was only the brilliance of Kawhi Leonard, who averaged nearly 33 points per game against the Mavericks, that kept this L.A. team afloat. This wasn’t a surprise, either. After winning a title with the Raptors, many in the league felt that it was Leonard who was the best player in the NBA and its best postseason performer.
Yet, having blown two double-digit leads in Games 5 and 6 to the Denver Nuggets, Leonard came up short: 14 points on 6/22 shooting, with 0 free-throw attempts. His performance couldn’t have been more different for his Game 7 against the Sixers, where he took 39 shots and scored 41 points.
George, meanwhile, went 4/14 for 10 points and suggested that this season was not “championship or bust” for the Clippers — which both contradicted the narrative around the team and his comments before the season.
Unfortunately for the Clippers, they put themselves in this hole. Next season is, no matter what, a championship-or-bust season, as both George and Leonard can opt-out of their contracts. L.A. traded a historic load of first-round picks, Danilo Gallinari, and a rising star in Shai Gilgeous-Alexander to trade for George — but, as mentioned in this piece, they also sacrificed a culture of hard work and an underdog status for a team that felt entitled to a championship.
So where did the 2020 L.A. Clippers go wrong? In short, they went wrong by making short-sighted trades, building a locker room culture of favoritism, and feeling entitled to a Conference Finals against the Lakers and an eventual championship.
L.A. can still win it all next year (on paper), provided their offseason goes well, but they have just ruined their most perfect opportunity to fulfill their promise, and that leaves them in a precarious position as of now.
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