Seven months after the Clippers convened for training camp with a “bad taste” lingering from their stumble on the doorstep to franchise playoff history, they arrived at the postseason in May determined to prove how much had changed.
But three games into the playoffs, when they entered a timeout in Dallas down by 19 points in a first-round series they trailed by two games, more change appeared inevitable. Facing an early exit for a second consecutive season, the grand scheme the franchise had pulled off in 2019 and retooled last fall, all with the singular goal of winning championships, appeared on the verge of potentially being blown up.
“We were probably one or two plays from possibly getting swept,” forward Nicolas Batum said.
Their response was telling, and established a template for four unpredictable weeks that followed as the Clippers dodged injuries, double-digit deficits and doubt about their mettle to extend the longest playoff run in franchise history. By rallying to beat Dallas in seven games, Utah in six and taking Phoenix to six games in the Western Conference finals, they became the first team to win consecutive series after losing the first two games of each.
“We find something in us, like resiliency,” Batum said, “and toughness.”
How much can change in five weeks: Mocked last year after crumbling under postseason pressure, the Clippers’ playoff encore in coach Tyronn Lue’s first season became defined instead by their comebacks.
Fifty-one years into the franchise’s history, the Clippers finally advanced to their first conference finals.
Paul George, dogged for his past playoff production, reframed the conversation surrounding his star status through clutch performances on the road in Utah and Phoenix.
Lue’s ability to mix-and-match lineups on the fly and keep his players engaged while rapidly increasing and decreasing their roles depending on matchups helped the Clippers win their first three games of the postseason when facing elimination.
“When I think back to this season, I’ll think back to the playoff run we had, and being down in the series both those first two and fighting back and winning those,” Lue said. “What we did this year was special.”
And, ultimately, unsatisfying.
Two years after team owner Steve Ballmer declared that “it’s all about the Larry O’B,” a reference to the NBA’s championship trophy, while introducing Kawhi Leonard and Paul George as Clippers, Leonard and Lue reiterated last month that the conference finals was never the intended goal — just a waypoint en route to championship aspirations the franchise has yet to realize.
Like the Lakers, Brooklyn and other contenders whose chances were felled by injuries, the Clippers watched as back surgery limited center Serge Ibaka, a key offseason addition, to two postseason games. An awkward plant of his right leg led Leonard to miss the last eight games because of a strained right knee ligament. And center Ivica Zubac, who had never missed a game because of injury since joining the Clippers in 2019, was sidelined by an injured right knee for the final two games against Phoenix.
Said forward Marcus Morris, who played on one good leg in the conference finals: “The healthiest team won.”
And yet, their frustration in falling short will rest not only with issues beyond their control.
Missed free throws — by the most accurate free-throw-shooting team in regular-season history — and poorly executed out-of-bounds defense cost them Game 2 against Phoenix in the last second.
Two games later, they missed all 10 shots in the fourth quarter when given a chance to take the lead and lost their chance to level the series.
Had Leonard stayed healthy, “we’d be going on, this series would be a lot different,” George said. “Talk about one of the best players in the league being out, yet we were inches away from getting to the next round.
“So definitely it’s a ‘what if’ on this. Fact of the matter is we didn’t do enough to win, and that’s the reason we’re going home.”
“What if” becomes “what now” with the franchise only weeks away from a pivotal moment.
In one month, Leonard will decide whether to exercise his player option worth $36 million for next season or become an unrestricted free agent. Choosing the latter route would make him eligible to sign a contract worth 35% of the salary cap, in effect worth a projected maximum of $176 million over four years. He could also re-sign using shorter-term deals to maintain his leverage over a team that has stopped at nothing to ensure his comfort.
Though the severity of Leonard’s right knee injury is not known publicly, he is in a rare class of NBA star who could still command top dollar if he isn’t fully healthy when free agency begins. But should he return — a possibility that league insiders continue to believe is the most likely option, while reiterating the difficulty of reading Leonard’s intentions — his injury could dictate the Clippers’ plans in other ways.
Leonard just turned 30, and George is 31. Among the last 22 teams to win an NBA championship, only three — Boston in 2008, Dallas in 2011 and San Antonio in 2014 — have been led in scoring by a duo 30 or older. After surrounding Leonard and George this season with older veterans in hopes of capturing a title immediately, would Leonard’s health and history of injuries lead the front office to prioritize a younger supporting cast?
As a hedge against Leonard’s injury situation, the Clippers could also explore the market with what few draft and roster assets they have — this year’s first-round pick is the last they control outright until 2027 — in an attempt to trade for a player closer to the caliber of Leonard and George, potentially a guard who can relieve some of the playmaking burden the All-NBA wings shouldered so deftly this season. Potential trade chips could be the expiring contracts of Patrick Beverley and Rajon Rondo, a midseason addition who produced little impact during the playoffs, or guard Luke Kennard, whose opportunities to play didn’t match expectations after signing an extension in December worth a guaranteed $56 million
George, whose four-year, $190-million extension kicks in starting next season, is “definitely going to try my hardest to recruit” the team’s free agents, including Leonard, he said. “That’s all I can do.”
The Clippers looked brilliant when two of those veterans, 31-year-old guard Reggie Jackson and 32-year-old Batum, outperformed their minimum contracts during unexpected bounce-back seasons — which, in turn, could make them pricey to retain as they become unrestricted free agents in a market that will have several suitors for each.
Yet in the wake of the season-ending loss Wednesday, both profusely thanked the Clippers for helping to restore their confidence in themselves, with Jackson tearing up while describing “the most challenging year, the most fun year” of his 10 seasons. The Clippers, who are over the luxury tax line, could offer him a contract starting at $10 million, but if he gets a larger offer somewhere else would he still consider a return? George is Jackson’s closest friend, and his trust in Lue has only grown since the Clippers coach opened a direct dialogue with the guard during their first meeting of free agency last November.
“I can’t predict the future, I have no idea what happens, but this city, this organization, this fan base is special,” Jackson said. “It holds a special place in my heart forever. I’ll forever be a Clipper.”
While Lue had spent much of this season deflecting questions about the team’s past, saying their disappointing 2020 exit was no longer on their minds, the Clippers did not appear ready to move on quite yet in the hours after their season-ending loss.
“That was a special year,” Batum said. “I still can’t believe it, to be honest.”
Starting now, the Clippers’ focus is forward, into a future whose promise is not guaranteed.
“We want to do more,” Lue said. “And we’re going to do more.”
This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.