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The Los Angeles Clippers underachieved in the 2020 NBA playoffs and their championship window has significantly diminished.
The Los Angeles Clippers were the presumptive favors to win the 2020 NBA championship.
Like many analysts, I thought the Clippers had arguably the best defensive team possibly in NBA history on paper. It appeared that they had one of the top three players in the NBA in Kawhi Leonard and one of the best duos in NBA history. Moreover, the Clippers also have one of the best coaches in the NBA. I thought the Clippers would eventually lose to the Los Angeles Lakers because of the playoff experience of the veteran players on the Lakers. However, little did anybody know that the Clippers would close in the Western Conference Semifinals to the Denver Nuggets.
Among active sports franchises, no franchise has gone longer without making a Conference Finals appearance than the Clippers. They have gone 50 seasons without making a deep playoff run. This is something that the Clippers should have not taken for granted going into game 7 against the Nuggets. The Clippers should have made it to the Western Conference Finals, however, this team still has a future ahead of it.
Some Clipper fans may blame the bubble environment. However, all playoff teams had to deal with playing in the bubble. This was not a confounding factor for just the Clippers. When they played through the season, they were just not as good as many people expected. It was especially telling when they showed difficulty beating the Dallas Mavericks in round one.
Part of the reason for their disappointing season is team chemistry. However, the other part is that basketball is a team sport and it matters about the sum of the team's parts. The Clippers are better individually than they are as a collective team.
The Clippers will continue to be a competitive team well into the future. And Leonard remains one of the best players in basketball.
However, the 2020 playoffs were the best window the Clippers had to win an NBA championship. The next seasons bring in more uncertainty and more competition into the NBA. Many of the players on the LAC's roster may not be on their roster next season.
Why was the 2020 playoffs the best window for the Clippers to win an NBA championship? Because Kevin Durant, the Golden State Warriors, and Milwaukee Bucks were either eliminated or not in the 2020 playoffs. Next season is only going to be harder for the Clippers to make it to the Conference Finals. The Los Angeles Lakers are only to get better.
The effort they went through for years to clear cap space and to sign Kawhi was historic. The Clippers paid a higher price to sign Kawhi than arguably any team has done to sign a superstar in NBA history. And they learned the hard way that Kawhi is not a panacea for winning a championship. While true of most championship teams, Kawhi and the Toronto Raptors had quite a bit of luck on their side.
Despite Kawhi only playing 60 games for the Raptors in the 2018-19 season, the Raptors were able to win 58 games and obtain 2nd seed for the 2019 NBA playoffs. This gave them a home-court advantage over their opponents through the first two rounds. This turned out to be critical for the success of the Raptors. As the Raptors were 3-1 at home in their series against the Philadelphia 76ers. Even with home-court advantage, it took a game-winning shot in game 7 for the Raptors to win the Eastern Conference Semifinals and advance to the Conference finals.
In the Eastern Conference Finals, the Raptors were down 0-2 to the Bucks. Before the Raptors won the conference finals, NBA teams down 0-2 in the Conference Finals were 5-51. History would suggest that there was over a 90% chance that the Raptors should have lost the Eastern Conference Finals. The Raptors are an amazing team and without Kawhi won more regular-season games for the 2019-20 season than the Clippers.
Durant was injured for all but one game of the 2019 NBA finals and Klay Thompson suffered injuries that left him out of game 3 of the NBA finals. And in game 6, Klay’s injuries kept him from playing the entire game. Oh and let’s not forget, Lebron Jamen’s injury that kept the Lakers sideline from the NBA playoffs.
Kawhi’s free agency left many NBA franchises in limbo as teams waited for him to make his decision. The Clippers managed to land Paul George in a trade to pair with Leonard. The Clippers gave up Danilo Gallinari, Shai Gilgeous-Alexander, 5 first-round picks, and 2 first-round pick swaps. To further increase their odds of winning a title, midway through the season the Clippers traded 2 first-round picks, 1 second-round pick, and Maurice Harkless to get Marcus Morris. Not to mention that the Clippers guaranteed Patrick Beverly and Ivica Zubac over 60 million dollars.
However, anything can happen in sports. Next season, Durant emerges from his injury, and the Warriors return after adding the 2nd pick in the 2020 NBA draft to their roster. Next season is not going to be any easier to win a championship. The Clippers sacrificed nearly a decade worth of draft picks and three players to build this roster. Moreover, George and Leonard may not be with the franchise on a long term basis.
However, the current Clippers roster is not likely to last. George or Kawhi may take their player option in the third year. Let’s not forget that Lou Williams is only under contract with the Clippers for one more season and Harrell is not under contract with the Clippers next season. Morris is also not under contract for the Clippers next season. Williams and Harrell could get massive long term contracts from other teams in the future. There will most likely be significant roster changes.
Moreover, other teams are going to make changes next season as well. The New Orleans Pelicans, Houston Rockets, Indiana Pacers, Philadelphia 76ers, and Oklahoma City Thunder are searching for head coaches. Some of these teams may be title contenders in the future.
Other players could be moving teams as well. DeMar DeRozan, Andre Drummond, and Gordon Hayward have player options. Fred VanVleet could be moving teams and Brandon Ingram is a restricted free agent. These players moving teams could change the dynamics of many teams.
So, how did the Clippers lose? They underestimated the Nuggets and their stars did not play well in game 7 of the Western Conference Semifinals. In game 7, Kawhi only scored 14 points and George only scored 10 points. It felt like the Nuggets understood that they were playing in a game 7.
Granted Nikola Jokic and Jamal Murray have shown in the 2020 playoffs that they are NBA stars. And Jokic and Murray played accordingly in game 7. Murray scored 40 points in game 7 and Jokic had a triple-double. Four players on the Nuggets’s roster outscored George in game 7. And four players on the Clippers’s roster outscored George. Harrell was the leading scorer for the Clippers and he only had 20 points. Not to mention Harrell only got 25 minutes of playing time.
This series is very similar to how the Mavericks beat the Miami Heat in the 2011 NBA finals. In that finals, the Heat underestimated the Mavericks and the Mavericks had the depth to make adjustments necessary to win the series.
Anything short of losing to the Lakers in the 2019-20 season is a disappointment for the Clippers. It is going to take time for the Clippers to build a championship team. The Clippers need to make some changes to their roster and not take any opponent for granted. However, this goes to show you how hard it is to win an NBA title. This is something I am sure Bill Russell would agree with.
Few franchises are lucky enough to have a Lebron or a Durant on their roster. There are other ways to build great teams. It's called building a team through the draft. It's called defense, depth, and coaching. This is a concept that the Nuggets grasp well. The Clippers ignored team chemistry and the process necessary to build a championship team. And the result is that the Nuggets are heading to the Western Conference Finals. And It is only going to get harder for the Clippers next season.
This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.
© 2020 Michael Mannen