There appear to be two theories surrounding the Clippers’ collapse in Orlando, and whichever is closer to the truth will define the franchise for the years to come.
Those who wish to sound the alarm claim Los Angeles is irreparably broken, armed with an insufficient second star and a leading man unable to truly lead a roster. That vision is likely a little panicked. George was legitimately terrible in the conference finals, but he still sports the skill set of an ideal partner alongside Leonard. As for the two-time Finals MVP, any questions regarding his playoff chops are absurd. The Clippers’ dynamic duo isn’t exactly the problem.
The other theory on Los Angeles’s implosion is a bit more measured. The Clippers entered the NBA bubble with little cohesion, spending the regular season juggling a flurry of injuries and ailments. The issue wasn’t solved in Orlando. The lack of shared reps illuminated a lack of comfort and trust, and the surrounding pieces around Leonard and George failed to deliver. Lou Williams never found his jumper. Montrezl Harrell and Marcus Morris couldn’t protect the rim. George and Leonard’s Game 7 shooting against Denver will get discussed ad nauseam, though in reality, the Clippers’ true shortcomings were on the margins. Steve Balmer’s superteam never quite found its groove in 2019–20.
The Clippers will now hit the reset button after their embarrassing performance in Orlando. Doc Rivers is now in Philadelphia, and former assistant Tyronn Lue will assume Rivers’s role as head coach. The choice appears to be a prudent one. Lue guided the Cavaliers to a championship in 2016, and, perhaps more impressively, he found a way to manage the LeBron James–Kyrie Irving partnership before Irving demanded a trade. LeBron coaches never quite get the respect they deserve, but make no mistake: Lue’s voice is a respected one. He should have command of the Clippers’ locker room from Day 1.
Can Lue bring Los Angeles back to the top of the title conversation in 2021? The answer is less dependent on the head coach than the players he’s given. George and Leonard aren’t going anywhere, but aside from the two stars, Los Angeles could be smart to give its roster a bit of a makeover. Marcus Morris is a free agent, and it’s healthiest if the Clippers let him fling jumpers somewhere else. The trade market is also worth exploring. Lou Williams remains an impact scorer, but his ball dominance–and defensive shortcomings–appeared to wear on Leonard and the Clippers in the postseason. Patrick Beverley similarly wore out his welcome. The Arkansas product remains an impactful on-ball defender, but he often appeared far more focused on intimidation than adhering to a team scheme.
The Lakers were able to coax the most out of their supporting cast in the bubble, allowing their non-All-Stars to thrive in very specific roles. The Clippers didn’t follow suit. Their complimentary pieces often ran the show, much to the team’s detriment. Rivers is now on the East Coast as a result, and Lue is left to clean up the damage.
A rocky 2019–20 could be followed by a busy offseason in Los Angeles. It’s likely the Clippers’ attempt to refine their guard and wing rotations, looking for players who are more malleable regardless of their situation. Los Angeles also faces a decision with Harrell. The forward’s lack of minutes was a sore spot in the 2020 playoffs, but if Harrell is willing to return in free agency—a distinct possibility given the league’s current economic outlook–a potential deal is something the Clippers should welcome. The Leonard-Harrell pairing torched opponents to the tune of plus-14.4 points per 100 possessions in 2019–20. Los Angeles is likely to pursue a new contract for the small-ball center given a reasonable free-agent market.
Lue will change roles with the Clippers in the midst of a relative crisis point for the organization, with the clock now ticking before George’s and Leonard’s potential opt-outs following the 2020–21 season. But in some ways, the timing of the move is perfect for the former Cavs coach. Lue has spent the last season building equity with the Clippers’ stars and supporting cast, and the situation he enters in 2020–21 should be far more stable than last year. George and Leonard should be ready for a full season together. The roster should feature more dependable pieces and fewer egos. There’s still the requisite talent for a Finals appearance, even in the gantlet that is the West. Lue previously coaxed the most out of an imperfect situation in Cleveland. Now armed with different Finals MVP in Los Angeles, Lue is in prime position to add a second ring in 2021.