In 2019, the LA Clippers made two franchise-altering moves that changed the team's trajectory and direction for the foreseeable future. We are, of course, talking about LA's acquisition of Kawhi Leonard and Paul George, two players that immediately vaulted the team into title-contending territory.
Throughout the entirety of the season, the Clippers were considered to be favorites to make it to the NBA Finals and win the championship. Even when the Los Angeles Lakers overtook their spot in the conversation, the Clippers were still right there with them, and it looked like a meeting between the two in the postseason was inevitable.
The potential matchup was hyped-up as the de-facto NBA Finals by some, as the Lakers and Clippers were widely considered to be 1a and 1b on the list of title contenders, even after the league brought the game down to Orlando.
The Lakers held up their end of the deal, making light work of the Portland Trail Blazers and Houston Rockets in the first two rounds of the playoffs.
The Clippers, on the other hand, suffered a monumental collapse at the hands of the Denver Nuggets and fell just shy of reaching that ever-elusive spot in the Western Conference Finals.
LA's elimination came as a surprise to most, but those close to the team saw it coming from many miles away.
There were a number of reasons why the Clippers fell short, all with varying levels of importance. A reluctance to make adjustments and hold players accountable was a big reason. Team chemistry was another. There was a lack of continuity — mostly due to health concerns, but also because of the five-month-long hiatus.
It was clear that changes would be necessary if LA was going to win a title with Leonard and George leading the way, and in the last few months, the Clippers have capitalized on some of the mistakes that were made last year.
But with one week remaining until the Clippers begin their preseason slate, it remains unclear if the franchise has done enough to improve upon last year's issues and put itself in position to win an NBA title in 2021.
Perhaps the biggest — and most overlooked — change the Clippers made this offseason was completely revamping the coaching staff. It's been framed as a simple switch from Doc Rivers to Tyronn Lue, who, beyond his years with the Cleveland Cavaliers, has spent his time coaching in the NBA attached to Rivers' hip, but it's a much more dramatic change than it may seem.
Not only is Rivers out, but a majority of his coaching staff is gone as well. Brendan O'Connor and Jeremy Castleberry (a close friend of Leonard's) are the only two coaches that have been retained, while Lue has obviously taken the reigns.
Joining them on the sidelines are Dan Craig, Kenny Atkinson, Chauncey Billups, Larry Drew and Roy Rogers — five coaches that have an abundance of know-how and league experience.
Craig, Lue's associate head coach, spent 17 years with the Miami Heat and received plenty of consideration for the numerous head coaching vacancies that opened up over the last several months.
Atkinson played 14 years of professional basketball before joining the New York Knicks as an assistant in 2008. Billups was one of the most dominant point guards of the 2000s and possesses an extremely high basketball IQ. Drew has nearly 30 years of NBA coaching experience under his belt. Rogers adds another 12.
Not only will this group place a larger emphasis on player development than there was under Rivers, but with Lue at the helm, there's already a certain confidence that the Clippers will play a more cohesive game and will be held accountable if and when things go awry.
To this day, Lue still doesn't receive much credit for coaching the Cavaliers to their 2016 NBA Finals victory over the Golden State Warriors, as has been the norm with LeBron James-led teams. But according to former Sports Illustrated writer Lee Jenkins, Lue was unafraid to challenge James at halftime of Game 7, when Cleveland trailed by seven points.
“Stop being so passive!” the coach barked. “Stop turning the ball over! And guard Draymond!” James’s numbers looked fine—12 points, seven rebounds, five assists—but he had unleashed a few sloppy passes and Draymond Green, his primary assignment, was 5 for 5 from three-point range. “Bron was mad, pissed off at me, and then we went into the locker room at halftime and I told him the same thing in front of all the guys,” Lue recalls. “He was mad again, pissed off again.”
After Lue finished, he saw James approach assistant coach Damon Jones in the locker room and overheard their exchange. “It’s messed up that T Lue is questioning me right now,” James said. The Cavaliers trailed by seven. The season was slipping.
“Everything I read all year is that you want to be coached, want to be held accountable, and trust T Lue,” Jones replied. “Why not trust him now?”
James was still rankled. He moved on to James Jones, his long-time teammate, who has ridden shotgun to the past six Finals. “I can’t believe this,” LeBron said.
“Well,” Jones responded, “is he telling the truth?”
Lue, ducking in and out of a back office, kept an eye on LeBron. “He stormed out of the locker room,” Lue says. The coach laughs as he tells the story. “I didn’t really think he was playing that bad,” Lue admits. “But I used to work for Doc Rivers in Boston, and he told me, ‘I never want to go into a Game 7 when the best player is on the other team.’ We had the best player. We needed him to be his best. I know he might have been tired, but f--- that. We had to ride him. And he had to take us home.”
The Cavaliers eventually came back to win the game and the series despite once trailing 3-1 to the Warriors.
That's the kind of resolve, accountability and on-the-same-page thinking the Clippers needed at the end of last season. Now, they'll get it.
But coaching is only about half of the game, depending on who you ask. It's one thing to put a gameplan in place, but it's another to have it properly executed by the roster. That, unfortunately, is where things get a bit more dicey when it comes to LA's offseason.
For the most part, the front office improved in the areas where the team faltered last season.
In what was likely the most significant roster move, LA got a two-way big in Serge Ibaka to give the Clippers a better shot at defending the likes of Anthony Davis and Nikola Jokic, the latter of whom dominated the minutes that Ivica Zubac spent off the floor in the Denver series.
Ibaka isn't the intimidating rim protector he once was with the Oklahoma City Thunder at the start of his career, but he's evolved his game in other areas — namely from behind the three-point arc, where he converted at a 38.5% rate last season — to keep up with the modern NBA and remain one of the most versatile seven-footers in the league.
He may not offer the same intensity and physicality as Montrezl Harrell does in the paint, but Ibaka is a markedly better playoff performer, is a much better fit with the rest of the roster and will help shore up some of the defensive issues exposed by Denver and the Dallas Mavericks.
Re-signing Marcus Morris Sr. may have been equally important to the team's postseason success, especially after losing JaMychal Green to the Nuggets.
Morris Sr. didn't make much of a positive impact in the first handful of games he played for the Clippers, averaging just 9.5 points on 28.3% shooting from three-point range through his first 12 contests. But things improved significantly in the bubble, and Morris Sr. slowly started to become the 3-and-D wing that LA had hoped to receive when it traded away numerous assets for him earlier in the season.
His three-point shot really started falling against Dallas, but it was arguably his defense that made him more valuable. He defended Luka Doncic well in the absence of Patrick Beverley — even performing comparably to Leonard and George — and that trend continued into the second round. He tailed off a bit in the latter half of the series, but that was true for virtually every other member of the team as well.
The Clippers may have overpaid to keep him in Los Angeles, but that looks less offensive when considering the lack of replacements that were available in free agency at his position. Danilo Gallinari, Jerami Grant and Davis Bertans were out of LA's price range, Paul Millsap is on the decline and Jae Crowder's inconsistency from deep isn't worth gambling on at such a price.
Patrick Patterson is presumably the player that will slide into Green's old spot in the second unit, though he won't be playing as large a role. Patterson isn't the shooter or glass-cleaner that Green is, and he's not someone you'd want to rely on to play significant minutes at the five in a playoff series. Fortunately, that should only happen in the event of a blowout or health crisis.
Instead, the Clippers will rely on Ibaka to make up for the three-point shooting and rebounding formerly provided by Green.
Patterson is a fine backup in the regular season, but once the Clippers shorten up the rotation in the postseason, there's almost no chance he sees the floor.
Sticking with the second unit, the Clippers also traded with the Detroit Pistons for guard Luke Kennard, moving off the contract of Rodney McGruder and parting ways with Landry Shamet in the process.
Moving away from McGruder (and replacing him with Nic Batum) is a plus for the Clippers. Batum certainly had his offensive struggles in his time with the Charlotte Hornets, but the extra length, defense and passing he provides at the position should help ease Leonard's load in the playoffs if he makes the rotation. And given how quickly Leonard tired out at the end of the Denver series, this move could potentially address a big need.
As for Kennard, he has a certain "nastiness" to his game that wasn't there with Shamet, as The Clipset Podcast's Joseph Raya-Ward puts it. He's a little better off the dribble, a good penetrator with a consistent mid-range shot and is overall more capable of creating his own looks. For his shooting alone, he should excel in Lue's system.
Kennard is the better ball-handler as well, which gives the Clippers another playmaker to work with off the bench. Per Cleaning the Glass, his assist percentage in 2019-20 ranked in the 89th percentile among wings.
That said, there's reason to be concerned about Kennard in the long-term, as the 24-year-old has already dealt with some rather significant health issues during his three-year NBA career.
Kennard appeared in just 28 games for Detroit last season, making his final appearance on Dec. 21. Bilateral knee tendinitis kept him sidelined for the remainder of the year, though he was scheduled to make his return just days after the NBA season was suspended in March.
He's since made it clear that his knee issues are behind him, but it will be up to LA's medical staff to ensure Kennard stays on the floor.
Like Shamet, Kennard's offense should translate well into the playoffs, but his defense is a concern as well. He's bigger and longer than Shamet, but running him in lineups along better defenders like George and Leonard will be key to the team's success. Given's Lue's track record when it comes to staggering, there's a good chance that Kennard won't have to log a single minute with Reggie Jackson and Lou Williams once the postseason rolls around.
The decision to bring Jackson back is one that comes in stark contrast to the Ibaka signing, as Ibaka addresses a need while Jackson creates one.
The veteran point guard was the Clippers' worst playoff performer last season by a considerable margin. His decision-making was questionable at best, often settling for a difficult take to the rim or a contested three-pointer early in the shot clock. His defense was in the same realm, allowing Monte Morris, Tim Hardaway Jr., Trey Burke and Seth Curry to shoot a combined 19-of-31 (61.2%) from the field, per NBA Stats.
He did manage to connect on 53.1% of his looks from three-point range, but even that wasn't enough to keep him from being cut out of the rotation once Beverley returned in the Denver series.
While it's a minor move in the grand scheme that may not end up affecting the Clippers in the playoffs, it feels like one of the major missteps of LA's offseason.
If a player like George Hill would become available at some point in the season and there's a legitimate need to replace Jackson, LA may now need to consider dealing Williams to get a playable backup point guard that can compete in the postseason.
As currently constructed, this Clippers team looks as though it was built more with the playoffs in mind compared to previous versions. LA finally has a coach that's willing to — and capable of — making adjustments on the fly, a roster versatile enough to win games whether it goes big or small and on either end of the floor, and the chip on the shoulder that was so desperately needed last season.
That said, it also doesn't feel like the Clippers improved as much as they could have — especially when the Lakers had such a successful offseason. For that alone, it's understandable why some Clippers fans have been left clamoring for more or hoping that LA might have one last move up its proverbial sleeve. But it's important to keep in mind that the championship isn't won or lost in free agency. LA can continue to improve upon its roster by way of trade all the way up until this year's trade deadline, which is still roughly four months off.
It's championship-or-bust now for LA. Don't expect this franchise to leave anything off the table as it pursues its first-ever NBA title.