A full retrospective on the 2020-21 LA Clippers season is going to take some time and distance, and an exact evaluation of their talent may never be achieved. The 2021 playoffs were a bloodbath of injuries from which LA was not excluded; Kawhi Leonard went down with a knee injury in Game 4 of the Western Conference Semifinals, and the Clippers were forced to face off against the teams with the two best records in the league without him.
They defeated the Utah Jazz on the backs of Paul George and unlikely hero Terance Mann, and took the Finals-bound Phoenix Suns to six games despite missing their superstar (and starting center Ivica Zubac for games 5 and 6). How far would they have gone if they were healthy? Impossible to say, not to mention the same can be asked about their opponents. Utah was missing Mike Conley for most of their series, Donovan Mitchell was hobbled throughout it, and Phoenix was without their leader in Chris Paul for Games 1 and 2 of the Conference Finals. Playing what-if is a futile exercise if you’re not a talking-heads debate show. All we can do is analyze the data we were given and consider the caliber of this Clipper team.
While this year’s team by no means made waves in the vast ocean that is NBA history, it might as well have been a tsunami in the dinky kiddie pool that is Clipper history. The franchise finally broke through to the Conference Finals (the Charlotte Hornets and New Orleans Pelicans are now the only remaining teams to never make it that far), a barrier that haunted LA for decades, and at times felt forever unattainable throughout the myriad second-round exits during the Chris Paul/Blake Griffin era.
The Lob City Clippers were held to the same level of scrutiny as this current Kawhi Leonard/Paul George-led team: they were title contenders with two of the top fifteen players in the league leading them, and anything short of a championship would be considered a failure. By these standards, both teams fell short, but that sort of binary thinking minimizes the strides they made. Both teams played roles in lifting the Clipper franchise out of perpetual mediocrity and into relevance. The Lob City teams were trailblazers in that sense, fighting a little-brother stigma following decades of Laker dominance and establishing themselves in a particularly stacked Western Conference. So, it seems a worthwhile exercise to compare the two, and consider whether this most recent iteration of the Clippers was truly the best in franchise history.
Which Lob City team?
Before we compare across eras, let’s compare within them. On Basketball Reference’s handy Clippers index page, there are two seasons that consistently stand out among the Paul/Griffin era statistically: 2013-14 and 2014-15. (2012-13 also pops up frequently, but that team lost in the First Round of the playoffs and was coached by Vinny Del Negro, so let’s just back away slowly from it.)
‘14 ranks highest in Clipper history in terms of win percentage at 69.5%, finishing with one more win (57) than ‘15 (56). Splitting hairs. Basketball Reference also provides a “Simple Rating System,” a stat that factors in point differential and strength of schedule, denominated in points above/below average. ‘14 once again leads all teams with a 7.27 SRS score, with ‘15 coming in second at 6.8 (‘21 ranks fifth at 6.02). Offensively, the two teams are neck and neck (112.9 offensive rating in ‘14 compared to 113.2 in ‘15, both of which were league-leaders). Defensively, ‘14 once again holds the edge, finishing with a 105.6 offensive rating (ninth in the league that season) compared to ‘15’s 106.2 (sixteenth in the league). Statistically, it seems ‘14 is slightly superior in the regular season, particularly when factoring in that they were able to withstand a 20-game absence from Chris Paul (he sprained his right shoulder) thanks in part to their superior depth (going from Darren Collison in ‘14 to a young Austin Rivers in ‘15 was quite the downgrade at the time). However, teams are truly tested in the playoffs, and the Clippers’ first real superstar didn’t truly reach his apex until the following postseason.
Griffin is an intriguing character in this morass. He finished third in MVP voting in ‘14, having arguably the best regular season of his career (averaging 24.1 points, 9.5 rebounds and 3.9 assists on a career-high 58.3% true shooting) and lifting his team to the No. 3 seed despite his running mate Paul missing 20 games. However, his ‘15 playoff run was probably the best 14-game stretch of his career: 25.5 points, 12.7 rebounds and 6.1 assists (all postseason career-highs) against the defending champion San Antonio Spurs and James Harden-led Houston Rockets (more on the latter series in a bit). He was at his peak playmaking self, notching all three of his career playoff triple-doubles in that run. His ball-handling progression intersected with his athletic peak, and he assumed the role of point forward while still being able to coexist with Paul. When factoring in the stakes and strength of their opponents, ‘15 Griffin gets the slight edge.
This debate could also simply come down to which playoff collapse was less embarrassing. ‘14 was tough; allowing a seven-point advantage to slip away with 49.2 seconds to go in Game 5 thanks to a couple of bone-headed choices from Chris Paul (and an impossible three from MVP Kevin Durant, who put up and absurd 33.2 points, 9.5 rebounds and 5.3 assists on 61% true shooting in that series) was frustrating, and it encapsulated Paul’s tendency to get in his own way from time to time.
He temporarily redeemed himself in ‘15, hitting a series-winning jumper with time expiring in Game 7 of Round 1 against the Spurs. However, the following series would end in an even more stunning failure: a blown 3-1 lead to the Houston Rockets highlighted by a Josh Smith/Corey Brewer-led 19-point comeback in Game 6.
The ‘15 collapse was probably less repeatable if simulated 100 times compared to the ‘14 one. It should also be noted that Paul missed Games 1 and 2 of that series with a hamstring injury suffered in Game 7 of the previous series, and the Clippers went 1-1 in his absence. If he were available, would they have swept the Rockets? Yet another what-if scenario to pitch to First Take.
Ultimately ‘14 was the better regular-season team, but after factoring in Griffin’s elevated play in the 2015 postseason, it becomes clear that the ‘15 team had a slightly higher ceiling (which is what matters most) despite some glaring mental weaknesses and a more shallow bench.
‘15 vs. ‘21
When examining this question initially, it’s tempting to presume that this isn’t even a close competition. One team made the Conference Finals, and the other didn’t. Shouldn’t that be enough? Maybe, but it feels a bit diminishing to decide this debate based on a single loss. A dive into the numbers and a comparison of rosters is necessary before jumping to conclusions.
Upon first glance at the two teams’ regular-season defensive ratings, ‘15 appears far superior (105.5 points allowed per 100 possessions compared to 111.2). However, when comparing each team’s rating to the league average of their respective seasons (this factors in the increased pace and uptick in three-point shooting in ‘21, thanks again to Basketball Reference) we see that ‘21 is actually slightly more stout defensively (-1.1 compared to -0.1).
This checks out based on the eye test. Though the ‘15 team had a prolific shot-blocker in DeAndre Jordan and a perennial All-Defense guard in Paul, the ‘21 team’s ability to go small and switch everything made them more versatile on the perimeter. After years of clamoring for any sort of competency on the wing beyond the overtaxed Matt Barnes, the Clippers assembled possibly the best collection of three-and-D wings in the NBA in ‘21 with Leonard, George, Marcus Morris Sr. and Nicolas Batum creating a long-armed wall along the perimeter. It is also worth mentioning that Ivica Zubac is no slouch as a rim-protector himself, and Serge Ibaka would’ve contributed as a shot-blocking stretch five as well were he not injured for nearly all of the ‘21 postseason. Additionally, the weak defensive links of JJ Reddick, Jamal Crawford and occasionally Griffin made the ‘15 team more vulnerable to isolation-hunting than the ‘21 team, who even had All-Defense level players coming off the bench in the form of Patrick Beverley.
Offensively, both teams were spectacular, finishing top-three in the league in terms of offensive rating in their respective seasons (‘15 even held a higher offensive rating than the eventual champion Golden State Warriors). Despite Paul and Griffin’s proclivity for the midrange jumper, ‘15 was already playing a solid version of Moreyball, ranking in the top five of the league in both free-throw attempts and three-point attempts. The Paul/Griffin, Paul/Jordan and even the occasional Griffin/Jordan pick-and-rolls were still the team’s bread-and-butter, but strangely enough, they ranked in the bottom five in terms of shots attempted at the rim. Lob City was evolving by that point, and the addition of Reddick allowed for more complex off-ball movement. They still lacked the stretch-four they so desperately desired (that season, the torch was passed to Hedo Turkoglu for the honorary role of past-his-prime stretch-four that Lamar Odom, Danny Granger and Antawn Jamison held in years past), but Griffin’s continually progressing jumpshot granted just enough space for Paul to orchestrate. It was a solid yet imperfect offensive team, and Paul’s innate ability to find his guys in their preferred spots without ever making mistakes (‘15 ranked third in the league in assist/turnover ratio that season, a staple for any Paul team) elevated them to greatness.
Fast forward six years, and the ‘21 team was scrutinized all season for not having that type of orchestrator. They had two dominant offensive wings in their prime, along with the most efficient three-point shooting cast in the NBA (41.1% from deep for the season, fourth-highest in league history), but they were deemed incomplete throughout the regular season for not having a true point guard who could “get Leonard and George the ball in their spots.” They traded for that point guard in Rajon Rondo, but come playoff time, he was squeezed from the rotation. Instead, they relied on a scoring guard in Reggie Jackson who was shockingly crucial to LA’s postseason success, particularly after Leonard went down with his knee injury. Jackson was sensational, and added yet another offensive threat to a lineup that could kill an opponent in so many different ways. Leonard was a master both in pick-and-roll and in the post; George and Batum found success in offball movement; Morris could isolate on the block; Zubac was an above-average finisher at the rim. Low and behold, the lack of an orchestrator never reared its head in the postseason.
Once again, versatility seems to be the key distinction. The ‘15 team was great at what they did, but the ‘21 team was great at so many different things. Beyond a transition threat, they really had no weaknesses offensively when they were firing on all cylinders.
It’s a bit reductive, but these debates can often be settled by who had the better top-end talent. Tough to say, as these are two pantheon-level players by any statistical measurement. Paul ranks ninth all-time in PER, with Leonard not too far behind at no. 23.
Narrowing it down to the two seasons at hand, both players put up monster numbers, as to be expected. Paul averaged 22.1 points and 8.8 assists on 50.3/41.5/94.1 shooting splits in the 2015 postseason, his most efficient playoff run ever in which he played more than one series. As great as Griffin was in that run, Paul was always the engine that made the Clippers go, and he was excellent for the most part in ‘15.
Being the team’s best player, he warrants much of the blame for their 3-1 collapse against Houston, but it can’t be said that he went down without a fight. He averaged 26.3 points and 10.3 assists in those three straight losses on a bum hamstring (which, again, kept him out of the first two games of the series).
Even so, it’s hard to imagine Paul putting up the God-level performance that Leonard did in Game 6 against the Dallas Mavericks to save their season. Facing elimination, the Claw dropped 45 points on 18-25 shooting while playing lockdown defense on Luka Doncic for stretches on the other end. He was other-worldly, hitting impossible, contested jumpers as if he were in an open gym.
Game 6 wasn’t an isolated incident, either. It was one of five 30+ point performances in Leonard’s 11-game run, in which he averaged 30.4 points on a playoff career-high 62.2% true shooting clip. He was by no means the passer that Paul was, but he was a scoring machine the likes of which had never before been seen in a Clipper uniform in the postseason. When factoring in Leonard’s prowess as a lockdown defender of both guards and bigger forwards, it’s hard to argue that he has the slight edge in terms of individual play.
As previously stated, Griffin was at his peak in ‘15. It could easily be argued that he was LA’s best player for stretches in that run, or at the very least their most talented. In the two games against Houston that Paul missed, he averaged 30 points, 14.5 rebounds and 8.5 assists, though he was unable to will his team to a Game 2 win that could’ve completed the sweep (James Harden had 32 in the 115-109 Rockets win).
Griffin was a unicorn for his time (it feels strange to write about him as an artifact of a different era), and this made him invaluable to the ‘15 team. His speed, strength and finishing ability made him a walking mismatch, either blowing by traditional power forwards (remember those?) or muscling through threes masquerading as fours. He was a co-alpha, and he would later prove in Detroit that his success was by no means a byproduct of Paul’s greatness.
But the ‘21 team had their own co-alpha, and he too stepped up in place of his injured running mate. With Leonard out, George dropped 37 points in Game 5 against the Jazz and 41 in Game 5 against the Suns to stave off elimination. While his postseason run wasn’t uber-efficient (57.8 TS% is still extremely solid given his career-high 30.5% usage rate), he reverted back to the primary playmaker role he had in Indiana when Leonard went down and didn’t miss a beat.
George’s shooting (41.1% from deep in the regular season in ‘21), along with his offball movement, improved playmaking and still-solid perimeter defense, make him one of the most scalable players in recent memory. He can fit anywhere, and he’s a perfect compliment to Leonard. He effectively ended the ‘Pandemic P’ narrative with his ‘21 run, silencing critics and willing his team to the Conference Finals.
Doc Rivers can’t be solely to blame for LA’s blown 3-1 lead in 2015, particularly because he wasn’t playing in any of the games himself. Having said that, his inability to make adjustments and get the most of the players that were actually in uniform was frustrating to say the least. Even so, he was a solid coach, often drawing up clever after-timeout plays and empowering his guys. It should be noted that Griffin ascended from an All-Star to a superstar under Rivers. Would that development have happened no matter who was the coach? Yet another what-if.
Rather than bash Rivers (a championship coach), let’s celebrate Tyronn Lue. A shrewd tactician, Lue kept his trump card (the small-ball lineup) hidden up his sleeve for much of the regular season before unleashing it in the playoffs. Where Rivers was static, Lue was malleable, switching from drop coverage to a switching scheme to a zone to a trap at the drop of a hat, just to keep the opposing offense guessing. He wasn’t afraid to try things, and if they didn’t work, he went away from them and moved on to another experiment without hesitation. Sure, he had a roster flexible enough to pull off these experiments, but he ultimately gave the orders. He didn’t waver in the face of injuries, continuing to preach his next-man-up montra. He gets the edge.
The ‘21 team was by no means perfect. They fell down 0-2 in all three of their playoff series, putting themselves in sticky situation after sticky situation and continually asking their superstars to bail them out with huge performances. They also relied on their three-point shooting quite a bit, and the variance in the long ball often took its toll. But those superstars did bail them out, and their faith in their shooting was properly placed, as it also won them multiple games throughout the run.
Ultimately, their talent and versatility, whether it be that of their stars, role players or bench pieces, places them ahead of the ‘15 team. Paul and Griffin were a dynamic pair that ultimately harmonized well, but they were just a bit more solvable than the Leonard/George duo. Beyond the stars, the ‘21 team’s supporting cast offered more two-way assistance, and their bench ran deeper.
It’s cliche, but the ‘15 team walked so the ‘21 team could run to the Conference Finals. The culture shifted for the better at some point during the Paul/Griffin era, and this shift intrigued a superstar like Leonard enough to bring him home in free agency. It sounds preposterous, but the story of the Clipper franchise the last two-ish decades has actually been one of ascension. Slow, painful, sometimes stagnating ascension, but an upward angle for the most part nonetheless (the ‘06 team crawled so the ‘15 team could walk). Who knows if ‘21 will wind up being its peak (fans should hope not) but it’s the highest it’s ever been.