The Clippers pushed all their chips into the middle of the table to get Kawhi Leonard and Paul George.
Los Angeles traded Shai Gilgeous-Alexander, Danilo Gallinari, their own first-round picks in 2022, 2024, and 2026, two other first-round picks belonging to Miami (2021 and 2023), and agreed to pick-swaps with Oklahoma City 2023 and 2025. It was a lot, but it got them a two-time Finals MVP in his prime in Leonard and another top 10/15 player in the NBA in George.
It bought the Clippers a contender on paper — for two years. Leonard and George both have two years on their contracts and then both could walk.
Year one ended in a disappointing and embarrassing second-round at the hands of the Denver Nuggets, despite the Los Angeles Clippers being up 3-1 in the series and having comfortable leads in all three close-out games. It was one year of the two wasted.
Except if you ask George.
“Fact of the matter is, we didn’t live up to that [championship] expectation,” George said. “But I think internally, we’ve always felt, this is not a championship-or-bust year for us. You know, we can only get better the longer we stay together and the more we’re around each other. More chemistry for the group, the better. I think that’s really the tale of the tape of this season.
“We just didn’t have enough time together.”
That was a running theme in the Clippers’ postgame comments — they needed more time to build chemistry. Paul George, Kawhi Leonard, and the entire team needed more time on the court, something they didn’t get this season due to injury, load management, and the coronavirus upending the season.
“I think a lot of the issues that we ran into, talent bailed us out; chemistry it didn’t,” Lou Williams said. “In this series, it failed us. We know this is our first year together. We are a highly talented group and we came up short. Chemistry is something that you’ve got to build. You build it over time…. Continuity is very important, so we’ll be right back.”
“You know, honestly, I thought just you could see the difference in the two teams,” coach Doc Rivers said postgame. “That [Denver] team has been together, we haven’t, and you could see it as the games went on. They just knew each other so well.”
Rivers also brought up team conditioning multiple times. The Clippers were gassed in the fourth quarter and you could see it in their shooting — 33 points the entire second half, shooting 28.5% for the half and 3-of-18 from three.
“I thought conditioning, we kept having to take guys out because they were tired,” Rivers said. “You know, we’re in the playoffs,and you had to do it. Guys were asking to come out. So you had to do it, you know. But that’s not typical for Game 7, but it is what it is. You had to do it. I thought it hurt our rotations at times.”
Online — and for the next few days — the reaction to the Clippers’ loss was overreaction. There was talk of firing Doc Rivers, which is not happening — Leonard came to L.A. in part to play with Rivers. Any roster changes that are made will be done in consultation with Leonard because the Clippers want to keep him and George beyond next season.
What changes should the Clippers make?
“None. None,” George said. “First year together. You can’t even say we want to change our roster. We like what we got. I mean, we been saying it all year. Just chemistry, being together. The more we can be together, the better we’ll be. It’s year one. We’ve got a lot to reflect on. A lot to look at going forward and to get better with.”
The Clippers didn’t see their shortcomings as a talent issue, it was a chemistry issue.
“Just briefly, we had a conversation already amongst guys that we’ve got a quick turnaround,” Williams said. “We understand this is going to be a quick off-season and let’s get back to work and continue to build.
“You know, we did have championship expectations. We had the talent to do it. I don’t think we had the chemistry to do it and it showed. We had lapses on defense and offense where I think guys that played in systems where they were expected guys to be in certain spots offensively, a lot of different guys made adjustments. You know, it showed.”
If those same issues show up next year, then the Clippers will have even bigger problems.