The LA Clippers weren’t supposed to have a ton of memories made this season. If you asked people around the league — NBA media members, Las Vegas bettors, or really anyone who was semi in-tune with the game of basketball at the professional level — they would have told you the Clippers weren’t going to surprise anyone. No star, an owner whose eyes were already fixated on the 2019 offseason, and an injury-riddled squad that was going to have to rely heavily on a 32-year-old bench player (Lou Williams), an unproven quadruple-traded wing (Tobias Harris), and a 30-year-old, 6’11” walking bruise (Danilo Gallinari). Win projections ranged from the high 20’s to the mid 30’s. There was no way this team could replicate what it did last season and have a winning record in the West. Not this year. With a head coach who had been semi-demoted a year prior, a new lead assistant in Rex Kalamian after Mike Woodson stepped down, and a front office only a year old, the chips were stacked against LA big time.
Well, they responded pretty well. The Clippers took a liking to all of the critiques on their roster and played with massive chips on their shoulders, propelling their rag-tag bunch to a playoff berth in one of the more competitive conferences in sports. They came together as a unit, built chemistry, trusted each other and the coaching staff, stayed healthy, got unexpected contributions, and improved individually. Meanwhile, the front office made incredibly smart moves to improve the team in the now and for the future. What more could you ask for in a season?
It’s crazy that, in the West, 48 wins gets you the eighth seed. And yes, playing the Warriors is not ideal. However, what better test for our young players and wily vets to prove something on a national stage? Stealing a game or two — or having close games throughout — against a team with five potential Hall-of-Famers on it would be a good look. Them winning is incredibly unlikely, but performing well in front of Kevin Durant and Klay Thompson, both free agents this summer, and the rest of the NBA viewing public will help them in recruiting FA’s and maintain their surprising relevancy this season.
This season brought more than a few good memories for fans and was quite eventful. Let’s take a look at the storylines that defined the Clippers 2018-19 season, shall we?
1. Never count this team out
Let’s just paint this picture quickly. Your team has just traded its leading scorer and rebounder three days prior. You’ve had one day to practice with a new team away from home. You are facing a team with oodles of talent on both ends of the court in one of the rowdiest arenas in the league, where the team is 22-7. You have two new starters and two new bench players who don’t know the playbook. What do you do? Set a franchise record for the largest comeback ever, that’s what.
The Clippers were third in clutch offense this season, and had five players in the top 45 in clutch plus/minus. Lou Williams was fifth in fourth quarter points averaged, and the team shot 48.2 percent in the final minutes of games. This type of late-game efficiency was essential to the Clippers garnering 48 wins and their fight in clawing their way back in games had Clips fans filled with pride. During the Clippers annual “Grammy road trip,” they pulled off three 20+ point comebacks in five games, which had never been done before in NBA history. For the season, the Clips had 10 wins where they came back from a deficit of 10+ and four wins after a 15 point deficit. LA was also 5-1 in overtime games, with the latest win coming against the Utah Jazz, a team the Clips hadn’t beat in two years. Having the Clippers never really be out of games was great for fans and showed how much fight this team had.
Danilo Gallinari on preseason belief LAC could make playoffs: "We had no doubt that we could make it to the playoffs. I guess all the basketball people are not very smart saying that we couldn't make it to the playoffs. We're just a little smarter than them."— Andrew Greif (@AndrewGreif) April 12, 2019
2. Montrezl Harrell truly breaks out
Last season, Montrezl Harrell averaged 11 points per game and played 17 minutes per contest, the only guy in the league to reach that many points in 17 minutes or less. The Clips knew they had a diamond in the rough with Harrell, and re-signed him to a 2 year, $12 million deal that now looks like one of the better contracts in the league. Harrell averaged career highs across the board this season (16.6 Pts, 6.5 Reb, 1.3 Blk on 61.5% shooting) and is only getting better. Along with Lou Williams’ $8 million a season deal, the Clippers found gold in the bargain bin, and Harrell has become a force to be reckoned with in the league.
Undersized at 6’8”, he uses a 7’4” wingspan and endless strength and energy to bully his way into buckets. He’s also super athletic and cunning around the rim. He can finish at a high level and uses a litany of post moves to get around bigger defenders. He is fifth in the league in and-one’s, and ninth in charges drawn per game. What he lacks in verticality, he makes up for with endless intangibles that fans and coaches love, and make him a joy to play with. He should be top four in voting for both Sixth Man of the Year and Most Improved Player categories this season, and will hopefully be a Clipper for a very long time.
3. Danilo Gallinari staying healthy
L.A. Times National NBA Writer Dan Woke recently wrote a stellar piece on Danilo Gallinari. It discussed this season, his play, and the business of the NBA, but most importantly touched on Gallo’s lingering injury trouble that has been a dark cloud over his career. After playing in only 21 inefficient games last season for L.A., many assumed that Gallo’s career was on the downturn, and that he could never return to the form he had in Denver or New York. Well, I’ll let Gallo answer these doubts for himself:
“If they forget about me,” Gallinari said, “they either are stupid or they have memory problems.”
Gallinari has made a lot of people look stupid this season, as he has been the Clippers best player all season, has put together a sneaky All-NBA campaign averaging 19.8 points and 6.1 rebounds, both career highs, and is shooting the ball lights out with splits of .463/.433/.904. He’s doing this coming off the second most injured season of his career at the age of 30. Danilo’s 68 games played is his highest output in six years, and the Clips needed every single one of them. The Rooster came up big this year.
4. Doc Rivers coaches his a$% off
Doc Rivers has caught a metric ton of flack since being named Head Coach and Sr. VP of Basketball Operations of the Clippers in 2013. From his reported mishandling of the entire era of “Lob City,” to trading for his son, to not giving rookies chances, to being too loyal to ex-Celtic players, to his moves in the front-office — Doc has had to hear a lot about what he can’t do well. Meanwhile, the man has only had two losing seasons in his 20 years as an NBA coach, and is a champion. While he won Coach of the Year in 2000 for guiding an Orlando Magic team, whose best player was Darrell Armstrong, to a 41-41 record, this year has easily been Doc’s best year as a head coach. To get this Clippers team to nearly 50 wins in today’s star-driven NBA is absurd. The guy had to work with a rotating cast of starters, three of whom are under 22-years-old, a front-office trading away his best player two years in a row, and handling multiple vets as well as a bunch of young guys. While he is still at fault for playing Avery Bradley too much, Doc has had an exceptional year and should be heavily considered for some additional hardware this summer.
5. Lou in the clutch
There’s not really much else to write about Lou Williams that hasn’t already been penned in praise of the 32-year-old professional scorer. The dude just has ice in his veins, a knack for finding a millimeter of space to shoot, a deft ability to pass out of the pick and roll, and the ability to finish with the best of them at the rim. He seems as though he is aging backwards, and once again averaged 20+ points per game this season after being the oldest person to do it for the first time in their career last year. After hitting a near buzzer beater last season to beat the Wizards in L.A. (CITE), Lou hit two this season and a few other daggers on top of it. He was fifth in fourth quarter points (7.6), and shot 46 percent from the field in “clutch time.”
Lou becomes another animal when the game is in his hands, and more often that not, delivers. He has endeared himself to a franchise that was left without any big names post-Blake trade and has embraced the Clippers, just as they have embraced him. Keep em’ coming Lou.
6. Boban becomes a celebrity…and contributes on the court as well
We miss him so much. Boban Marjanovic was sadly traded to the Philadelphia 76ers at the trade deadline in February along with best buddy Tobias Harris in a package deal. Before coming to L.A., Boban was seen as a marvel whose size translated to garbage time buckets and some laughs on NBA Twitter. Being in small markets like San Antonio and Detroit will do that to you. When he arrived in the City of Angels it was more of the same for a bit. A whole lot of DNP’s and some buckets at the end of blowouts. One night, it all changed…kinda. In a late-February game (2018) against the Denver Nuggets in the Mile High City, Boban was inserted into the lineup after the Clippers went down 19 and were searching for answers. Marjanovic proceeded to score 18 points, grab six boards and effectively scare any Nuggets players from coming inside en route to a Clips comeback victory. The noise of Boban playing more started to get louder.
Fast forward to the beginning of the 2018-19 season. After the departure of DeAndre Jordan, the Clips pick up the aging Marcin Gortat as a stopgap. However, as soon as the preseason games started, Boban got some real minutes. As Gortat struggled and the Clips were getting beat up inside, Boban started games and performed (6-3 as a starter). As Boban started dunking without jumping and made other centers look clueless and frustrated, the legend of the 7’3” Serbian big man grew. Soon we saw him on ESPN, in John Wick trailers, starring in online series’, becoming a trending Twitter topic, and one of the more liked players in the NBA. Boban’s name is no longer synonymous with just being tall; he’s a bonafide celebrity now. His game is also improving: he’s averaging a career high 8.2 points since the trade and will play minutes in the playoffs. I will probably see John Wick 3 this summer just to see Bobi to be honest.
7. Clippers are still the best team in L.A.
I think everyone was in their right mind when early season projections had the Lakers winning around 50 games. After all, they had just signed the best basketball player in the world to their team, and had a handful of young players who had shown enough promise to give everyone hope that their individual ascensions would continue. Yes, they made some weird signings (Beasley and Lance) but most people that they could make some noise out West with LeBron James, the young guys, JaVale McGee, and Rajon Rondo. Who realistically thought, at the beginning of the season, that the Clippers would end up being the best team in the city again, and the Lakers would be a complete dumpster fire? Well that’s exactly what happened.
The Clippers won the city over with their hard play, teamwork and underdog winning ways, while the Lakers front-office sabotaged their own team, the roster got badly hit by the injury bug, and LBJ sulked his way to one of the worst seasons of his career. Patrick Beverley and Montrezl Harrell maintained that the Clippers presence as the best team in L.A. was warranted from the jump, and they backed these words up. While the Lakers’ present and future is looking all types of messy, the Clips are set up well for what will come down the road. This “rivalry” hasn’t really been one at all since 2012, with the Clippers having the overwhelming advantage. Will it continue? All signs are pointing in the right direction for the red and blue.
8. Shai Gilgeous-Alexander is not your average rookie
I wrote a long piece on Shai’s rookie season a few weeks ago where I heaped praise on what the 20-year-old has been able to do given his youth and what’s been asked of him. That was published on March 13. Since then? Oh, you know, he just averaging 14.8 points and 5.07 assists a game. He’s also shot above 50 percent in nine of the 13 games since March 13, and only turned the ball over 16 times.
If SGA doesn’t make an All-Rookie team, Clipper nation will riot. There is only one starting rookie point guard in the playoffs, and SGA led all rookies on teams with a record above .500 in scoring and minutes. What else should we all praise about SGA? His ability to overcome and keep his head down and work. He’s one of the most mature rookies I’ve ever seen take an NBA court, and after going through two prominent rookie walls this season, came back with a vengeance. He listens to what coaches and veterans tell him, and looks as though he truly wants to be great. He is playing the best ball of his young career right now, when it matters most, and hopefully can take another step forward with a good playoff performance as well.
9. Tobias Harris taking the next step
There was a feeling among fans — and Clippers brass — that the 2018-19 season for Tobias Harris was going to be a special one. One where he could potentially make the leap to being a fringe All-Star. After all, he averaged the most points of his career in the 32 games games he played in L.A. in 2018, and was so confident in his ability to get max money in 2019 that he turned down an $80 million extension from the Clips last offseason. While Clippers fans can go back and forth on Tobias’ play and his importance to the team and how they were better, record-wise, after trading him away, one thing is for sure — Tobias helped the Clippers win games. A lot of them too.
In the 55 games Tobias played this season in L.A. he averaged 20.9 points and 7.9 rebounds on near 50/40/90 splits (.496/.434/.877). He was probably the last player (maybe tied with Rudy Gobert) left off the ASG roster in February, and part of a three-headed monster of near 20+ scorers for L.A. The Clips were the number one team in the West for a hot second with Tobias leading the way, and maintained playoff position with him in a Clips uniform. He embodied the underdog spirit of the Clipper culture, as one of the more underrated pure scorers in the league, and truly was a beacon for the franchise. His tenure in L.A. may get a little lost in the shuffle after the Clips did what they did post-deadline, but make no mistake, Tobias was (and still is, in a way) very important to this franchise.
10. The front-office absolutely killed it
On February 7, the Clippers stood at 30-26. They had just finished two 20+ point comeback victories in the five days prior, one of which was led by a career-high scoring output from Tobias Harris (34 pts). and the other against the Blake Griffin-led Detroit Pistons. L.A. was a playoff team still, a game or two ahead of the Kings at the time, but were slipping a bit from the first-place standing they held in November, and the team needed help. What did the front-office proceed to do? Trade away the Clips’ worst player in Avery Bradley for two guys, JaMychal Green and Garrett Temple, who had better stats than him and were better fits. Cool. Then, they sent away the tough if replaceable Mike Scott, the lovable but sometimes unusable Boban, and the soon-to-be very expensive Tobias Harris for one of the best shooters in the league in Landry Shamet and a veteran role player in Wilson Chandler as well as two juicy future first-round picks. THEN, they pulled off the heist of the deadline in acquiring Ivica Zubac from the Lakers for a roll of toilet paper and a stack of nickels. They also waived Marcin Gortat, who looked every bit of his 35 years, and let Milos Teodosic go back to Europe. What transpired immediately after the deadline? A whole lotta winning.
I truly can’t say enough about what this front-office has done. Give Jerry West part ownership, let Lawrence Frank throw parties in his office, and give Michael Winger a fat raise because they have excelled in their duties. Hopefully this front office can add a superstar or two to this gritty, hard-working core already in place, and bring a championship to the “other” L.A. team.
Authors note: All stats procured from stats.nba.com or NBA Miner