What happened on February 6, 2019 still seems to baffle people within NBA circles. When you trade away your leading scorer and rebounder for an unproven rookie, an injured veteran and some future picks, how are you supposed to maintain the level at which you are playing? When the Clippers traded away Tobias Harris, they were starting to look, well, like a team without a star, at 30-25. They were fighting for the eight seed in the West with the Lakers and the upstart Kings, and many thought this move signaled a waving of the white flag and an opportunity for the Clippers to keep their 2019 first-round pick. Since the beginning of 2018, it was clear that there was a keen focus on this summer’s free-agency class and that this season would be a holdover until then. Well, at least that’s what people outside the organization thought.
It’s still funny to me that people who study, eat, breathe and live the NBA couldn’t see what the Clippers had last summer. They won 42 games the year before while being among the most injured teams in the NBA with 35+ different starting lineups, including multiple starting fives with either one 10-day contract or multiple two-way players. They also traded away their second-leading scorer and leading rebounder (again) mid-season and still held on to a winning record. They came back this season with a healthy starting five, a stud rookie point guard who almost everyone was high on coming out of the draft, the same bench that killed everyone a season before, a stud front office, and Doc. Win projections had them firmly in the Western Conference basement and most had their eyes on the 2019 summer.
Instead, the Clippers had one of the more impressive seasons of any NBA team in recent memory and pushed the two-time defending champions to a six-game series as an eight seed, and cemented themselves as a contender for the future. They are a team that can attract free agents, has amazing talent locked into team-friendly deals, is uber-competitive on the court, and has an identity that a city and fanbase can truly gather around.
While skeptics will point to the baffling Lakers loss in the last week of the season or the 24-point comeback by the Wizards in November as avoidable losses that L.A. could have won to duck the Warriors and maybe make a run to the second round, the Clippers were going to be underdogs in any series they played. Them advancing in the West was a tall task no matter who they played. However, the Clippers made the most of a losing situation and scared the two-time defending champions, all while making huge national noise and truly preparing themselves for next year and beyond. Let’s take a look at what the Clippers accomplished in this first-round series that will help them moving forward.
Got the young guns major playoff experience
When you have two starting guards in your rotation whose combined ages are still less than Vince Carter, every game will be a trial by fire. Now, have them play against a team with perhaps the most talent ever assembled on a basketball court, in a win or go home scenario with everyone watching. That’s trial by Southern California wildfire. For the most part, they came out unscathed and even rescued some valuable things.
It was Landry Shamet’s shot down one, off a Shai Gilgeous-Alexander pass, that officially got the Clippers their first lead in Game 2’s 31-point comeback. It was Jerome Robinson’s surprising defense and spark-plug energy that forged a small Clippers comeback in game four that pushed the Warriors. Hell, even Ivica Zubac, who only played in four of the six games for L.A., had a double-double in game three.
For the series, SGA averaged 13.7 points and 3.2 assists in 28.8 minutes. He shot 50 percent from three and only committed FIVE turnovers the ENTIRE SERIES. The dude is 20 and showed on a national stage that he belongs and will be a star someday.
Shamet played 29 minutes a game, and while his shooting numbers were down from the regular season (shot 32.3 percent from three), he still chipped in 7.7 points a game and hit some monster shots. This coming while he was mostly being hounded by Klay Thompson, one of the best perimeter defenders in the league. We also saw a defensive growth that most didn’t think he was capable of. He was able to bother Steph Curry into some poor shooting (by his standards) nights, and use his quickness in help.
This playoff series proved to most that the Clippers young players have bright futures ahead of them and will be cornerstones of this franchise (Pending a potential Anthony Davis trade...?) for years to come.
Found out which free agents they need to keep on their roster
I don’t think we can overestimate how important guys like JaMychal Green and Patrick Beverley were to this series and this team. Beverley is the heart and soul of this franchise, and demonstrated that time and time again with his tenacious defense, his ability to get under the skin of the opposition, and his ability to do both big and small things throughout the series. He’s listed at 6’1” but is probably more like 5’11”, yet averaged 6.7 rebounds a game this series, including double-digit boards in the last three. He shot 43.3 percent from three and also chipped in 4.7 assists, a playoff career-high for him. Bev is essential to the identity of this Clipper team, and needs to be a part of the future no matter what. He will be 31 this summer and probably demand a longer-term deal to solidify his paying future, but he’s shown that he deserves whatever he does end up getting, and Clipper Nation will be furious if it’s with someone else.
Getting a guy like Green in a trade for the wilting Avery Bradley was amazing work by the front office. A player who was undrafted and is undersized, but brings the same type of toughness and energy that the Clippers has made their M.O. this season, Green showed up big in this series and proved that he belongs in a Clipper uniform for the future. His ability to defend and score inside and out, space the floor, knock down threes (shot 52.2 percent beyond the arc) and rebound effectively will be huge for the Clips moving forward. He is exactly the type of 7th or 8th man that teams need to make deep playoff runs. He is confident in his abilities and backs down from no one. Along with Garrett Temple (and please, no more Wilson Chandler), the Clips need to make sure the former Grizzlies are locked in to deals next year to add quality vets to their bench for whomever comes in free agency.
Gained TONS of national recognition and respect
People are going to pay attention when you make history. People will especially pay attention when you do it against the Warriors. For a team that only had a handful of nationally-televised games this season, the Clippers, even with a good amount of press due to their surprising season, flew under the radar heading into their first-round series. Most deemed it the cleanest sweep of the playoffs and gave the Clippers a chance at maybe one game. Winning both of their games in this series in Oracle Arena showed that these players truly are the roaches that Doc preached about, and that this team is built to win now and in the future. Trust that a lot of NBA eyes were glued to what was going on in this series
Impress free agents
This has been a consistent theme of this season for L.A. Whether it’s trying to playing well against guys like Kawhi Leonard (which didn’t happen), KD and Klay, Jimmy etc. or showing the institutional changes made as a franchise over the last five years, the Clippers are going through a hefty re-brand that started with this rag-tag bunch making the playoffs and playing well against the Warriors. Now, all they truly need is a star to round it out and start making championship runs.
For their part, they played it to perfection this season. They showed that they didn’t need a “name” or “star” to be competitive and make it to the playoffs. They showed that chemistry, toughness, grit, energy and an underdog mentality can go a long way. Could they potentially replicate this next year if they strike out on some FA’s? Maybe. But everyone and their mother now know that this franchise is ready to make the next step with some additions, and they have to have impressed free agents both right in front of them (KD & Klay) and around the league. You couldn’t avoid the Clippers if you wanted to over the last week and a half with the noise they made. This summer will be very interesting...
Made the Warriors path harder
It’s no secret that the Clippers want Kevin Durant. Badly. They’ve wanted him for awhile. Who can forget this infamous tweet from 2016?
Clippers meeting with Durant was “intense” and “at one point Steve Ballmer was crying” but everyone grew closer and a big lesson was learned— Aaron Bruski (@aaronbruski) July 2, 2016
Well, not only has KD effusively praised the Clippers franchise for what they have been able to do this season and against his own team, he has singled out multiple people (including both starting rookies) on the team, and seems to really get what the Clips are doing (he also had Steve Ballmer on his ESPN+ Show The Boardroom). In making the Warriors path a little harder this playoffs, we may see an earlier exit than expected and a potential situation where KD leaves. If game one of the Rockets-Warriors series was any indication, KD is the best basketball player on the planet (right now) but the Warriors are a bit banged up. If an early exit is in the cards, the Clippers will be right there to pounce, and some in the league think they have a shot at getting him.
There have been reports that KD to the New York Knicks looks pretty set in stone, but why head to the worst team in the league and try to rebuild? You have a ready-made franchise an hour flight away from all your Silicon Valley business interests with a terrific front office, a great coach, a lineup that is already built to win, and a fanbase that will embrace you with everything they’ve got in a massive market where your biggest individual rival resides. Imagine beating LeBron James and the Lakers consistently and making deep playoff runs while making L.A. more and more a Clippers town potentially? It could be a potentially career-defining move for Kevin Durant, and would make this season and everything that has happened completely worthwhile.