Welcome to the third annual year in review for the L.A. Clippers, a project that attempts to encapsulate the last 12 months for this franchise. (You can revisit 2019 and 2020 here.)
This past year featured the greatest heights in Clippers history, but also similarly devastating moments that could prevent the team from repeating the feat in 2022. Still, it’s easier to accept the bad when it comes with the good, and 2021 provided plenty of both.
Here are the moments that defined 2021 for the Clippers.
Feb. 19: Clippers beat Jazz for first signature win of the year
The Clippers got off to a somewhat slow start in the 2020-21 season. They beat the Lakers on opening night, a victory that some glossed over given the emotions of ring night, but they hadn’t collected a marquee win in the two months since. That changed against the Jazz, who were riding a nine-game winning streak entering the second game of a set in Los Angeles. The Clippers successfully deployed their small-ball lineup to earn the victory, a harbinger of things to come when these two teams would meet in June.
March 14: Serge Ibaka injures his back, Ivica Zubac steps in as starting center
The Clippers brought in Ibaka to be their ace in the hole at the 5, a center who could protect the rim while still being able to space the floor. The offensive gambit worked out well, but the defense never coalesced with Ibaka in the middle. That changed instantly when Zubac entered the starting lineup, for good and bad. The Clippers have been quite stout defensively with Zubac among the starters (top-five to finish last season and top-four this year), but they have never regained the offensive upside Ibaka presented.
Ibaka’s Clippers tenure has taken a drastic turn for the worse since that moment. He didn’t get back surgery immediately and made an ill-fated return attempted at the end of the season. His surgery rehab then lasted into this regular season, allowing Isaiah Hartenstein to supplant him. Perhaps this will be Ibaka’s chance to finally assert himself again with both Zubac and Hartenstein unavailable for the time being.
March 25: Clippers trade Lou Williams for Rajon Rondo
Lou Williams had been an institution on the Clippers, the team’s longest-tenured player along with Patrick Beverley. But the Clippers determined that they didn’t need a microwave scorer for their postseason ambitions and instead took a chance on a mercurial playmaker in Rondo. That swap may have ended up hurting the Clippers in June as Rondo fell out of the rotation, but the move was still noteworthy for the effect on the team’s culture. Combined with the Patrick Beverley trade in the offseason, the Clippers defiantly moved on from any remnants of the pre-Kawhi/PG era (except for a few months of Zu).
June 6: Kawhi Leonard puts on a two-way performance for the ages to save the season in Game 6 in Dallas
Down 3-2 on the road in the first round, Leonard made sure that a team with championship aspirations wouldn’t go down without a fight. 45 points on 18-of-25 shooting while serving as the primary defender on Luka Dončić. A superlative effort in every sense of the word.
June 16: Kawhi tears his ACL
At the time, it seemed like the Western Conference Finals curse had struck again, and the Clippers — who had figured out the Jazz in the second round — would fall short of winning two playoff series yet again.
Instead, the Clippers got over one hump but couldn’t get any further, and Leonard’s injury casts a cloud over the rest of the 2022. The superstar had surgery for a partially torn ACL on July 13 despite rumors that he could play later in the postseason. There is still no timetable for his return.
June 18: The Clippers advance to the Western Conference Finals
It was the most improbable of comebacks. Down 25 without Leonard, even if they were at home with the lead in the series, the Clippers seemed down and out. But Terance Mann seized the moment, completely changing the tenor of the game in the third quarter and finishing with 39 points including seven threes (he hasn’t even scored 20 since then). Combined with pitch-perfect orchestration from Reggie Jackson, whose 22 points and 10 assists in the second half alone go underappreciated next to Mann’s heroics, the Clippers made history in front of a raucous Staples Center crowd.
It was just the first step in the organization’s overall arc, but a moment that deserves to be celebrated for a long time.
June 22: Deandre Ayton sinks the Clippers with the Valley Oop
What goes up must come down. Not to dwell on it, but I really do believe that had the Clippers won this game, they would have advanced to the NBA Finals. This might have been the most heartbreaking Clippers loss of the last 10 years.
July 29: The 2021 NBA Draft shows a renewed investment in the team’s future
The Clippers haven’t exactly had a bevy of young talent in recent years, but they made an effort to restock the cupboard in the 2021 NBA Draft and gave all three of their picks long-term deals. Brandon Boston Jr. was the steal of the night and has already won a game for the Clippers, more than most 51st picks ever amount to. Keon Johnson has been killing it in the G League, and Jason Preston probably would have logged minutes for the Clippers already had he not suffered a preseason foot injury.
There is reason to believe in all three of these rookies, and the Clippers are putting them in the fire immediately. That should pay off down the line.
Aug. 12: Kawhi Leonard re-signs on a four-year deal
The expectation was always that Leonard would return to the Clippers, but for him to sign a long-term deal gives the Clippers clarity and stability in their future planning. All of the team’s key players are locked in for multiple years, keeping the championship window open.
Sept. 17: The Clippers break ground on the Intuit Dome
The Clippers finally will have a home of their own in 2024, an arena adjacent to their practice facility that will hopefully prevent the team from having to play so many matinee games on the weekends. This is an important step for an organization trying to shed its little brother status in Los Angeles and a huge marketing draw for free agents, and the building itself should be a massive upgrade on the newly-christened Crypto.com Arena.
Dec. 25: The team announces that Paul George has torn his UCL
Already adjusting to life without one superstar, the Clippers learn that they’ll be without the other for a month due to a torn ligament in his elbow. George had been struggling mightily with his shooting, and the injury provided an explanation but little consolation for a team about to enter the meat of its schedule. How the Clippers fare in George’s absence could determine their season.
- May 16: The Clippers successfully tank the final two games of the regular season to set up their preferred playoff bracket, avoiding the Nuggets and the Lakers for the first two rounds.
- June 28: Game 5 Paul George does it again, staving off elimination in Phoenix with arguably his best game of the year.
- Nov. 13: The Clippers finish a seven-game win streak, potentially setting a new standard for what this team can accomplish even without Leonard.
- Dec. 13: A victory lap for the Canoes, as a heavily shorthanded Clips squad minus PG and Nico Batum routs the Suns in their first matchup since the playoffs.