You know the story. Up 3 to 1 against the Denver Nuggets in the Western Conference Semifinals. Game 5, up by 13 in the third quarter only to go cold and suffer a come back loss. Series score 3 to 2. Game 6, the Clippers blow another lead and fall short. Series tied 3 to 3. The Clippers lead by double-digits only to be outscored, once again, and lose to the Nuggets 104-89. The Pandemic P jokes, videos of Paul George hitting the side of the backboard, and more followed the shifting narrative of the talent-filled Clippers team from the favorites to win it all to the joke of the league.
The popular narrative might not best reflect what really happened: the Clippers’ embarrassing postseason run can and should be partly attributed to the extraordinary circumstances in which the players were put. Namely, Harrell suffered the death of his grandmother whom he had a very close relationship with, and Lou Williams was forced to quarantine after being caught in a strip club, violating the league’s COVID protocols. The fact that the Clippers played a considerable number of their games missing Kawhi or PG -- at times both -- during the regular season and Doc Rivers’ inability to make any notable or necessary changes in their final three games should not be overlooked either.
Still, the way the Clippers played in that series should not be excused and deserves the condemnation and memes. But, do the Clippers really deserve to not be seen as one of the, if not the biggest, threats to the Lakers' chances of repeating? Is it fair that the Nuggets, Bucks, Jazz, 76ers, and Nets are more readily talked about as threats to the Lakers?
Simply put, no. Although coming off a disappointing playoff run and, as some put it, a rather ineffective free agency, the Clippers still should be respected as top title contenders.
Despite only being half way into the season, I came to notice a lot of new changes in the Clippers. With Tyronn Lue stepping up as the head coach with the start of the 2020-21 season, the Clippers are playing a different type of basketball, the type of basketball they should have played in their previous playoff run.
The Clippers did not acquire a new play-making point guard that they so desperately needed; therefore, it seemed as if the main issue of the team’s offense was still left unsolved. Still, Ibaka seemed a reasonable replacement for the reigning 6MOTY in Montrezzl Harrel; Kennard offered more offensive versatility and better shooting than the third-year NBA shooter Landry Shamet. At that point in time, all they needed was a play-making point guard -- someone like Rajon Rondo, Chris Paul, or Terry Rozier, all capable scorers and playmakers. The only acquisition the dormant Clippers front office made was of the recently-waived Nicholas Batum, a tall and slow Frenchman coming off a disappointing season with the Charlotte Hornets. With still unanswered questions and disappointment, the Clippers started the 2020-21 season, beating both the Lakers and the Nuggets, 116-109 and 121-108 respectively.
So then what do the new-look -- well, not really -- Clippers look like this season?
Zooming more into the newly acquired players, two of whom have made it into the starting lineup, the team has offered a compelling argument as to why the most recent free agency should be considered a success. On the score sheet, Batum has raised his 3.6 PPG and 35% FG percentage to 8.6 PPG and 42.9%. Likewise, Ibaka is still averaging 10.9 PPG in reduced limits from his last season with the Raptors. Kennard has been shooting 48% from behind the arc (4th in NBA), proving to be an upgrade from Shamet. Although impressive, their presence on the floor means more than the numbers convey.
The Clippers lead the league in 3-point and free throw percentages and are scoring a whopping 50% from behind the arc (2nd behind the Warriors) -- not to mention, they lead the league in FG% at 52%. This is not a mere coincidence. Not only are the new acquisitions much better 3-point shooters than Harrell and Shamet last season, but also the Clippers’ shot selection looks a lot better. Under Lue’s principle of giving up the good shot for the better shot, the Clippers have improved to 24.3 assists per game from just 23.7 last year, a notable improvement. In short, Ty Lue and the Clippers addressed their lack of a point guard and play making with better ball movement and floor spacing with their recently acquired facilitators and big men who can stretch the floor. Not to mention, the team’s two superstars have been a more selfless style of basketball than they are used to: Kawhi and PG are averaging 4.9 and 5.5 assists, respectively (A big jump for PG’s usual 3.9 assists from last season).
In the first games of the season, their bench scoring has taken a big step down from last year, losing reigning 6MOTY Harrell, and Lou Williams not being the same lethal scorer he proved to be last season. However, the Clippers, by giving Marcus Morris a leading role off the bench and making good use of all the team’s depth (Mann and Jackson are giving good minutes for the team), have the league’s 2nd best scoring and most effective bench. The Clippers are the 4th seed in the West, 4 games behind the Jazz, after their first game back from the All Star Break. Still, moving forward with the season, the Clippers still should keep an eye out for a play-making point guard -- perhaps Lonzo Ball who is involved in Clippers trade talks -- or potentially another all-star caliber player like Westbrook who can help the team win.
I am not saying that the Clippers are and should be the stand-out favorites for the championship this season: I just think the Clippers deserve to be regarded as the team that can beat the defending champions. For us Clippers fans, we should be thrilled to see what the team led by all-stars Leonard and Geroge can accomplish in this short season. What’s for sure is that the Clippers are looking better than last season, and their chances of hoisting the Larry O’Brien trophy have never been higher.