“First thing I told these guys is ‘thank you for saving me’... I appreciate every guy in that locker room. I appreciate Paul for getting on that phone last year... I’m thankful for everything I’ve experienced being here; this city making me feel at home, this organisation welcoming me... I’m not here today without this team.”
"First thing I told those guys was 'thank you for saving me.'"— SportsCenter (@SportsCenter) July 1, 2021
Reggie Jackson was tearful talking about how much the Clippers and Paul George have meant to him and his career. pic.twitter.com/7YOY1QDhpy
Those were the touching words of Reggie Jackson after the Clippers’ Game 6 loss to the Phoenix Suns in the Western Conference finals. It’s a statement that is symbolic of the way this franchise has saved a couple of careers on the brink among its current roster, with the potential for a few more to be saved this season.
Since the arrival of Kawhi Leonard and Paul George, the front office has arguably only made a small handful of signings that could’ve been classified as sure things in terms of the impact they were supposed to have on the team.
Marcus Morris Sr., as an example, arrived at Staples Center as a 19.6 points per game scorer on good efficiency in New York. Rajon Rondo was another example, as the playmaking point guard with playoff pedigree we were said to be craving. As two “sure thing” signings go, however, that’s quite the contrast.
Instead, the Clippers have managed to find their success in the darker recesses of the league’s bargain bin. It’s a marketplace which is becoming more common with championship contenders, picking up aging stars via buyouts, and that’s where this particular journey started for this franchise.
The first of those came as Jackson looked to leave a situation in Detroit where his body had robbed him of 42 games throughout the first half of the 2019/20 season. Despite managing to get back on the court later that campaign, the injuries had taken their toll on him mentally and after a tough first six months in L.A., he admitted he was thinking of quitting basketball altogether.
Jackson had been gradually having less and less impact on games for the Pistons. In his best season under Stan Van Gundy, he played and started 79 games and was the team’s leading scorer, averaging 18.8 points per game and 6.2 assists as they made the eighth seed. In the following two seasons he would be available for just 97 games in total, and by the time he did return to a regular starting spot, Blake Griffin and DeAndre Drummond were the main scorers.
Fast forward to the present and, after signing a two-year $22 million contract to remain a crucial part of Clipper Nation, Jackson has already expressed that he feels in turn Clipper Nation has played a crucial part in saving his career. And he’s likely not the only one.
Nicolas Batum was also one of the main scorers for the Charlotte Hornets, behind Kemba Walker, when he was acquired in a trade from Portland. In his first two seasons he started in around 90% of their games, averaging 15 points, just under six assists and just over six rebounds. Then, in the pre-season of 2017-18, he tore a ligament in his elbow and came back a much less effective player, dropping to an 11.6 points per game scorer, fourth on the team.
Nic was widely viewed as one of the worst contracts in the league as he increasingly struggled to impress on a Hornets side struggling to make it into the playoff picture. After a conversation with head coach James Borrego about a change of direction for the franchise, he agreed to take a back seat to the younger guys and he was eventually waived.
Despite several teams looking at picking the Frenchman up on a minimum deal, it was the Clippers who got hold of his signature, and he hasn’t looked back since then. As with Reggie, Nico decided to run it back this summer, and will no doubt feel that the Clippers gave him the chance to turn things around — a chance he grabbed with both hands.
Both Batum and Jackson were drinking in the last-chance saloon when they made their way to L.A., and they turned things around on near career-high shooting and strong playoff performances. The franchise may just feel that their latest pickups also arrive in a similar situation to their two previous surprise packages.
Justise Winslow was the first new addition to the Clippers roster this offseason, and he arrives off the back of two seasons dealing with severe injury issues to his back and hip — the latter requiring hip replacement surgery, a huge career setback for a player who just turned 25 back in March.
Fans will be hoping Justise can find form and fitness in L.A., and off previous evidence, this may just be the perfect environment to do it in. As a player with potential on both ends of the floor, Winslow could be the perfect pick up if he can prosper in the absence of Kawhi. He’ll certainly be given all the tools to grow.
Another player with the chance to prosper in the absence of a crucial figure on the Clippers roster is Eric Bledsoe. Although he doesn’t come with quite the same level of questions as Jackson, Batum or Winslow, there are still lingering doubts over the former New Orleans Pelicans guard — no less about his ability to make an impact during the postseason.
Bledsoe is a player who has averaged 35% from three just once in his career when attempting more than two shots per game from beyond the arc, and is also coming off the back of one of his worst years defensively. Those two factors alone have been enough to trouble some Clipper fans, added to the fact that he’s replacing a great 3-point shooter and defender in Patrick Beverley.
Yet you can’t help but feel that, if there’s a team that can help him turn that round it’s this one. Since Ty Lue took over as head coach, they’ve become the best 3-point shooting team in the NBA. Plus the type of focused defense they play, coupled with the sheer amount of defensive talent on the roster, should be a big help for Bledsoe in particular.
Aside from the Xs and Os, the Clippers have created a culture which empowers its guys to be the best they can be. If Winslow and Bledsoe can successfully engrain themselves within that, they’ll no doubt be able to reap the same rewards that Jackson and Batum did.