Prior to facing off against the Denver Nuggets in the Western Conference semifinals, the Los Angeles Clippers held the record for the longest conference finals drought in the NBA at 49 years. After almost half a century, the Clippers had a chance to break this drought. This was going to be the year they were going to dispose of that unwanted record. Well, that number is no longer. That’s because it now sits at 50 years — half a century.
With a 3-1 lead over the Nuggets, a conference finals matchup between both Los Angeles teams seemed inevitable, but unfortunately, that all fell apart when the Clippers lost three consecutive games to the Nuggets.
This wasn’t the first time Doc Rivers and the Clippers had blown a 3-1 lead in the Western Conference semifinals. In 2015, the “Lob City” Clippers held a 3-1 lead over the Houston Rockets. The Clippers had a 19-point lead deep into the third, but ultimately lost after getting outscored in the fourth quarter 40-15, mainly by the likes of Josh Smith and Corey Brewer.
This season was supposed to be different. They had just signed the reigning finals MVP Kawhi Leonard and had traded for 2019 MVP candidate Paul George. Prior to these acquisitions, last year’s team had won 48 games and took the reigning champs, the Golden State Warriors, to six games. They successfully retained the talents of Lou Williams, Patrick Beverley and Montrezl Harrell, players who were acquired when the Clippers traded away Chris Paul in 2017. Even with four players averaging nearly 20 or more points in the regular season, this team still couldn’t get the job done.
So what exactly went wrong? Is there anyone in particular to blame for the Clippers shortcomings?
First and foremost, credit must be given where credit is due. We must tip our hat to Nikola Jokic and the Denver Nuggets. This marked the second consecutive series where the Nuggets came back from being down 3-1. However, don’t be fooled. The Nuggets did not win this series. The Clippers lost the series to themselves.
Leonard was never on the same level as LeBron James. One may argue that since Leonard was the Finals MVP last season, he is better than James. However, that would be the equivalent of saying, “Since James averaged one less point this season than the prior season, James has regressed as a basketball player.”
The impact James has on a basketball team is astronomical compared to the impact Leonard has on a team. When Leonard left the Raptors, the Raptors still boasted the second-best record in the East and were a couple of possessions away from advancing to the Eastern Conference Finals. When James left the Cavaliers in 2018, the Cavaliers tied for the second-worst record in the league, only ahead of the New York Knicks.
The other argument that is often made is that Leonard beat the Warriors team last season that was going for a three-peat. However, people seem to forget that Kevin Durant did not play in the series. Additionally, when Klay Thompson got injured, the Warriors were leading in Game 6. Overall, Leonard is not held to the same level of scrutiny that James is. Unless James is on your team, it will take a lot more than one man to make a deep run in the playoffs.
Leonard had a bad game. Everyone else had a bad series. Williams, who averaged 20 points at one point in the regular season, averaged just 10 points on 36 percent for the series. Harrell, who averaged 19 points in the regular season, averaged only 12 points in the series. Many of us knew that James and Anthony Davis were the better duo than Leonard and George. The X-factor for the Clippers was their depth.
But most importantly, The Clippers never found their identity. This might be attributed to chemistry issues. There were reports by Fox Sports’ Chris Broussard that players resented the special treatment head coach Doc Rivers gave to George despite his inconsistent play. This was never an issue for Leonard, as he, for the most part, delivered. According to The Athletic’s Shams Charania, “multiple teammates had verbal spats with George throughout the postseason, citing in their exchanges a lack of accountability from him.”
Accountability is one of the most underrated ingredients for a championship-caliber team. It is historically proven that accountability starts with the leaders of a team, either from a coach or the best player. It’s no secret that Leonard is not a vocal leader. In LA, that person was supposed to be Rivers. Safe to say, that never worked out.
The Lakers are the biggest brand team in the NBA. The Clippers are considered to be the second team in town. James is the biggest brand name in sports. Leonard is one of the most humble players in sports. James and Davis were both former No. 1 draft picks. Leonard and George were drafted 15th and 10th overall, respectively. James and Davis chased the bright lights of California. Leonard and George were raised in Southern California. Rajon Rondo and Dwight Howard were big names off the bench of the Lakers. Williams and Harrell were trying to make a name for themselves, being former 45th and 32nd overall draft picks, respectively. The Lakers are a historical franchise. The Clippers are the underdog franchise. Herein was an opportunity for the underdogs. Leonard and George were supposed to be the hometown heroes. Yet, this underdog identity never fully materialized.
The Clippers were full of dogs, but they never got to bite. Better yet, they didn’t even get to sniff the Lakers.