When Kawhi Leonard injured his knee in Game 4 against Utah Jazz, many people thought that the Los Angeles Clippers were done for the 2021 playoffs. Contrary, the Clippers won Games 5 & 6 and ended the longest Conference Finals drought in NBA history. However, Leonard's ACL injury puts their ambitions in jeopardy, both short and long-term.
Blast from the past... or not really?
The Clippers didn't make any Conference Finals in 50 years of existence. The franchise wasn't even called the LA Clippers before; they were initially known as the Buffalo Braves before moving to San Diego. In San Diego, the franchise got rebranded as the Clippers. In 1984, the Clippers became the second franchise based in Los Angeles, joining the much more beloved Lakers.
For many reasons, the Clippers were considered the laughing stock of the league. They own several postseason drought records. For instance, the Clippers had the longest playoff drought in history. They missed the playoffs for 15 years straight. To make things worse, the Clippers also have the longest streak without a playoff series win - 29 years (1977-2005).
However, it's not like the franchise was always irrelevant. The Clippers were a strong contender in the early 2010s. Blake Griffin was excellent; they had the league's best point guard Chris Paul and a robust supporting cast. DeAndre Jordan was one of the best rim protectors in the league and an elite rebounder. Jamal Crawford yearly provided the league's best scoring production from the bench, and there was also one of the league's elite shooters in J.J. Redick. However, the famous Lob City squad was crippled by injuries and never reached the Conference Finals, let alone won the NBA Championship.
It was evident in 2017 that a rebuilding process is up ahead for the Clippers. Chris Paul joined the Houston Rockets, and Blake Griffin was exchanged to Detroit Pistons. Coincidentally, the Clippers' rebuilding process was speedy. After missing the 2018 Playoffs, the Clippers had a remarkable first-round series in 2019 against the Golden State Warriors. The defending champions conquered the Clippers in six, but they left a lasting impression, especially after overcoming a 31-point deficit in the second half.
The 2019 Free Agency changed everything.
Kawhi Leonard won his second NBA Championship in 2019 with the Toronto Raptors. Indeed, Raptors fans hoped that Leonard would re-sign during the free agency. After all, Toronto had an excellent chance of capturing back-to-back titles with Leonard. In the 2020 Bubble Playoffs, the Raptors had an intense seven-game series against the Boston Celtics. In the end, they lost, but it was a very commendable effort by the defending champions. One could only imagine what they could've done with Leonard.
The LA Lakers traded for Anthony Davis a few weeks before free agency started. Despite that, the Lakers were strong bidders for Leonard. The Klaw preferred the Clippers, but his demands were precise; Leonard wanted a solid second option which the Clippers didn't have. A desire to come back home to Los Angeles was powerful for Leonard.
Understandably, Leonard committed to recruiting other stars. However, the risk was very high for the Clippers. Oklahoma City's Paul George was available, and both sides agreed on a deal pretty rapidly. In the agreement, the Clippers exchanged Shai Gilgeous-Alexander, Danilo Gallinari, and the Clippers' first-round draft picks in 2022, 2024, and 2026, along with two first-round choices via Miami (2021 and 2023).
In a nutshell, the Clippers waged half-a-decade worth of draft picks, meaning that if things with the current roster go sideways, they have little to no means to improve in both the short and long term.
The new-look Clippers finished the 19/20 NBA season with a 49-23 record, good enough for the second-seed Western Conference, but the postseason was grueling for the Clippers. In a second-round series against the Denver Nuggets, the Clippers were up 3-1 and still lost the series.
'Blowing' a 3-1 lead is unusual in the NBA. Historically, it happens every few years. Ex-head coach Doc Rivers became the only coach in history to blow three different 3-1 series leads. To make things worse, no other coach has done it twice. So, it's safe to say that things didn't look well for the Clippers.
The Clippers needed a change of attitude
The Clippers set the bar low for the 20/21 NBA season. Contrary to the previous year, the Clippers weren't braggadocious. Humbled by the experience, the Clippers were also more motivated than ever. Instead of talking off the court, the Clippers decided to do their talking on the court.
Paul George had a mission of his own. The 6'8 forward was under a heavy barrage on social media after performances that were below his high standards. George opened up about his mental struggles during the NBA Bubble, which undoubtedly affected his on-court versions. Rarely does a player have to deal with as little support as George did after the Bubble.
The goal was simple for George. He needed to keep his head up, bring it together, and ball out on the court. That's what the 7x All-Star has done. In many ways, George had the best season of his career. In the playoffs, George made history after becoming only the fourth player in the league's history to drop 20 points in 18 consecutive games.
Many people doubted George and the Clippers after Kawhi Leonard injured his knee in Game 4 against the Utah Jazz. George responded with 37 points in Game 5 and 28 points in Game 6. With the help of terrific Terrance Mann and Reggie Jackson, the Clippers put away the first-seeded Jazz after six games.
This type of attitude has shown the growth and the progress of the LA Clippers. Phoenix Suns defeated the Clippers after a hard-fought six games series. The Clippers lost three games by six or fewer points in a competitive series, including a shocking game-winning dunk by DeAndre Ayton in Game 2.
What awaits the Clippers?
Obviously, the Clippers' absolute priority is re-signing Kawhi Leonard. Leonard has a player option in his contract enabling him to become a free agent this summer. It's still unclear whether Leonard will re-sign or not, but it's hard to really see him leaving Los Angeles this summer.
First and foremost, every team with available cap space to sign Leonard this summer is either mediocre or bad, with little to no chance to compete for the championship. Secondly, it's hard to see Leonard leaving his hometown in Los Angeles; family reasons were a big reason as to why Leonard decided to sign with the Clippers in 2019
Besides Leonard, the Clippers will surely hope to re-sign Reggie Jackson. Jackson was an elite third option in the playoffs, posting 17.8 points a game on 48 percent from the field and 40.8 percent behind the 3PT line. To make things better, Jackson played the 19/20 season for the Clippers on a veteran minimum contract. Fortunately for the Clippers, Jackson loves it there. In a post-game press conference after Game 6 against the Suns, Jackson revealed how much the Clippers mean to him, pushing him to tears at some point.
On the negative note, Leonard's ACL injury jeopardizes the Clippers. Leonard reportedly will be recovering from the surgery for approximately nine months, meaning that he'll miss most of, if not the entire 2021/22 NBA season. In addition, Leonard is 30 years old and will be pushing 31 by the time he returns to the court.
Things move fast in the NBA league. The LA Clippers surely were championship contenders in each of the last two seasons. However, with Leonard's injury, the Clippers' title hopes for next season are very questionable.