The Los Angeles Clippers may have reached the end of their 2021 season with a 27-point defeat at the hands of the Phoenix Suns, but it did not feel like the end of anything.
Their road to the Western Conference Finals, uncharted waters for a franchise that has dealt with playoff agony for 50 years, was only the beginning of a new journey.
Given the Clippers’ unfortunate injury luck throughout the entire season, which culminated in Kawhi Leonard not being available during the most important two-week stretch of the team’s history, the Clippers can look themselves in the mirror and feel at ease with the results.
Fully satisfied? Of course not.
But left with a sense of gratification, especially under the context of this grueling schedule that did them no favors in the latter rounds.
“I told the guys in the locker room, I love those guys,” Ty Lue said after being eliminated. “I’ll go to war with them any time. I’m just proud of them, even though we came up short. It was a great run despite everything we had to go through.”
The Clippers finished their postseason run with a 10-9 record, but the craziest part was the point differential that came with it. Barely over .500, they still held a plus-77 differential (plus-4.8 net rating).
Before the beatdown in the second half of Game 6, the Clippers had outscored opponents by 103 points in their first 18 games of the playoffs. In their 10 wins, they destroyed Dallas, Utah, and Phoenix by 16.1 points per 100 possessions. In their eight combined losses heading into Game 6, the Clippers were only outscored by 5.3 points per 100 possessions.
Almost every win was a dominant L.A. performance. Almost every loss was decided on the margins, or with clutch artistry; Tim Hardaway Jr. nailing daggers in the first round, the Jazz blowing up the Clippers’ final possession at the end of Game 1, or the Suns capitalizing on a botched switch to steal Game 2 with the Valley-oop.
It wasn’t what cost them a Finals trip, but the missed free throws started to add up, too. The Clippers finished the regular season as the greatest free throw shooting team in history, converting on 83.9% of their opportunities. In the Conference Finals, that dipped more than six percentage points (77.8%), and Game 2 could’ve easily swung their way if Paul George just splits his two freebies with 8.2 seconds left.
Cold shooting also got the best of them.
In the 72-game regular season, the Clippers only shot under 31% from deep 10 separate times. They went 4-6 in those 10 games.
In the 19-game postseason, they shot under 31% from three in four games, including the finale where tired legs caught up to them. They went 1-3 in those four instances, with two losses to Phoenix without their best player. Shooting just 5-of-20 on threes in Game 6 with at least six feet of space, they had nothing left.
Lue reinforced that his guys ran out of fuel down the stretch of the West Finals. He wasn’t wrong. They entered the series with very little recovery time following an emotional closeout victory against the Jazz, and they were never able to fully regain their strength.
If anything, it got worse. Marcus Morris tweaked his knee in Game 1 of the series, but continued to play through it. The Clippers lost Ivica Zubac in Game 4 to an MCL sprain, which forced them to downsize and exhaust more energy trying to defend Deandre Ayton with smalls.
And of course, Leonard was never able to return to action after injuring his right knee in Game 4 versus Utah.
“There’s nothing you can really do about it — it’s part of the game,” Lue said regarding the injuries they dealt with. “You think about it … ‘if we had our guys, what would have happened, or what could have happened?’ But, you just got to move on. I think the next-man up mentality doesn’t mean that you don’t care or miss those guys, but you got to have a mindset that we don’t have them, so we have to come out on the floor and produce any way we can.”
Asking a team to perform well this deep into the playoffs, without its best player, is difficult enough.
Knowing you have to push through without an all-time individual playoff force is a different kind of gut-punch.
Leonard’s first 11 games of production during this run were simply unmatched. He gave the Clippers 30.4 points, 7.7 rebounds, and 4.4 assists per game on 64.5%-39.3%-88.0% shooting before the injury.
In NBA playoff history, Leonard is fourth all time in Box Plus-Minus, which approximates a player’s value on both ends of the court. He’s behind only Michael Jordan, LeBron James, and Nikola Jokić (although Jokić doesn’t come close to the sample size of the others). Leonard is also fourth all time in playoff Win Shares Per 48 Minutes, trailing only Jordan, James, and George Mikan.
Finding a way to go 4-4 in the final eight games without Leonard should be viewed as an achievement for the Clippers, who pushed until they had nothing left in the tank.
“We didn’t get here for no reason,” George said. “We had the pieces we needed. We just had pieces that got hurt during the process, that’s just really what it came down to.”
For a franchise that had an unreal amount of pressure placed on them this season, the identity of the Clippers changed throughout the year. They went from being a team everyone liked to pick on due to their shortcomings, to a group everyone recognized as one of the most resilient, hard-nosed, and adaptable teams in the league.
No part of their playoff run was easy. It even took an unfathomable 25-point comeback with just 23 minutes remaining in Game 6 versus Utah to get this far.
“I thought this team squeezed everything we could out of what we had,” George said. “We squeezed everything out of one another. I thought we got stronger and better as the season went on.”
Following the meltdown in the 2020 playoffs, the Clippers had everything riding on this season. If they went out sad, which it appeared they were close to in the first round, they may have never recovered. Nobody would be buying into this iteration of the Clippers for the foreseeable future.
From the start, even last year under the leadership of Doc Rivers, this unit had championship aspirations. The roster was built around the theme of experience and elite two-way talent. Throw in their lionhearted personalities, and it became a team that wasn’t afraid to say it with their chest, talk loudly about the edge they have on fellow contenders, and embrace the role of being a villain.
When everything was set ablaze in the second round last September, changes were not only imminent. They were necessary.
Roster adjustments were only a tiny fraction of the overhaul. For the most part, the same players who watched three consecutive double-digit leads wash away in the that infamous bubble series were going to remain in prominent on-court roles.
Stylistically, tweaks had to be made. As a collective group, from the top down, playing smarter and making quicker reads in the halfcourt were the chief components that Lue needed to bring.
Last year’s Clippers are still an underrated group. The bubble tainted how history will perceive them. But at their best, it was one of the most lethal offenses in the league complemented by fierce on-ball defenders. They finished in the top five of offensive and defensive rating last season, but fans didn’t view them as a serious threat after the loss to Denver.
This time around, they exit the playoffs with a much better perception.
In reality, the Clippers should not have survived as long as they did during this run, or pushed as close to the Finals as they did. Historically, teams don’t consistently dig themselves out of holes to this degree.
The narrative and external outlook of this team flipped tremendously when Dallas took a 2-0 series lead in the first round. They were on the verge of once again being labeled as frauds. In a wide-open Western Conference with seemingly no clear favorite, they had a golden opportunity with arguably the most (healthy) star power in the bracket. If they failed against the Mavericks right out of the gate, the major sacrifice of future draft assets for the Leonard and George pairing would have rightfully been viewed as a catastrophe.
When everyone else panicked, Lue’s Clippers didn’t. Internally, there were few concerns. In the midst of the 2-0 deficits, a large reason for the slow starts could’ve been attributed to unsustainable shooting from Dallas and Utah. The Clippers adjusted on the fly, going small and leaning into their strengths. Without a traditional center on the floor in critical moments, they caused the Mavericks and Jazz’s defense to crumble.
They weren’t sounding the alarm, nor did they simply side-eye the adversity and blatantly ignore the obstacles like last year’s group would – and did – by failing to switch up the game plan or personnel. Instead of stubbornness, Lue valued necessary change. It led them to a combined 8-1 record in those first two series once they trailed 2-0.
This Clippers’ team, from day one, had an infinitely stronger backbone. The fortitude and mental toughness they showed, especially in moments where they felt everything was stacked against them, was the key takeaway that emerged from this season.
When injuries piled up for them in February and March, with Leonard and George bouncing in and out of the lineup, role players picked up the slack. In a lot of games, those supplementary talents carried them in ways Lue had never been accustomed to in Cleveland when LeBron James and Kyrie Irving were sidelined.
In late March versus Atlanta, trailing 80-59 with 6:30 left in the third quarter, the Clippers appeared lifeless. Then, in his attempt to send a message, Lue inserted Luke Kennard, Terance Mann, Amir Coffey, Nic Batum, and Patrick Patterson. His starters weren’t playing hard enough defensively and weren’t creating quality looks on the other end.
Spearheaded by Kennard, the Clippers trimmed it to 90-82 entering the fourth quarter.
Leonard and George came back in at the 9:04 mark, but it was the energy, ball movement, and brilliant shot-making from Kennard and Mann that pushed them over the hump late in the game. Going on a 60-30 run after the message-sending timeout in the third quarter, the Clippers prevailed in one of their landmark wins of the season.
Almost exactly a month later, they hosted the Grizzlies without all of Leonard, George, Jackson, Beverley, and Ibaka active.
Facing an early 18-point deficit in the second quarter, the Clippers did it again. They rallied behind one of Kennard’s greatest games of his young career, and shot lights out as a team by going 14-of-27 from deep. The “Canoes,” as some like to call the undermanned Clippers, turned an 18-point deficit into a 12-point win by outscoring Memphis 64-43 in the second half.
The 13-point win in San Antonio in late March, despite being without four starters, also sticks out as a pivotal team-building moment this season. They held the Spurs to just 85 points without having their best defensive personnel.
In Detroit, with the season winding down and a heap of injuries piling up, they displayed it once again. Missing Leonard, George, Morris, Beverley, and Ibaka, the Clippers pulled out another one they should’ve lost.
Down seven points with 1:44 to go, they put all of their faith into Jackson and Mann when it would’ve been a perfectly acceptable loss given the circumstances.
An incomprehensible 11-2 run erased that idea. Jackson scored seven of those 11 points, including the game-winning pull-up jumper as he lulled his defender to sleep and shot a dagger into the hearts of Motown.
“Our team shows a lot of character,” Lue said this week after the Clippers were eliminated by Phoenix. “When we’re down, we could easily give up and give in. But we just stick with the game plan, don’t point fingers, and we stay together. It was just good for me to see that this year.”
The improbable wins, particularly on the road, were one thing. But above all else, it was the brotherhood vibe of this Clippers unit that resonated up and down the entire staff.
Nothing highlighted the revitalized culture more than a subtle, yet significant moment in Miami on Jan. 28 – in another game the Clippers were missing Leonard and George due to health and safety protocols.
Jackson, who hadn’t yet solidified a major role in the rotation, was visibly distraught.
With the Clippers leading by six with 27.5 seconds remaining after a barrage of three-pointers, he called a timeout when the team had none left.
It wasn’t a disastrous sequence for L.A. considering the cushion they had, but you wouldn’t know that by looking at Jackson. Once he realized his gaffe, he immediately put his hands on his head, dropped to his knees in disbelief, and removed his headband – ready to throw it across the floor in anger.
He couldn’t believe he screwed up with the game almost in the bag. He couldn’t accept this type of mistake, even if it was just a mid-season game being played without their best players.
As Jackson walked to the sideline, ready to untuck his jersey and cuss himself out, Ibaka stopped him.
A new member of this team and a player that was a key piece in the Raptors’ tight-knit chemistry over the last few years, Ibaka put both arms around Jackson and tried to cool his emotions.
For the next 30 seconds, multiple teammates surrounded Jackson to console him and lift his spirits.
This was only 19 games into the season, with Jackson starting just three games up to this point (out of necessity) and playing just 16.5 minutes per game.
His role on the team was already in question, so every mental mistake, to him, probably weighed heavy on determining his status within the rotation. After that night in Miami where his teammates uplifted him and Lue mentioned their “next play” mentality after the game, Jackson started in 40 of the next 51 regular season games and saw his responsibility increase.
“We just had each other’s backs all year,” George said after losing Game 6 to Phoenix. “It’s one of the greatest locker rooms I’ve ever been a part of.”
George did his part in recruiting Jackson to the Clippers in February 2020 after the Pistons decided to buy out his contract.
He entered a new locker room and immediately stepped into a role of being the secondary ball-handler in most lineups for last year’s Clippers. Under Rivers, Jackson had a quality offensive stretch but faced a lot of criticism during the bubble for his ineffectiveness on defense.
Jackson was one of the team’s last additions to the 2021 roster, as they brought him back on a veteran’s minimum contract. After contemplating stepping away from the game, Jackson proceeded to have one of the best years of his basketball life.
During the regular season, he shot 43.3% on 4.2 three-point attempts per game, becoming one of the league’s most dangerous spot-up threats. Then, in the playoffs, Jackson averaged 19.6 points per 36 minutes on 62.6% true shooting – a career-high mark.
After the final playoff loss in Game 6, Jackson expressed his gratitude for all of his teammates and coaches that empowered him. In what he considers a turning point of his career, the Clippers’ new culture opened the door for him to succeed.
“The first thing I told those guys is, ‘thank you for saving me,’” Jackson said. “I appreciate every guy in that locker room. I appreciate Paul for getting on the phone last year at the end of the season, when we were talking about a buyout with Detroit. I’m thankful for everything I’ve experienced being here. This city making me feel home, this organization welcoming me, my quirks, my strengths, my weaknesses. I’m not here today or still playing without this team.”
Jackson’s efforts were only a part of what made these Clippers special.
Veterans having career-defining years will always be the headline of any team’s season, but it’s always important to peel back the layers to point out the biggest internal adjustments.
When Lue took over the head coaching duties, he emphatically hit the reset button. He brought a different dynamic in terms of organizational structure, leadership values, and inclusion. For the first time in a while, the Clippers prioritized player development and splitting up the coaching duties for players to “get their vitamins” each day, as Lue calls it.
Hiring Kenny Atkinson, Shaun Fein, Dan Craig, Chauncey Billups, Roy Rogers, and Larry Drew was Lue’s way of making sure every player was put in the best position.
Atkinson and Fein, having worked together in Brooklyn, revamped their player development strategies. Billups and Drew primarily helped on the offensive end, as multiple players on the roster have credited Billups with fine-tuning their playmaking decisions. Craig guided the team defensively with his experience of teaching various coverages with the Miami Heat. Rogers helped with the development of the team’s centers, notably Zubac with his low-post footwork and finishing at the rim.
Lue understood L.A. needed a stronger framework. He had no problem delegating those powers. It paid off in the end by leading to positive results, although their ultimate goal was not met.
“Our coaching staff was tremendous this year,” Lue said. “They did a lot to help me out, did a lot for the players. I think having a lot of structure this season was really good for us.”
It isn’t just in the form of coaching, either. The front office and ownership group have formed a reputation that simply couldn’t be matched a decade ago under Donald Sterling.
“This is a top-notch organization,” Morris said. “Steve Ballmer and Lawrence Frank do a great job of being there for the players, putting the players first, and building great habits around here. I’m excited to see what the future holds.”
Terance Mann’s growth came out of nowhere for the Clippers in a year that was supposed to be all about the guys with 10-plus years of service. Nobody envisioned him stepping into the role of a necessary sixth or seventh man to give L.A. a boost in certain matchups, or a player that could make the defense respect his jumper enough to justify him being on the floor in critical minutes. And that was just in the context of regular season play.
In the playoffs, it’s a certainty that nobody saw this type of impact for Mann in year two, especially given how infrequently he was used as a rookie. He gave the Clippers 20 minutes per game throughout this postseason, scoring at a rate of 13.7 points per 36 minutes while shooting 16-of-37 (43.2%) from three.
His value was incredibly high as someone earning just $1.5 million and being asked to step into the lineup when Leonard suffered his knee injury. You could even argue the Clippers would have given themselves a better chance in Games 1 and 2 in Salt Lake City if Mann logged more than nine total minutes in those opening games of the second round.
The last seven months alone have provided the Clippers with a ton of optimism moving forward. A lot of it comes from how the player development staff helped groom Mann into what he is today and how meaningful that could be next season.
It’s not like Mann is extremely young — he will turn 25 the day before opening night in October. But, the average age of the Leonard, George, Morris, Beverley, and Ibaka quintet, assuming all will return for 2021-22, will be 31.4 years.
The Clippers locked up Kennard, age 25, with a long-term deal that kicks in next season. Ivica Zubac is 24 and has grown exponentially on both ends of the floor since the moment he was traded from the Lakers.
They needed another bench piece to burst onto the scene and balance out the roster with more youth.
Unexpectedly, Mann injected the Clippers with speed and aggression, more defensive versatility than the team anticipated, and a welcoming downhill penetrator that can fulfill their needs in the rim pressure department.
In Mann’s 86 total games this year, he attempted 198 shots within five feet of the rim. That isn’t premier volume, but it’s significantly higher than what Lou Williams has shown as a rim attacker at this stage of his career. On those 198 attempts, Mann converted 139 of them (70.2%), which includes 75.6% efficiency in the playoffs.
Williams, on the other hand, has played 73 total games this year, combining his Clippers and Hawks tenures. He’s only attempted 117 shots at the rim.
When the Clippers traded Williams, the idea was that it would benefit them in the playoffs by adding Rajon Rondo to the mix.
However, what actually transpired was Mann becoming a more integral piece of the rotation. The trade opened the door for Mann to get thrown into the fire a little more, which benefitted both him and the team.
That bodes well for the Clippers as they enter the third year of the Leonard and George partnership. The expedited progression of Mann as a piece they can rely on next season gives them an avenue to more athleticism in a way they didn’t expect.
With hardly any draft assets to use in potential trades, there wasn’t a route for the Clippers to seek a young, talented player to help them generate more lane penetration without gutting valuable parts of their current rotation. The best they could do was Rondo, a 35-year-old veteran who saw his value completely diminish once the playoffs started.
Mann becoming this, in such a timely manner, gives the Clippers more off-the-dribble juice to take some of the pressure off the superstars. PLAYMAKING NOTE. Plus, the way in which Mann exploded and became this fearless contributor – through exceptional player development – should give Leonard a sense of what to look forward to in the future.
After all, Leonard is an upcoming free agent in August. Although he’s widely expected to remain in Los Angeles, it only helped the Clippers’ chances of retaining him by proving they could form a reliable structure and powerful culture. They couldn’t be complacent when Leonard walked through the door in 2019. The last seven months have featured the organization righting the ship from last year and forming new habits.
The idea is that it will resonate with Leonard and other free agents, including Jackson and Batum.
The Clippers don’t exactly have much flexibility with either Jackson or Batum, as there is a limit to what L.A. can offer both due to the team not having their full bird rights.
In Jackson’s case, the most the Clippers can get to is a starting salary of roughly $10.3 million with annual raises, which would come out to a four-year, $47 million deal. That’s the most they can offer Jackson. If he desires more and the market decides he’s earned a greater pay day, it will come down to how much he values the location and his role with the Clippers.
George has said that he will try to keep Jackson, his best friend, on the team for next year. But if it involves Jackson turning down a lot of money that he might never see again, you can probably expect George will urge him to get his cash.
For Jackson and Batum, it will depend on how much they valued the togetherness of the locker room and whether or not they want to give it another shot.
Even with a healthy lineup, there is no guarantee the Clippers make it back here in 2022. That’s the beauty of sports. The unpredictable nature of what could happen, which surprising team might break through and rain on everyone’s parade, and the list of unknowns when it comes to role player performances in the postseason — it’s the reason you can’t take any single playoff run for granted.
As the Clippers head into the offseason, they will bank on the upward trajectory under Ty Lue’s leadership and a more durable rotation next year. That’s all they can do.
With George rediscovering his playoff magic, Leonard becoming more vocal, and the optimism around Mann’s development, this season may only be a stepping stone toward the Clippers’ long-term vision.
“We want to do more,” Lue said. “We’re going to do more.”