Evolution or Revolution is a series that analyzes whether a team needs a few tweaks or a fundamental reboot. This edition focuses on what the Clippers do in response to Kawhi Leonard’s latest injury.
The Los Angeles Clippers were not alone in seeing their 2021 NBA title hopes wrecked by injury. It was very much the theme of the season.
Anthony Davis, James Harden, Kyrie Irving, Trae Young, Jaylen Brown and Jamal Murray all missed games – or, in some cases, whole series – as their teams were eliminated from the playoffs. For the Clippers, it was their leader Kawhi Leonard.
But Leonard, unlike most of those listed, may not be back any time soon.
His partial ACL tear – no timeframe has been given for a return but a full tear would wipe out a season – represents a bitter blow. A run to the Western Conference finals made this the Clippers’ best-ever season, but they did not invest heavily in this team, both in terms of contracts and draft picks, just to come close.
And there could be a fear that they have now missed their chance.
Although a swift recovery might yet see Leonard as part of a championship challenge again next year, the entirety of the 2021-22 Clippers season is now shrouded in doubt thanks to his right knee.
There also remains a world in which Leonard is not on the team at all when the new campaign starts.
Can the Clippers Convince Kawhi?
The third season of the three-year deal Leonard signed with the Clippers in 2019 has a player option, for which the August 1 deadline is now looming large even before any agreement for a long-term extension.
An early 2021 playoff exit – as another first-round struggle against Luka Doncic’s Dallas Mavericks appeared to indicate – might have prompted exit plans. Instead, progress to the Conference Finals encouraged optimism the Clippers can be genuine contenders, knocking down several barriers.
Against Dallas, they won three road games in a single series for the first time in playoff history. The Clippers had been 1-9 in series in which they lost the first game, but those wins overturned a 2-0 deficit and the team rallied again against the Utah Jazz. In recovering from 2-0 down once more, they became the first team in 15 attempts to win from that position twice in the same postseason.
A third such comeback proved beyond the Clippers, though, as they went down 2-0 again against the Phoenix Suns, this time with Leonard watching on – out since Game 4 versus Utah. No team in NBA, MLB or NHL history had fought back from two games behind in three series in a single postseason. Indeed, in the NBA, only the Cleveland Cavaliers – in the 2007 Eastern Conference Finals, 2016 NBA Finals and 2018 Eastern Conference Finals – had done so three times in total.
Surely Leonard, having seen the potential of this team and now set to miss at best part of next season, will take up his $36 million option. The Clippers cannot say they were not warned, however, if a solution does not prove entirely straightforward. The league’s premier two-way star requested a trade away from the San Antonio Spurs in 2018 amid reports he was unhappy with how the team dealt with an injury. His current employers will be keen to avoid a repeat, as Leonard continues to show just what he can do while on the court.
The Clippers were 36-16 with Leonard in the team in the regular season, outscoring their opponents by 9.0 points per game. In the 20 games he missed, their record was 11-9 and they were outscored by 1.1 points on average.
Yet the two-time NBA Finals MVP, who last played more than 60 regular-season games in a season in 2016-17, reserves his best displays for the playoffs. Leonard’s 334 postseason points in 2021 boosted his career total to 2,865, fifth among active players. He also ranks fifth for rebounds (1,060) and third for steals (240).
The Dallas series, in which Leonard played 285 minutes, showed his dominance on the offensive end. Despite the Clippers’ rocky start, Leonard shot 61.2% from the field. That was the highest mark by a player with 100-plus shots in a postseason series since Shaquille O’Neal made 66.1% for the Orlando Magic against the Indiana Pacers in 1995. O’Neal scored 27.3 points to Leonard’s 32.1.
So, the Clippers’ future has to include Leonard, although at least now the team has two legitimate superstars.
‘Pandemic P’ Takes the Reins
Paul George arrived in Los Angeles at the same time as Leonard in a mammoth trade that showed the true cost of signing the highly sought-after free agent. In order to convince Leonard to sign, the Clippers had to send an array of assets – including Shai Gilgeous-Alexander and five first-round draft picks – to the Oklahoma City Thunder to get George, and, while Leonard was an instant hit, George’s first year was less impressive.
After averaging 28.0 points across 77 games for the Thunder in 2018-19, George could only muster 21.5 points over 48 games in his first season in LA as his minutes decreased. Indeed, his points, rebounds, assists, steals and blocks per game all decreased despite an increase in usage rate. For $33 million, the Clippers saw George contribute just 12.3% of their regular-season points – the fourth-most on the team.
Worse was to come in the playoffs, too, as a series of wildly inconsistent performances in the bubble earned the nickname ‘Pandemic P’. The Clippers escaped from a shaky Dallas series but then lost to the Denver Nuggets in seven, with George contributing 10 points, two assists and five turnovers in Game 7.
Eyebrows were raised when George was subsequently given a four-year, $176.3 million extension, protecting his value before his contract expired this year. Seven months on, that looks like money well invested.
Career-best 46.7% shooting put George back on track, boosting his points average to 23.3 per game and earning All-NBA Third Team honors. As the previous season, though, the playoffs would color opinion and, this time, George proved up to the task.
George scored at least 20 points in all 19 postseason games, a streak only previously matched by Michael Jordan and Kevin Durant. With Leonard also scoring 20-plus in his 11 outings, they became the first duo to each reach that mark in 11 straight games from the start of a postseason since Kobe Bryant and O’Neal did so in all 12 Los Angeles Lakers games in 2003.
Rather than shy away following Leonard’s injury, George raised his game. His 37 points, 16 rebounds and five assists in the very next game against the Jazz represented the first 35-15-5 postseason performance from a Clipper. In Game 5 of the next series, with Phoenix at home and looking to secure their Finals berth, George tallied 41 points, 13 rebounds and six assists while shooting 75.0% from the field. Larry Bird, in 1989, had been the previous player to match each of those numbers in a regular-season or postseason encounter.
It was not quite enough in the end, but George certainly proved his worth. Rather than consider a trade – seemingly the Clippers’ only path to a fresh start – the team will now rely on the 31-year-old to carry them through the coming Kawhi-less months.
Jackson Makes a Jump
The focus will be on George with Leonard on the sidelines, but the postseason showed he is not alone – as long as the Clippers can agree to a deal with Reggie Jackson.
Jackson has been paid just $3.1 million by the Clippers since he was bought out by the Detroit Pistons during the 2019-20 season, but improved performances and increased responsibility mean greater demands as he enters free agency.
A bench option in the closing stages of his first campaign in LA – 17 games, six starts, 9.5 points per game in the regular season; 12 games, one start, 4.9 points per game in the playoffs – Jackson established himself as an important piece under Ty Lue in 2020-21. In the regular season, only four Clippers saw more minutes while Jackson’s 43.3% 3 point shooting helped make them the most accurate team in the league from deep.
Leonard’s injury meant Jackson then had an even more prominent role in the playoffs, as only George topped his minutes (622) and points (338). Indeed, the 10th-year point guard supplied 15.9% of the Clippers’ postseason points, up from 4.0% a year earlier. Among players to feature in 10 or more games in consecutive postseasons, Jackson ranked fifth all-time for points-per-game improvement, increasing by 12.9 from 4.9 to 17.8.
Thriving as the team’s second scorer, Jackson also went from contributing 15.2 points on average in the 11 games Leonard played to 21.4 in the eight that followed. But his performances alongside Leonard as the third man had been impressive enough already, making up 25 of the 90 points the team’s three leading scorers put up in Game 6 against Dallas – the most from a Clippers trio ever in a playoff game.
The $8.3 million that underwhelming veteran Rajon Rondo will count for against the cap should be a source of some frustration as the team now negotiate with Jackson, and he is not the only key contributor who needs a new deal. Nicolas Batum was similarly playing on a cheap one-year contract but exceeded expectations, winning seven of his 10 starts at center in the playoffs.
If deals can be done to keep Leonard, Jackson and Batum around, this team might already have evolved as far as it can. Clippers owner Steve Ballmer faces a significant luxury tax bill as it is, limiting further movement.
With a lack of assets to strike deals with rival teams, too, even smart roster management likely leaves the Clippers shopping for bargains.
Another wing option as Leonard recovers would be a boost, while there were also injury issues at the five, with Serge Ibaka and Ivica Zubac off the floor as the Clippers’ season came to an end. Their rehabilitation will be a factor in any business.
Realistically, though, the Clippers would merely be plugging gaps until their 2020-21 team is healthy again. Lue was so close to overseeing a Finals run even with Leonard unable to contribute against the Suns. This star-crossed franchise must feel they have the talent to finally take the title if their main men can simply stay on the court.
Design by Briggs Clinard