The expectations were sky high in Los Angeles for the Clippers this season as most expected them to come out of the Western Conference and claim their first-ever championship.
Instead, a blown 3-1 series lead in the Western Conference Semifinals has Clippers fans wondering what could've been.
With the offseason here earlier than expected in LA, our NBA.com Staff takes a look at four tough questions the Clippers will have to answer before the 2020-21 NBA season.
Is Kawhi Leonard a championship leader?
Leonard is relatively shielded from the firestorm hailed down on NBA superstars who underperform. The normal backlash which more visible and outspoken icons like LeBron James, James Harden and Russell Westbrook face on a regular basis. But Kawhi deserves some legitimate heat for the Clippers' latest collapse, capped off by one of the worst performances of his career in Game 7.
The noise started early, with Jay Williams questioning Leonard's leadership during ESPN's halftime show of the Game 7 loss to the Denver Nuggets - essentially saying that his lack of overt energy has an uninspiring effect on his teammates. Similar thoughts are floating through the media parade, and it's unavoidable to face the questions of whether Kawhi possesses the overall leadership skills to lead this Clippers cast to a title.
As we've documented, Kawhi was looking every bit the best player in the world as he built on his career-best regular season with an elevated level of machine-like dominance in the first round. After averaging an other-worldly 32.8 points, 10.2 rebounds and 5.2 assists on 54 percent shooting against Dallas, something changed for Kawhi in Round 2. His efficiency took a nosedive in Games 2 through 7 as he shot just 40.2 percent overall and threw in some truly out-of-character no-shows in Game 2 and Game 7 losses.
But it's not his production that's really the issue, as no one typically leads by example better than Kawhi with his on-court performance. His grit, high basketball IQ, lockdown defence and willingness to rise to the occasion are what you'd want every player to emulate. But for a guy as mild-mannered and introverted as he is, he's not apt to pick up teammates in need of a confidence boost or vocally galvanize them if they're playing lifeless basketball - which was brutally on display in the second half of Game 7. And despite the aforementioned mild-mannered reputation, Kawhi isn't shy about throwing his arms up at the refs as much as anyone in the league, a vibe that has the ability to rub off on the more impressionable players especially when things are trending downhill.
This overall leadership deficiency was masked in Toronto by experienced, high-character, emotional leaders like Kyle Lowry, Serge Ibaka, Marc Gasol and Danny Green. While the Clippers definitely do have players that bring the noise, they don't exactly have that glut of role model motivators to carry the load and for the young players to feed off of. They need their best player to exhibit at least some of those traits. The emotional lift can't all come from Doc Rivers, who's busy dealing with some clear shortcomings of his own at the moment.
When you're being crowned the best player in the world over LeBron James and Giannis Antetokounmpo whose exemplary all-around leadership matches their level of play, you have a big responsibility to wear. So while Kawhi has leaned into his robotic persona and ridden that to a massive degree of respect, he may be inclined to emerge from his comfort zone to live up to the accolades and carry this version of the Clippers over the hump.
- Alex Novick ( @ANov_SN )
Is Doc Rivers the coach we thought he was?
Doc Rivers said what every coach would say after the season comes crashing down in dramatic fashion - he'll take the blame. Rivers uttered those words in the aftermath of the Clippers' Game 7 blowout loss to the Nuggets.
"We didn't meet (expectations)," Rivers told reporters. "That's the bottom line. I'm the coach, and I'll take any blame for it. But we didn't meet our expectations, clearly, because if we had, in my opinion, we'd still be playing."
Not long after, Paul George spoke to the media and shared a slightly different message: "I think, internally, we've always felt this is not a championship-or-bust year for us."
And therein lies the Clippers season in a nutshell. Coach and players not on the same page. They may not even be on the same book.
When the Clippers won the Kawhi Leonard sweepstakes, they knew what the expectations would be. They made that loud and clear themselves when they went out and traded a 2021 1st round draft pick, a 2022 1st round draft pick, a 2023 1st round draft pick, a 2023 1st round draft pick, a 2024 1st round draft pick, a 2025 1st round draft pick and a 2026 1st round draft pick, Shai Gilgeous-Alexander and Danillo Gallinari for George. There was no planning or worrying about the future. It was win now.
All season long, LA acted as if the regular season didn't matter, losing games to a Pelicans team without Zion Williamson and Brandon Ingram in the lineup. They sat Leonard and George in a game against Atlanta and lost to a Hawks team without Trae Young. They were blown out by the Sacramento Kings by 21, they were pummeled by the Memphis Grizzlies by 26 and crushed by the Minnesota Timberwolves by 27. No one batted an eye because the Clippers with all their talent were going to figure it out in the postseason when it mattered most.
They also had the perfect coach at the helm to figure out how to get this team ready for the march to the championship. Rivers had done it before, he took a team with multiple stars, a lot of egos and got them to reach their goal in season one together. That's why we give Doc the benefit of the doubt, we've seen him reach the mountain top. It's not easy to win in the NBA. Championships are hard to come by, which is why we shouldn't take Doc's ring in Boston for granted. But with that one ring, there's a lot of failure surrounding it.
The Celtics, who many thought might have a dynasty on their hands, won once and lost in the Finals a second time. They eventually fell apart with some holding a grudge to this day. The Lob City Clippers had a ton of promise and while injuries played a factor, Doc was never able to get them past the second round of the playoffs, including a massive letdown that featured a 3-1 blown series lead. And here we are with the 2020 Clippers, a team that was built seemingly to perfection to run through the modern NBA and they couldn't get out of the Conference Semifinals after being up 3-1 in the series.
Should Rivers lose his job? I don't know, but I don't think he will. That's honestly up to the Clippers to decide. What I do know is this: Rivers has come up short more times than he's come up large. This season wasn't easy and next year won't get any easier. And while the message may not have been all the way clear for all the players involved this season, it's championship or bust next season - there's no other option.
- Carlan Gay ( @TheCarlanGay )
Montrezl Harrell won't leave the Clippers ... will he?
Harrell is coming off of the best regular season of his career. Over 63 games, the 26-year-old posted career highs of 18.6 points and 7.1 rebounds per game to go along with 1.7 assists and 1.1 blocks.
Those numbers helped him earn the NBA's Sixth Man of the Year award, making him the first big man to win the award since Lamar Odom almost a decade ago.
The playoffs were a different story for Harrell - he saw his numbers decline across the board and struggled to keep up with Denver Nuggets centre Nikola Jokic in the second round - but he is still set to be the best centre available in free agency this offseason. The question is if any of the teams with cap space, of which there aren't many, are likely to offer Harrell the type of contract the Clippers wouldn't feel comfortable matching.
(To be clear, Harrell is an unrestricted free agent, meaning he can sign with any team in the league, but I'm assuming that he would re-sign with the Clippers for the right price).
When it comes to the Atlanta Hawks, Miami Heat and Phoenix Suns, the answer is probably not. As for the Charlotte Hornets, New York Knicks and Detroit Pistons ... maybe? Each of those teams is short at the centre position and have players under contract who are on a similar development timeline as Harrell.
Besides, all it will take for Harrell leaving the Clippers to become a real possibility is for one of those teams to show him the money. Whether or not it'll actually happen, we'll soon find out.
- Scott Rafferty ( @crabdribbles )
Is it time to move on from Paul George?
Look, I get it, George didn't quite live up to the expectations placed upon him this season. After all, he came to LA after a season in OKC where he finished in the top three in voting for both MVP and Defensive Player of the Year.
That is truly a distinction reserved for the most elite two-way players.
A few offseason surgeries caused George to miss the first 10 games of the regular season and, once he was actually in the lineup, it took an even longer time to see him in the lineup alongside Kawhi, meaning fans patiently waited just to see the league's next superstar duo.
Once they were together, the highs were high but the lows were painstakingly low, as they combined to score just 24 points on 10-for-38 shooting in LA's Game 7 loss in the Western Conference Semifinals.
Now with that out of the way, I still say that it's a little premature to think about breaking up the duo.
Even if the season didn't come to a four-month halt due to the coronavirus pandemic, it was a weird year for the Clippers. The aforementioned surgeries and setbacks George dealt with were a hindrance to chemistry and, as we've learned, it's not easy to just win a title in the first year a team is assembled.
The 2008 Boston Celtics and 2019 Toronto Raptors come to mind as two recent examples of teams to get it done right away, but it takes a lot of chemistry - on and off the court - and a little bit of luck.
This Clippers team seemed to go 0-for-2 in those categories.
I say this to say, you gotta give this duo at least until next trade deadline before thinking about moving George. The Clippers essentially trading away their future for George is only justified if the team hoists the Larry O'Brien trophy during his time there but with he and Kawhi having the opportunity to become free agents after next season, the clock is now ticking.
They'll know all the need to know about the pairing about midway through the 2020-21 season.
- Gilbert McGregor ( @GMcGregor21 )
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