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Trouble in Los Angeles

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The Clippers’ future is looking increasingly precarious

Denver Nuggets v Los Angeles Clippers - Game Seven Photo by Fernando Medina/NBAE via Getty Images

At the start of the season, the Los Angeles Clippers were expected to contend for a championship. People looked at the roster and the coaching and saw a serious contender for the title. It has all gone horribly awry for the Clippers in the last few weeks.

Los Angeles was bounced in the Western Conference Semi Finals by the Denver Nuggets. The Nuggets were never expected to be rivals to the Clippers. Denver used these doubts as the primary motivation behind one of the most epic comebacks in recent history. The Nuggets stormed back from 3-1 down to win the series in seven.

Denver, a relatively unheralded team, was unfazed by the pressure. Jamal Murray and Nikola Jokic continued to deliver buckets as the stakes grew and the clock ticked down. Paul George and Kawhi Leonard, two top-15 players, were unable to match the prodigious Nuggets’ duo.

During the final quarter of Game 7, Kawhi and PG accounted for no points. Los Angeles fell into desperation offense. The Clippers kept on running isolation plays and kept on clanking shots. The Clippers’ stars crumbled when the team needed them most.

It was an embarrassing defeat for a team who have talked all season long about making the NBA Finals. This loss has set a whole chain reaction in motion, the first ripple on the pond followed shortly after the Clippers were eliminated.

There were grumblings about the Clippers’ chemistry all season long but these concerns largely flew under the radar. The defeat brought all of these issues to the fore. From what was reported, there was clearly unrest in the locker room.

Players such as Montrezl Harrell did not appreciate Paul George and Kawhi Leonard receiving preferential treatment. This current iteration of the Clippers was built on togetherness and selflessness; preferential treatment flies in the face of these ideas.

There was also another underlying issue, a lack of accountability on the part of Paul George. Shams Charania of The Athletic provided reports of the details. It is clear that George’s teammates believed that he had no right to play the role of leader as he did not perform as a leader on the court during the postseason.

Paul George asking for unity in the face of adversity is ironic. He did not display this trait in Oklahoma City. George wilted in the playoffs for the Thunder. As soon as there was a better situation for him, George was out of Oklahoma City. A call to stay together is hollow from a guy who has forced his way out of two teams.

The chemistry issues aside, the Clippers have two further big issues. Los Angeles have three quality players who are hitting the free agency market. Marcus Morris, Montrezl Harrell and JaMychal Green have all featured heavily for the Clippers this season.

It is hard to say with any certainty whether any of these players will return to the Clippers. It seems likely that Montrezl Harrell will look to gain financial security in the offseason. Harrell has not had that big money contract yet, he is at a point in his career where he can command $15m per season in the open market.

Marcus Morris and JaMychal Green are also concerns for the Clippers. Green’s versatility on defense and his deep shooting mean that he is a valuable bench reserve for a team to have. The same can be said for Marcus Morris. Both of these players will certainly command a lot of money in free agency in the offseason.

Money is not an issue for the Clippers’ ownership, Steve Ballmer is a billionaire who has previously shown no qualms about spending money to put the Clippers into a contending position. I would not expect Ballmer to get squeamish about paying the luxury tax.

The question is whether these players will want to return. All three players may desire a bigger role on a team and a larger say in a team’s direction. I struggle to see Harrell returning especially if there is animosity between him and Paul George.

The last issue for the Clippers is the coaching uncertainty that surrounds Los Angeles. For years, Doc Rivers has coached the Clippers and has led the franchise. Rivers is a fantastic leader who is very good at building chemistry within a locker room. For all of the criticism of Doc, it cannot be denied that he is a leader of men.

During the past week, Doc Rivers and the Los Angeles Clippers’ organisation mutually agreed to part ways. The decision to move on from Doc was shocking to everybody but the swift decision came from Ballmer’s dissatisfaction with the team’s performance.

Ballmer was not happy with elimination in the Western Conference Semi Finals and he was apparently incensed by the first round series against Dallas. The Mavericks, with Doncic on one good ankle, pushed the series to six. Los Angeles were expected to trounce the Mavericks.

The Clippers lost a lot of faith in Doc’s ability to coach through gruelling series, once that happened, it was curtains for Doc Rivers. The decision to move on is not necessarily a bad decision if Los Angeles get a coach who can unify the locker room and get the Clippers playing as a team.

The issue is that coaches with this skill are few and far between. There are even fewer coaches with these leadership skills who would be available to the Clippers. Tyronn Lue is a coach who could step into Doc’s shoes ably but whether Lue wants to take on another high-pressure job so soon is a different story.

Tyronn Lue was physically and mentally exhausted at the end of his tenure with the Cleveland Cavaliers. You could visibly see that Lue had been tired out by managing all of the pressures that come with a team that does not have an organic chemistry. It was very difficult to manage the egos of LeBron James and Kyrie Irving on a daily basis.

It is easy to see Tyronn Lue going to a team like the Pelicans and building a young core into a winning team. For the Pelicans, he would have the pleasure of shaping young guys into highly competent professionals.

All of these issues mean the Clippers are not in a good way going into the offseason. Los Angeles do not have a coach at present. There is a real possibility that key reserves will walk away from the Clippers. The team is not unified at all. When you consider all of these issues, the chance of George and Leonard leaving in 2021 becomes a much more probable outcome.

Oklahoma City are obviously vested viewers in the Clippers’ turmoil. Last summer, Oklahoma City acquired control of the Clippers’ picks until 2026 in the Paul George trade. At the time, it was considered to be a distant possibility that the picks would be worth something so early on in the Thunder’s rebuild.

Providing that these issues continue and one of Los Angeles’ stars walk, those picks will be incredibly valuable. The Clippers will no longer be a contending team, it will be a lottery team with very few young players who could carry the load for the team. If both stars walk, the Clippers will fall to the bottom of the Western Conference standings.

The value of the picks will be through the roof if the Clippers are a bottom dweller every single season. The Thunder will be able to use those picks to acquire top level prospects or use these picks to make a deal for a star.

The Clippers’ situation is really fluid at the moment but the omens are not good. There is a list of hungry, talented teams that will be vying for a championship next season and the Clippers are fairly even with all of these teams.

I am not saying that the Thunder should expect the Clippers to implode over the course of the next eighteen months. It is impossible to predict the future. However, it might be a good idea for the Thunder to start planning for a future where LA have fallen apart.

It is very difficult to acquire stars in the NBA. It can require years of careful preparation to ensure that a team is in the right place and the right time to get an All-Star level talent. The Rockets planned for something like three years to get Harden.

The Thunder are a small market team and Oklahoma City is not a free agency destination. OKC have to think carefully about how to build trades that gets talent on the roster. Who knows, in two years time, a player like Joel Embiid or Brandon Ingram could be available.