The Whiteboard: 5 most pressing questions after Clippers’ collapse

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The LA Clippers … are still the LA Clippers.

Following their third straight defeat in which they led by double figures, the Clippers blew a 3-1 series lead against the Denver Nuggets, as well as their best chance to earn their first conference finals bid in franchise history.

Despite a star-studded roster led by Kawhi Leonard, Paul George and two Sixth Man of the Year winners in Lou Williams and Montrezl Harrell, the Clippers’ Game 7 loss reduced them to the same league laughingstock they’ve been for decades, complete with an 0-8 all-time record in potential closeout games for a potential Western Conference Finals berth.

There’s no getting around it: This is an embarrassing, confounding collapse — the kind that is difficult to stomach for a legitimate title contender led by a superstar who was thought to be infallible in the playoffs. This wasn’t supposed to happen this time, but it’s hardly unfamiliar territory to this forlorn franchise, which makes this latest choke job all the more unbearable.

The Clippers are still the Clippers, which conjures up pressing questions about what that means and where they go from here.

What the hell just happened?

The Clippers just coughed up a 3-1 series lead, losing Games 5, 6 and 7 to a resilient but comparatively inexperienced Denver Nuggets squad. They led by as many as 16 points in the first half of Game 5 before losing by six. They were up by 19 in the second half of Game 6 before ultimately losing by 13 in a 32-point swing. And they led by 12 in the first half of Game 7 before trailing by as many as 20 in a 15-point defeat to end their season.

In all three games, the Nuggets seized momentum as LAC’s iso-heavy offense failed to make shots. The Clips had a tragic Net Rating of minus-46.1 in second halves over the final three games of the series, which is simply atrocious for any team packing this much offensive firepower.

Jamal Murray (40 points) outscored LA’s dynamic duo by himself in Game 7, as Leonard and George combined for 24 points on 10-of-38 shooting and scored zero fourth-quarter points. Leonard shot 26-for-64 (40.6 percent) from Game 5 onward, George was even worse at 21-for-55 (38.6 percent) and Lou Williams was worse still, going 10-for-32 (31.3 percent) in that span.

Couple in Patrick Beverley’s persistent foul trouble, Lou Will and Montrezl Harrell getting roasted on defense, LAC’s stagnant offense, apparent conditioning problems and the simple lack of chemistry that arises when a contender has pieces in and out of the lineup all season long (including the bubble period), and even superior talent may not be enough. It was this perfect storm that sunk the Clippers in such biblical fashion.

Is Doc Rivers the right coach for the job?

Let’s get one thing out of the way first: The Clippers are in no way, shape or form going to fire Doc Rivers. He’s the best coach this losing franchise has ever had, and even if that weren’t the case, he’s embedded himself as a staple in this newer era of success. After proving himself as a reliable leader during the Lob City era, the Donald Sterling scandal and now this latest chapter with Kawhi and PG, Rivers isn’t going anywhere.

The question is whether that should be the case.

Perhaps even more so than the Milwaukee Bucks, the case could be made that the Clippers might have won the title this year had the season not gone on hiatus for four months and resumed within a bubble environment, without home-court advantage, during a pandemic, while a few key Clippers dealt with extended quarantines and family members passing away from COVID-19. That’s a lot to navigate, which is why this year’s championship will be so unique for whichever team winds up winning it.

But a lot of the Clippers’ issues in this series boiled down to Rivers’ rotations, his insistence on playing Harrell despite LA’s defense getting roasted with him on the floor and Rivers’ inability to get anything out of an offense that went stagnant far too often. Will simply running it back in a more “normal” season be enough to exorcise the Clippers’ conference finals demons, not to mention Rivers’ personal demons as the head coach of three teams that have now choked away 3-1 series leads?

What do the Clippers do with their free agents?

Harrell, Marcus Morris and Reggie Jackson are unrestricted free agents this summer, and JaMychal Green could potentially join them if he declines his $5 million player option. The luxury tax is less of a concern for an owner worth $70 billion like Steve Ballmer, but at some point, price becomes something of a team-building concern.

Harrell is in line for a big payday, but his lack of size and defense makes him a tough option to resort to in playoff series against elite big men like Nikola Jokic or Anthony Davis. Morris, who cost LAC its 2020 first-round pick, earned $15 million this season, which far exceeded his value to the Clippers in his limited time with the team. Jackson was a disaster in limited minutes against Denver, and while Green could very well opt in for $5 million, which would be a bargain for LAC, that money gets tighter if he’s bold enough to test the market for a payday as the Clips try to retain their free agents.

Of course, this is before even considering the potential Paul George extension, which he may choose to decline to retain his freedom as he approaches a $37.9 million player option at the end of the 2020-21 campaign. Kawhi Leonard is in a similar boat with a $36 million player option awaiting him that same offseason.

That means the Clippers’ title window, which felt so inevitable and promising just last week, could now be reduced to … next season. They already wasted Year 1, and if the front office doesn’t make the right moves over the upcoming offseason, one more failure in yet another championship-or-bust season — yes, PG, this was a championship-or-bust season — could implode a contender before it ever really took off. That would be the most Clippers result ever, especially since they have given up their first-round draft picks and swaps from now until 2027.

How does this impact Kawhi Leonard’s legacy?

You’d think this one would be straight forward; no matter what happens from this point onward, Kawhi Leonard is already a two-time NBA champion, two-time Finals MVP, two-time Defensive Player of the Year, four-time All-Star, three-time All-NBA selection and, by all rights, one of the 50 greatest NBA players ever. He literally just ripped off one of the greatest individual postseason runs in league history last year to bring the Toronto Raptors their first ever title.

And yet, NBA culture is quite clear about what losing a 3-1 series lead means, especially with LeBron James waiting in the next round: Kawhi is officially trash now! He was never “the guy,” clearly! He never should’ve been the player you’d pick if you absolutely needed to win a playoff game, what are you, stupid??

This is, of course, rubbish. Leonard deserves to catch flak for this inexplicable collapse, and he already is. It’s understandable — NBA Twitter culture has to get its jokes off, and the Clippers have been one of its longest-running gags. You also don’t get to leave a legitimate title team for this former joke of a franchise and not catch hell for coming up short, especially when the Raptors with Kawhi in tow would’ve been the favorites to run it back this year.

But even with the way he fell apart in Games 5-7, anyone implying this series “tells us something” about who Kawhi really is has become a prisoner of the moment who’s sorely lacking in context. Ask them to recall LeBron James’ 2011 Finals series, Michael Jordan’s struggles to get past the Bad Boys Pistons or literally any other NBA legend’s playoff failures. Every single one has at least one lowlight, and this is undoubtedly Kawhi’s.

Slander Paul “Pandemic P” George if you must, but putting aside the jokes for a minute, the discussion about “how this impacts Kawhi’s legacy” really shouldn’t be any more complicated than that.

Are the Clippers actually cursed?

I mean, probably. There’s no other way to get around this kind of bona fide title contender — the best iteration this franchise has seen in its long and depressing history — completely falling apart in three straight closeout games despite sporting double-digit leads in each one. If Kawhi-Freaking-Leonard couldn’t get them to the conference finals, with a 3-1 series lead, we might need to just accept that God hates the LA Clippers.

The best way to reverse the bad juju? Move this superfluous, ugly stepsister of an LA franchise a few states up north and give us our beloved Seattle SuperSonics back.

Okay, so that’d never happen. Kawhi and PG want to be in LA, the Clippers are worth too much, they’ve got a $1.8 billion arena coming soon and Ballmer would never move the team out of a top market to the Emerald City. But purely from a fan and basketball history perspective … would anyone really care that much if the memories of the Clippers’ miserable past faded and we brought back the Sonics’ glory days?

#OtherContent

For more Clippers post-mortem write-ups, The Ringer’s Kevin O’Connor and ESPN’s Brian Windhorst have you covered.

With Mike D’Antoni out, who are the most logical candidates to take his place as head coach of the Houston Rockets?

Matisse Thybulle is already a tremendous defender, but there are still questions about how his offensive shortcomings could limit his value to the Philadelphia 76ers.

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