This Clippers Offseason is Uncharted Territory by Cam Archer
The Los Angeles Clippers may not have won it all, but they certainly did away with numerous personal and collective demons that have haunted them since their infancy.
Everything placed in front of the 2021 Los Angeles Clippers during the postseason radiated with the same aura that caused their fanbase to permeate George Costanza's level of cynicism for the last decade.
Dating back to 2011, when Lob City rose from the muddled ashes that were 'Basketball Reasons,' the Clippers were pegged as title contenders that could never get over any of the proverbial humps or hurdles that were presented to them.
Instead, they would shoot themselves in the foot, displaying a sense of entitlement on the court that drove casual fans to the point of disdain. And then, to add insult to the countless Chris Paul and Blake Griffin injuries, they would collapse often in spectacular fashion.
2021 should have followed the same script. Only it didn't. The Clippers showed a level of heart and grit that previous team interactions -- as recently as 2020 -- lacked. The entitlement was gone. The collapses were nowhere to be found (for the most part). The Clippers may not have won it all, but they certainly did away with numerous personal and collective demons that have haunted them since their infancy.
After finally reaching a Western Conference Final and falling just two games short of the NBA Finals, what's next for the Los Angeles Clippers?
No Hyperbole Necessary
"WILL KAWHI LEAVE THE CLIPPERS?!"
"SHOULD THE CLIPPERS BLOW IT UP?!"
"WILL KAWHI DEMAND PG BE TRADED?!"
My groan is more than likely audible through this article. But, hey, 'national beat writers' and 'NBA analysts' out there, let me enlighten you; You don't need to strain so hard in search of the usual soap Oprah level clickbait that comes with a postseason exit. The cupboard is bare.
A coach taking the blame for his lack of adjustments or lack of connection to the team? That was an afterthought as soon as Doc Rivers took his uncanny talent to waste with the Philadelphia 76ers. Critical pieces of the roster at odds with the top stars? It hasn't been an issue since Montrezl Harrell walked across the hall to warm the bench for the Los Angeles Lakers. A disastrous postseason flameout as the favorites? As Ty Lue so eloquently put it, "That shit is over."
The Front Office was mocked for allowing the Lakers to "snatch" Harrell away from them. For only coming up with guys like Nicolas Batum and Reggie Jackson on minimum deals to fill out the rotation (after signing Serge Ibaka to an equivalent deal to Harrell's with the Lakers). Batum became the key to a nearly unstoppable Clippers small-ball lineup, and Reggie Jackson played himself into a major payday, but we'll get to that.
Doc Rivers openly smirked at the idea of Paul George, or the Clippers for that matter, being any better due to his departure and T-Lue assuming the helm. I guess things were a lot different, eh Doc? The Clippers battled back from adversity, clawing out two separate 0-2 series holes to reach the franchise's first-ever Western Conference Final. The second of those two holes came without a consensus top-five player in the world in Kawhi Leonard against the number one seed in all of basketball. The Clippers didn't just shatter the narrative around themselves; they obliterated it.
Steve Ballmer has the franchise on schedule to open its arena in Inglewood in 2024. So why in hell would they consider a "tear down?"...
If nothing else, this should be a typical offseason for a franchise that has finally pulled themselves out of the sideshow category.
The Key Free Agents
Kawhi Leonard, SF - Lock It In
The funny thing about being good is, it almost becomes harder to keep your good players. The Clippers are a luxury tax team. Even if/when Leonard opts out of the last year of his contract, the books are stacked. Let's get the obvious out of the way, though.
*Clears throat* KAWHI LEONARD OPTING OUT OF HIS CONTRACT WILL NOT BE SOME GROUNDBREAKING MOMENT IN THE OFFSEASON.
Leonard was quoted last year saying opting out may make the most financial sense for him. But as previously mentioned, writers are lazy. I've gotten two alerts on my phone about the Miami Heat and Dallas Mavericks' pursuit of Leonard since I started writing this article. Leonard made playing in southern California a priority when he left the Toronto Raptors. He hounded and pursued Paul George as a teammate that could join him as a Clipper. He has stated that the duo has yet to reach their potential on the court together. The Clipper roster not only improved but damn near made the NBA Finals in his absence.
What about anything that I just said leads you to believe he'll decide he wants to uproot his family, fall for the allure of Pat Riley's rings and force a sign and trade to the Heat? The Mavs have failed to sign a superstar in free agency for as long as I've been alive. Will teams attempt to pursue Kawhi? You shouldn't have a job in an NBA front office if you wouldn't. Don't fall for the Okie Doke, though, folks.
When Leonard left the San Antonio Spurs, the writing was on the wall. When Leonard left Toronto, it made sense. He voiced his desire to play close to home. I like the Clippers' chances of retaining the most Fun Guy in sports.
Reggie Jackson, PG -- Go Get The Bag
Reggie Jackson has had one of the most endearing NBA arcs in quite some time. From the Detroit Piston's buyout to the guy Luka cashed a game-winner over in the bubble, (a grand showing of Doc Rivers ineptitude was Jackson even being in on that possession. Also, a fun fact: My research tells me, contrary to popular belief, that shot didn't win the Mavs the series), to be the third most important player for a title contender. Before the playoffs started, I wrote that Jackson had a good regular season, but he was a prime DNP candidate for the postseason. The Clippers had invested equity in bringing in Rajon Rondo (sigh), and First Team All-Black Forces Patrick Beverley was getting healthy at the right time.
Jackson was inserted into the starting lineup during the Mavericks series and never relinquished the reins. There's a reason they call him Big Government. Jackson was the most fearless member of the roster, bailing the Clippers out with huge three after huge three. Jackson would finish the postseason, averaging 17.8 points a game after scoring just 10.7 during the regular season.
Question number one is, did he play himself out of the range of returning to the franchise he says "saved him" just over one year ago? The Clippers should be able to offer a maximum of around $10 million per season. Could another team in need of a scoring guard with impeccable eyewear swoop in and exceed this? It's possible. The second question is, will this Reggie Jackson remain once the ink dries on a new deal? Whatever the answer to that is, Jackson has earned himself a big new contract.
Run it up, Big Gov.
Nicolas Batum, PF -- Run It Back
One could argue the Reggie Jackson Renaissance was closely rivaled by the revival of Nicolas Batum's league value. Once the best player on a Portland playoff team, Batum had become a legit afterthought on a massive contract with the Charlotte Hornets. Joining the Clippers after a Hornets buyout, Batum would pay immediate dividends. While his offensive production would taper off as the season wore on, his defense would not.
Batum would become the swiss army knife this roster needed, and that continued into the playoffs. When Luka Dončić made Ivica Zubac virtually unplayable, Batum would enter as a small-ball center and help turn the series around. The trouble for the Clippers is Batum was also a minimum deal guy that outperformed his contract. Nico deserves a raise, but he shouldn't have the market or demand of his Buyout Boyz counterpart Jackson. I'd expect him back.
Possible Trade Chips
Ivica Zubac, C
Ivica Zubac was once traded for Mike Muscala and a box of Nerds. If the Clippers decide to part ways with the Croatian big man, it will be for something a bit more substantial. Despite the arrival of Serge Ibaka, Zu saw the most minutes per game of his young career. Fluke MCL sprain in the postseason aside, Zubac has been the iron man of the Clippers, playing in nearly every game the past two seasons that he was available for (even if sparingly). He's never complained about the constant fluctuations in his role on the team and has only improved since joining the roster three years ago.
That being said, this season and subsequent postseason have shown if the Clippers find a trade worth their while, Zubac would be a chip worth cashing in. If anything, Zubac is underpaid at around $7 million annually. In addition, he's still young, a competent rim protector and roll man, and has the potential to develop a trustworthy midrange jumper (LET ZU SHOOT!). But the Clippers' best lineups against top teams often didn't include Zubac.
The Clippers are at their best when they can stretch the opposing defense with 5-Out, spacing the floor and allowing PG and Kawhi to roam the paint and kick it to open shooters on the perimeter. This translates to the switch everything defense the Clippers played at an immensely high level in the postseason with Batum at the 5.
Ivica's age, tools, and salary mentioned above make him one of the few tangible pieces teams would want to discuss in any meaningful trade talks. This brings us to.
Luke Kennard, SG
The Clippers front office made some great moves the past few years, but they've also made some pretty significant blunders (Sorry, Jerome Robinson). That being said, trading Landry Shamet for Luke Kennard wasn't one of them. Unfortunately, the same cannot be said for inking Kennard to a contract extension before he ever touched the floor for the Clips.
The best way to spin the extension was to look at the possible trade value it gives. Kennard riding the bench and racking up more DNPs than 20-point scoring nights during the season certainly didn't help that cause, nor did it justify shelling out $13 million annually. If you're Lawrence Frank and the Clippers, you point to the fact that Kennard was coming off of a significant knee injury and needed time to readjust. As the season went on, his play did improve. Not to the level of $41 million guaranteed, but I digress.
After averaging just 8 points per game (44% from deep at least), the Clippers can only hope a team sees the promise in the scoring and playmaking prowess the 6'5 Kennard brings to the floor when he's on point.
Terance Mann, SG
Any meaningful trade the Clippers look to pull off this offseason will undoubtedly include T-Mann. The former second-round pick went from garbage time favorite to a critical rotational piece, providing energy and creation off the dribble when the team needed it most. His stats don't jump out at you (7 points per contest), but his activity certainly will if you watch even a quarter of play.
We all saw his coming out party. In-Game 6 of the Western Conference Semis, with the Clippers missing Kawhi Leonard and trailing the Utah Jazz by 25 points in the 3rd quarter, Mann went Super Saiyan and dropped 39 to finish the game.
Mann can rebound, drive and kick and make the occasional three when goaded by his teammates. He's also the Clippers' youngest and most intriguing asset. Wings like the Florida State product don't grow on trees, and the Clippers picked correctly -- a rarity for the franchise -- when they snagged him.
Rajon Rondo PG
Luke Kennard should be thanking Rajon Rondo for making his contract an absolute afterthought for Clipper fans. After failing to sign the noted floor general at the reported behest of Kawhi in the offseason, the Clippers decided to part ways with Franchise pillar Lou Williams AND a second-round pick acquiring Rondo from the Atlanta Hawks.
Look, on paper, I understood wanting to acquire Rondo. While he was having another lackluster regular season, his playoff feats could not be ignored. But was it worth losing Lemon Pepper Lou? That was another story. But had you told me Lou would be more valuable come big games; I would've been stunned.
Welp, Lou Will just led Atlanta to a Game 4 win in the ECF in place of the injured Trae Young while Rondo clocked another DNP as the Clippers season ended.
Funny how that works out.
Rondo's magic worked in reverse for the Clippers, cause why the hell wouldn't it? He had a few perfect regular-season games before becoming unplayable when the games mattered most. The schedule certainly did the Clippers no favors, but what didn't help was having to shrink their rotation down even further due to the dreadful play of Rondo. To make matters worse, Rondo is under contract for another year at $7.5 million. Just lovely.
The Terrible Gritty Slogans
Can we end this shit already? It makes the team more unlikable by the bus ad. I get it. You want to give off a blue-collar attitude. That's cool, but this isn't the city to go for that, but keep endorsing basketball and winning games.