What Happened to the LA Clippers?


“Failure to meet expectations” is one of the scariest phrases in the English language. When someone, or in this case, a sports franchise, not only fails to meet expectations but falls significantly short of those expectations, they are ridiculed, defamed, and slandered in the media and among fans. The Los Angeles Clippers, a team already overshadowed because they share a city with the Lakers, one of the greatest franchises in all of sports, came into the 2019-2020 season as the presumed title favorite backed by star Kawhi Leonard. When they got too proud and lost to an inferior team early in the NBA playoffs, the media, fans, and people associated with the NBA were eager to hand out derision to the previously egotistical team. Portland Trail Blazers star CJ McCollum tweeted, “I wonder if they packed before the game.” The Clippers’ failure to secure an NBA title might just be one of the largest blunders in sports history. The Clippers have forever been associated with lackluster performance and are remembered for their fair share of embarrassing moments. But to understand how we got here, we need to rewind back to the Clippers’ roots.
Los Angeles, California is one of the largest and most lively cities in the world. And for many decades, basketball has been the sport to watch in the city. Angelinos watch Lakers basketball and have been doing so for many decades. Although there are many other Los Angeles sports teams such as the football Rams and Chargers, baseball Dodgers, and hockey Kings, the Lakers have been the true king of sports franchises in Los Angeles and the entire country.

In 1984, San Diego Clippers’ owner Donald Sterling decided to relocate his team to Los Angeles. Not only did the Lakers now have another NBA team in the same city, they had another team in the same building. Since moving from The Forum to the Staples Center in 1999, the Lakers have shared the building with the Los Angeles Clippers. Yet, almost every Los Angeles native has remained a loyal Lakers’ fan. The Clippers have been defamed and deemed “the little brother” in Los Angeles ever since they arrived in the city. The Lakers had 16 championships and the Clippers had none. The Lakers had 27 hall of fame players and the Clippers had seven. The Lakers had always been star-studded and the Clippers had always been forgotten.

The Clippers’ less-than-fairytale story begins with their former owner Donald Sterling. Long accused of racism, in summer of 2014, a tape was released revealing Sterling saying anti-black racial slurs. Other leaks followed revealing Sterling’s disturbing character and xenophobic views. The NBA’s new commissioner at the time, Adam Silver, immediately took action, forcing Sterling to sell the team to former Microsoft executive Steve Balmer. The Clippers’ franchise is still haunted by Sterling’s former affiliation with the team and have since been associated with his wrongdoings.

Going into the summer of 2019 and entering the 2019-2020 season, the Clippers had still never made the NBA Finals in franchise history. In fact, they still hadn’t even made the semi-finals. In a year with many big name players expected to leave their current franchises, the Clippers were still overshadowed by the Lakers. Almost every available free agent was rumored to come and join Lebron James to play with the Lakers. All of a sudden, on July 6, 2019, the Clippers landed the biggest name on the market. Former two-time Finals’ MVP Kawhi Leonard had agreed to join the team, and the Clippers also traded for former MVP candidate Paul George. Across the hall, the Lakers had just traded for superstar power forward Anthony Davis to pair

with Lebron James. However, the Clippers went from “the other LA team” to the title favorites. This was their season to take o

ver Los Angeles and to emerge from the Lakers’ shadow.

As an exciting and competitive season raged on, the Clippers were proving that they were indeed “all that.” They had beaten their Los Angeles rivals both times they met, and they looked to be the clear title favorite. Unfortunately for them, the NBA season was halted in May 2020 in response to the COVID-19 pandemic. But, two months later, NBA commissioner Adam Silver had proposed a “bubble” plan to complete the cancelled season and determine a champion.

Apart from the short hiatus sparked by the Milwaukee Bucks protest against racial injustice, the Clippers thrived in the bubble. The narrative had grown that the Lakers were not prepared to deal with the difference of environment and therefore the Clippers had become the overwhelming title favorite. Any analyst who previously had the Lakers or Bucks winning the title switched their pick to the Clippers.

The first round of the playoffs proved to be challenging for the Clippers. While the Lakers easily beat the Portland Trail Blazers in 5 games, the Clippers were struggling to defeat a Dallas Mavericks team that was playing without one of its stars, Kristaps Porzignis. Fortunately, the Clippers found the spark and put Dallas away in six games.

In the second round, the Lakers were facing an undersized Houston Rockets team without a center and the Clippers were facing a resilient Denver Nuggets team who had just overcome a 3-1 series deficit in the previous round. The Lakers quietly handled their business once again sending the Rockets back to Houston in 5 games. It appeared as if the Clippers were going to do just that with the Nuggets, taking a commanding 3-1 series lead to start. If they were to beat the Nuggets, the Clippers would move on to play the Lakers where they hoped to show the city of Los Angeles and the NBA who the real alpha team in Los Angeles was. This would be the first time in franchise history that the Clipper’s had made it out of the second round. Doc Rivers, the head coach, brushed off the team’s milestone. When asked about his team’s reaction, he said, “Nothing. That’s not our goal so I don’t think anyone cares. It was a zero reaction. We haven’t done anything yet.” Rivers implied that his team would only be content with a championship.

The Nuggets had other plans however. In Game five, a game in which the Clippers could win and advance to play the Lakers, the Clippers led by as many as 16 points during. It looked as if they were going to finish this series comfortably, and they subsequently took their foot off the gas. Nugget’s stars Jamal Murray and Nikola Jokic orchestrated a comeback win to keep Denver’s season alive. Clippers star Paul George said in the post game interview that he was not worried and that, “we’re still in the driver’s seat.” The Clippers proceeded to lose the series in heartbreaking fashion, blowing double digit leads in both of the next two games. Out of the 14 times in NBA history that a team had blown a 3-1 playoff series lead, 2 belonged to the Clippers, both of which were series that had they won would’ve broken their streak of never attending a Western Conference Finals.

Once again, the Clippers have earned the title of disappointments, and once again they were slandered for it. Lebron James and the Lakers laughed as the Clippers boarded their plane back to Los Angeles, which they were once again reminded will always be Laker town. To make matters worse, it took the Lakers only five games to beat the Clippers’ slayer, the Denver Nuggets.
What happened to the Clipper’s season? How did they go from potentially dethroning the Lakers in Los Angeles to falling victim to a young Nuggets team in the second round?

Many claim it was a lack of chemistry. Paul George stated after the Game 7 loss, “You know we can only get better the longer we stay together. More chemistry for the group, the better. We just didn’t have enough time together.” According to NBA insider Shams Charania of the Athletic, George’s attempt to uplift his team after the loss was met with eyerolls likely due to the fact that he himself had been abysmal during the series. Many believe it was the Clipper’s lack of seriousness. They put more effort into some games than others. Kawhi Leonard often sat out games simply because he didn’t feel like playing. They took a lackadaisical approach to the regular season and underestimated the Nuggets. The Clippers channelled so much energy into beating the Lakers they forgot about the path to get there. In fact, it was LA rapper Ice Cube who said it best tweeting, “Same ole Clippers. A [second] round dynasty.”