May 25, 2024

The LA Clippers’ championship window is officially shut

When Kawhi Leonard signed a three-year contract with the LA Clippers in 2021, lining up his contract with Paul George and giving both stars player options for 2024-25, the Clippers’ championship window became clear.

They had a three-year runway to win it all.

That window shuttered Friday as the Clippers fell to the Dallas Mavericks in Game 6 of their opening-round playoff series, making it three years in a row that the Clippers have failed to advance past the first round. Another LA season has ended without a postseason series win, let alone a championship.

It’s a disappointing end to this era of Clippers’ basketball, one few could have predicted years ago when Leonard, fresh off the best one-and-done season in NBA history with the 2019 champion Toronto Raptors, chose George, a finalist for the 2019 NBA MVP and Defensive Player of the Year awards, to accompany him in LA.

The Oklahoma City Thunder were rewarded handsomely in the deal that brought George to the Clippers. In exchange for George, who never won a playoff series in two seasons with the Thunder while playing with 2017 MVP Russell Westbrook, Oklahoma City received the following:

The Thunder made the 2020 postseason after flipping franchise icon Westbrook for a year of Chris Paul, then swapped him out in exchange for more future equity. Meanwhile, Gilgeous-Alexander went from excellent prospect to MVP finalist. The Thunder were poor enough on their own to get lottery picks Josh Giddey (sixth in 2021), Chet Holmgren (second in 2022) and Cason Wallace (10th in 2023).

When the Clippers missed the 2022 playoffs, Thunder general manager Sam Presti’s 2022 pick improved from 15th to 12th. The Thunder were able to select Jalen Williams instead at No. 12 with the Clippers pick, and he has firmly become a part of the Thunder’s big three.

“The Clippers, like I said before, I don’t think we’re going to be looking at that again,” Presti said in April 2022 of benefiting from underwhelming Clippers seasons as it relates to owed draft capital. “I think they’re going to be the odds-on favorite to probably win the title in the (near) future.”

While the Clippers failed to win a playoff series these last three years, this is the first time in five years that Oklahoma City is better than LA, and Gilgeous-Alexander won’t turn 24 until July. Meanwhile, the Thunder, along with the rest of the Western Conference, have passed the Clippers by.

The Denver Nuggets are the defending champions and feature two-time MVP in Nikola Jokić, the 2023 NBA Finals MVP who won’t be 30 years old until next February. The Minnesota Timberwolves won their first playoff series in 20 years last month and are led by a shooting guard star in Anthony Edwards, the top pick of the 2020 draft. Edwards won’t be 23 years old until August, and based on just physical ability, his ceiling is higher than Gilgeous-Alexander’s or Jokić’s.

Even teams similar to the Clippers that failed to win a playoff series in this cycle have brighter futures or can at least say they accomplished something since LA made its lone conference finals in 2021. In 2022, the Phoenix Suns, Memphis Grizzlies and Golden State Warriors all won a playoff series as a top-three seed, with the Warriors winning a championship. In 2023, the Los Angeles Lakers made it to the Western Conference finals. Eight West teams have won a playoff series in the past three years, and the Clippers aren’t one of them.

Among the six other teams that have not won a playoff series since 2021, just look at the opportunities they all have to improve. The New Orleans Pelicans are still looking for their first postseason with Zion Williamson healthy, but they’re also the team responsible for ending LA’s season in 2022, and they have annually picked apart the Clippers. The Sacramento Kings just had back-to-back winning seasons for the first time since 2006, and they retain a lottery pick this year because they missed the playoffs. The Houston Rockets went from the worst team in basketball after trading James Harden in 2021 to becoming a .500 team. The Utah Jazz, similarly defeated by the Mavericks just two years ago, are rebuilding with the picks from the Donovan Mitchell and Rudy Gobert trades. The jury is out on Scoot Henderson, but the Portland Trail Blazers got five first-round picks for trading Damian Lillard. The San Antonio Spurs have Victor Wembanyama.

What do the Clippers have? They have stasis. They’re the oldest team in the NBA and stuck as they open Intuit Dome in Inglewood, Calif., later this year. They can’t blow it up because the team would be woeful in the short term while still waiting for a full complement of lottery picks.

It was reasonable to believe they had a chance to do something special. Injuries are unfortunate, but they’re a harsh reality as well, particularly for this group in recent years.

The first year of their three-year window was an understandable gap year, but it was one that gave the team a false sense of optimism that all it needed was the health of its two stars. The second year of that window in 2022-23 made it clear the Clippers weren’t close to contending, at least not while under a cloud of load management. This season, the Clippers pushed themselves harder than ever and turned in a final trade chip. They got two playoff wins out of it.

Leonard signed an extension in January, but as great as he is, he cannot be the best player on a championship team anymore simply because his body won’t let him; Leonard’s right knee alone has prohibited him from finishing all four of Tyronn Lue’s seasons as Clippers coach.

George, who can opt out of his deal this offseason, is a solid second option, but his own age, durability concerns and decline make him unfit to be the top player in any circumstances where Leonard is unable to play. Harden, a free agent this summer, is a solid No. 3, but those same factors make him unfit to be the second-best player in any circumstances. The Clippers want both players back, along with Lue, but the previous ceiling is unrealistic.

All of Leonard, George and Harden played their most games in five years this season. Nine-year pro Norman Powell tied his career-high for games played in a season. Russell Westbrook was on the roster to complete the Southern California future Hall of Fame dream connection. Longtime Clippers Terance Mann and Ivica Zubac started and were featured more than ever.

It was a grind just to see the Clippers win more than 50 games for the first time since Lob City broke up in 2017. The roster is so bare that P.J. Tucker started an elimination game. The lack of athletic size put pressure on the Clippers’ offense, and the concerns about needing to win via execution instead of talent were validated when a more complementary Dallas team, with less pure talent, was able to lock up the Clippers despite Luka Dončić shooting 40.5 percent in the series.

Even if the stars, head coach and front office all return, things will be different for the Clippers, at least from an expectations perspective. The past three years were about seeing if this group led by Leonard and George could win, or at least contend. They have proven they cannot.

Intuit Dome will not open with championship aspirations. It is merely a final resting place for this era while the Clippers hope to stay over .500 in an unforgiving conference.

(Top photo: Juan Ocampo / NBAE via Getty Images)