NBA Daily: The Clippers Face a First Round Conundrum

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It’s dawn on the day of the Los Angeles Clippers’ most important game in franchise history. Down 0-2 to the Dallas Mavericks, the third game in the series could potentially dictate how the franchise operates moving forward. If Los Angeles goes down 0-3, its season is ultimately over, at least historically speaking. No team has ever come back from a 3-0 deficit in playoff history.

This wouldn’t be an issue if there wasn’t so much pressure on the Clippers to perform well this season. However, the team tanked the final two games of the season to set up a matchup with the Mavericks, who they defeated in six games last season. The pressure is on now, though, as the Clippers blew a 3-1 lead to the Denver Nuggets in last season’s conference semifinals; after acquiring Kawhi Leonard and Paul George in blockbuster moves in the 2019 offseason, the team can’t afford for that to happen again.

“We just got to figure it out,” Leonard said. “Just like in the regular season, you might lose two in a row but then you go on a winning streak. Just having that same mentality. We’re playing the same team so we know what they’re doing. That’s the message. Just got to stay focused and keep our eye on the prize.”

As Basketball Insiders’ Chad Smith wrote, the team’s defense may be the biggest reason for concern. But there’s also the fact that Leonard and George are lacking a true supporting cast due to the team’s depleted assets. There was a point in time where the Clippers had one of the more stacked young corps in the league, along with several important first-round picks, such as the Miami HEAT’s in 2021.

“Defensively, they had us all over the place,” Lue said. “Attacking the paint, they got points in the paint. They got threes again… Hardaway’s playing at a high level right now so we have to do a good job with him coming out on Friday… I thought the game was pretty easy for them.”

But the team pivoted to acquiring a second superstar at the behest of Leonard following his signing. And thus, the team traded Shai Gilgeous-Alexander and a staggering amount of first-round picks for George. While that superstar tandem is incredibly potent, the team has very little in terms of supporting players, especially after losing Montrezl Harrell in the offseason. Many of the team’s rotation players consist of aging veterans like Rajon Rondo, Nicolas Batum and Reggie Jackson.

“Down 0-2, all we can do is control what we can control,” Jackson said. “So next thing, we’re gonna come out here and compete. Our main objective is to get one win and go from there. We’re gonna make some adjustments. We’re gonna figure out how we can be better.”

On top of that, the team’s two big offseason additions in Serge Ibaka and Luke Kennard haven’t been able to contribute as much as expected. Kennard, signed to a three-year, $41 million contract in the offseason, isn’t even in the rotation. And then Ibaka missed most of the season due to injury and isn’t back to 100 percent.

If the team does end up losing in the first round, against an opponent it actively sought out, it could lead to big changes on the near horizon. First of all, this team was constructed to compete against the Los Angeles Lakers and invigorate a same-stadium rivalry. It hasn’t done that, at least not in the playoffs. It doesn’t help that the team’s payroll is disgustingly bloated.

A further reason for concern is Leonard’s impending $36 million player option for next season. If he opts out, he would easily be the best free agent on the market in a weak player class where teams have more money than they know what to do with. Teams like the New York Knicks and Oklahoma City Thunder project to have two max spaces open, and teams like the HEAT, Mavericks, San Antonio Spurs and Toronto Raptors have the flexibility to each add a max space.

Leonard originally came to the Clippers because of his family, and to live where he grew up. It’s hard to envision him leaving just two years after he made the monumental decision fresh off winning a championship. But the fact that there’s a possibility should be a reason for concern.

If the Clippers do manage to retain Leonard and George, they will still be strapped with one of the worst salary situations in the league. Players like Marcus Morris and Kennard would be exceptionally difficult to move due to the remaining years on their contracts, and the team would likely have to part with one of their depleted young assets to move them. Terance Mann, Daniel Oturu, Jay Scrubb and Amir Coffey have all shown flashes of rotational potential or even starting potential in the case of Mann, but that isn’t a given.

“I thought T-Mann brought some great energy,” George said. “He allowed us to play fast. He got rebounds, he got out on the floor. He was able to put pressure on them with his transition game.”

However, it seems as if the Clippers are trying to remain calm and poised during this difficult stretch. The team’s first two losses came at home and now, the Clippers will have to travel to Dallas and take one or both of those games in American Airlines Center.

“I’m not concerned,” Lue said. “Like I said, they have to win four games. You come in on an opposing team’s floor, there’s no pressure on you to make shots because you just try to come in and steal a game or two games. But now they’ve got to go home and keep up the same shooting. It’s easy to come on the road and do that when there’s no pressure. We’ll see in game three.”

Maybe the Clippers do have this situation under control. They are confident they can take homecourt advantage back from the Mavericks and wrap this series up. But maybe, the Clippers’ nonchalant attitude could be their downfall.

“They’re shooting it really well, they’re playing with confidence,” George said. “There is no concern. This is a competition. We’ve got to rise to the occasion. The fact of the matter is, if we don’t, we’re done for. But it’s no level of concern. We’ve just got to play our game, we’ve got to play through this. We’ve got to incorporate our defense. Luka [Doncic] is going to get his touches. We’ve got to do a better job defensively of covering everyone else.”