You could hear comments from people close to the team throughout the season – something’s missing with the Clippers. The way they lost to the Nuggets proved that statement was right. This group of talented players never became a team. Talent defines your potential. Work and sacrifice make it a reality.
“Our group, we’ve always communicated every day. Despite all of the chemistry stuff, like people were talking. We kind of enjoyed it. We enjoyed people had us pegged wrong. ‘Who’s gonna shoot the ball at the end of the game? They barely talk to each other.‘ We would listen to the stuff, and we would laugh.”Lou Williams, April 2020
Well, now the entire league – Dame, and CJ in particular – is laughing. Basically, everything Williams talked about here turned out to be true. Not only that. Kawhi basically gave a full diagnosis of the Clippers.
“We just gotta build. Build some chemistry. Gotta get smarter. We pieced up the team together. We were close. … Once a team is playing us a certain way, trying to get the ball out of my hands, or packing the paint, we gotta know what to do. We can’t panic when we’re not making shots; when I’m not making shots.”Kawhi Leonard, ESPN
“We gotta build chemistry”
From the start, it was obvious Kawhi’s load management and Paul George‘s double shoulder surgery were going to be a problem. Not only because their top two players were recovering from injury, but because they needed every game possible to develop an identity and chemistry. You can’t “flip the switch” on your first rodeo. In addition to that, Kawhi and George’s approach to basketball goes against everything the Clippers were about. You don’t rest when it hurts – you power through it.
The Clippers didn’t invest the time to develop chemistry. Not only that, but the reason why they didn’t invest time – load management – went against everything that made them a good team last year.
“We pieced up the team together”
That’s where the Clippers arrogance kicked in. They believed they were a better Raptors crew. Kawhi joined and brought Paul George with him. They had two 6th men of the year who had one of the deadliest pick and rolls in the league. Zubac was a steal from the Lakers. They got “the better” Morris twin and Beverly for tenacity and defense. But chemistry is more than a WhatsApp group.
Last year’s Raptors were a team with structure, and identity, and basketball philosophy. Kawhi joined that team without changing their core principles, and when needed took over the scoring load with his 1-on-1 game. The Clippers this year were like the worst parts of OKC in the Durant–Westbrook era or the Rockets in the Harden-Westbrook era. (I’m sensing a pattern here). Kawhi’s turn, PG’s turn, Lou Will + Montrezl Harell’s turn.
That’s not a basketball team, that’s a group of hoopers taking turns.
“We gotta know what to do. We can’t panic.”
That’s why you pay someone to stand on the sideline and implement a structure. Doc Rivers did an amazing job last year with the Clippers. This year, not so much. I’m not going to go over his playoff record and the number of 3 – 1 losses. There’s something more important to address.
The only great team Doc led to a title was the ’08 Celtics. That worked because he had Paul Pierce, Kevin Garnett, and Ray Allen all understanding they were at the end of their prime and this was their last chance. Three All-Star players ready to sacrifice and be humble. All other good Doc Rivers teams didn’t have superstars on their roster.
On the other hand, his entire tenure with CP3, Blake, and DeAndre was underwhelming, and he can now add this season to the list. What do they all have in common? Superstars not willing to change, and Doc acting like he’s got nothing to say in the matter. When it’s time to step up to your star and say “You are wrong and we are doing it my way,” the only time Doc managed to do it when he had guys ready and willing to change on day 1.
In Doc’s defense, being that kind of a coach is more and more difficult in today’s NBA. Player empowerment is the name of the game, and organizations act accordingly. They are tip-toeing around superstar egos in fear they will ask for a trade or not extend their contract. That’s why, in the end, I put more blame on the players than the coach.
Everyone is pointing out Kawhi isn’t getting nearly as much criticism as Paul George is, or LeBron did in similar situations. There are two reasons for that. When it comes to the Paul George comparisons, there’s one major difference – Kawhi Leonard is a two-time champion and a two-time Finals MVP who didn’t talk trash to anyone. Paul George won in a Gatorade commercial and acted like he’s one of the best players in the league.
When it comes to LeBron, the comparison is fair. As much as Kawhi improved his passing in recent years, I still wouldn’t call him a playmaker. Leonard doesn’t actively improve the players around him – his skill may draw help and leave a guy open, but Kawhi doesn’t start a play thinking ‘I’m getting player X a bucket.’ That’s never been him, and probably he won’t ever be that guy.
This will impact Kawhi’s legacy. Not because he had a bad shooting game, or because he wasn’t a spectacular playmaker last night. But if next year we see the same Kawhi, with minimal improvements in passing and court vision, that will mean he’s not trying to do something the best of the best do. The Spurs and Raptors had a finished product and a place for him. That is the outlier.
If Kawhi wants to make it in LA, he will have to become a lot more active in making guys around him better by being more vocal and assertive on and off the court. He has to do what all great ones did – step out of his comfort zone.