The Los Angeles Clippers‘ 2019-20 season came to a stunning end before it truly began. With many anticipating and anxiously awaiting the Battle for LA between the Clippers and Los Angeles Lakers, Doc Rivers, Kawhi Leonard, and Paul George’s team failed to even reach the Western Conference Finals despite holding a commanding 3-1 series lead over the Denver Nuggets in the second round.
The blown lead was the third of Rivers’ career after being up 3-1, something that no other coach in NBA history has ever done. The NBA’s bubble format, although fantastically set up, was often mentioned due to its restrictive nature, and that may have played a part in all of this. At the same time, other teams are dealing with the same issues.
The biggest question coming out of this disappointing end to the season is who’s to blame? Who should take responsibility for not even reaching the Western Conference Finals despite being just one game away and seemingly having a berth easily in hand?
Obviously, it is a team-wide, shared responsibility, but there’s no denying specific things went wrong along the way for the Clippers. I posed that exact question to Doc Rivers. Needless to say, he wasn’t happy with it.
“I’ll let you do all the blaming,” Rivers responded to my question, seemingly annoyed. “I don’t play that game. You can figure that one out on your own.”
Little did I or anyone else on the postgame exit interview call know that it would be the last time we’d get to ask Rivers a question as the head coach of the Clippers.
The answer on who to blame was essentially given to me, and everyone else, on Monday afternoon when the Clippers and Rivers announced a mutual parting of ways. News of Rivers’ departure was certainly surprising considering he still had some support from members of the front office. In the press release, Clippers owner Steve Ballmer thanked Doc Rivers for his time with the franchise.
“Doc has been a terrific coach for the Clippers, an incredible ambassador, and a pillar of strength during tumultuous times,” Ballmer said. “He won a heck of a lot of games and laid a foundation for this franchise. I am immeasurably grateful to Doc for his commitment and contributions to the Clippers and the city of Los Angeles. I am also extremely confident in our front office and our players. We will find the right coach to lead us forward and help us reach our ultimate goals. We will begin the search and interview process immediately.”
Rivers released his own statement.
“Thank you Clipper Nation for allowing me to be your coach and for all your support in helping make this a winning franchise,” Rivers said. “When I took this job, my goals were to make this a winning basketball program, a free agent destination, and bring a championship to this organization. While I was able to accomplish most of my goals, I won’t be able to see them all through. Though it was a disappointing ending to our season, you are right there and I know what this team is capable of accomplishing with your support. Thank you to all the players, coaches, and staff for helping us get here. Most importantly, thank you to the fans. We went through a lot, and I am grateful for my time here.”
Before I dive into Rivers and the Clippers’ decision to move on, let’s go through some of the biggest issues the Clippers faced throughout the postseason, and assess how much responsibility a player or coach deserved for the loss.
Supporting cast — 5%
We’ll get into the key players in a bit, but role players such as Patrick Beverley, Landry Shamet, Reggie Jackson, and Marcus Morris didn’t do enough in their positions to help the Clippers win. Beverley was always in foul trouble and limited his own playing time by gambling way too often. Shamet shot just 29.2 percent from the field throughout the series against Denver. Reggie Jackson was such a piss-poor defender, Doc Rivers yanked him from the rotation until late in the series when he re-inserted him as a desperation move for offense. Marcus Morris played decent in the series, but shot just 29.2 percent from the field in the Clippers’ final three games, all losses. While these four shouldn’t take too much of the blame, their inabilities to play their roles well consistently factored into the Clippers’ playoff collapse.
Kawhi Leonard — 10%
The Clippers star had a fantastic postseason overall and was arguably the best player in the playoffs in the first round. For the postseason, Leonard averaged 28.2 points, 9.3 rebounds, 5.5 assists, and 2.3 steals on 48.9 percent shooting. While there were lots of great performances, there were also a couple of stinkers that cost the Clippers. Two of Leonard’s worst shooting games in his career came in losses to the Nuggets. Leonard shot just 4-of-17 in the Clippers’ nine-point loss in Game 2 and just 6-of-22 in the Game 7 loss.
Communication, basketball IQ, and team chemistry were all things Leonard mentioned as issues after the series loss.
“We’ve got some things we’ve got to get smarter at,” Leonard said. “That’s when it comes to the team chemistry, knowing what we should run to get the ball in spots, or just if someone’s getting doubled or they’re packing the paint, try to make other guys make shots and we gotta know what exact spots we need to be, and you know, just gotta carry over and get smarter as a team. Get smarter. Basketball IQ got to get better.”
While that may be true, the Clippers did fail to close Denver out three times in a row. Leonard came to Los Angeles not only to be home, but to be, “The Guy.” As “The Guy,” you simply can’t put forth performances like he did twice against the Nuggets.
Leonard and the Clippers allowed their series to continue into a deciding seventh game after being up 3-1. Any way you try to spin it, their loss was inexcusable, and a good chunk of it falls squarely on the two-time NBA Finals MVP.
Paul George — 15%
The Clippers’ other star has been getting torn over the last week, with reports from Chris Haynes and Shams Charania both making George look like the bad guy. Heck, even Chris Broussard got in on the fun with his “sauces,” claiming that Clippers role players weren’t happy with the preferential treatment George got.
All the unnecessary BS, narrative-jockeying aside, Paul George was obviously a reason the Clippers fell to the Nuggets, but not the reason they lost.
Everyone wants to talk about George’s 10-point, 4-of-16 shooting performance in Game 7, and rightfully so. The Clippers obviously needed more from their second star, and he did not deliver on either end of the floor.
But in the first six games of the Denver series, George put up a stellar 23.7 points, 5.7 rebounds, 3.8 assists, and 2.2 steals per game. George’s value also wasn’t fully driven by his offense. The four-time All-Defensive Team member had Jamal Murray in jail through the first five games, holding the Nuggets guard to just 19.4 points and 7.0 assists per game on 37.6 percent shooting from the field. Even Game 6 saw Murray held to just 21 points. George and the Clippers did their job on Murray until they abandoned their game plan in favor of doubling Nikola Jokic in an “anything can happen” Game 7. Anything did happen, as Murray got loose for 40 points on 15-of-26 shooting from the field.
Murray’s hot Game 7 paired with George’s atrocious one is a reason why the championship-hopeful Clippers are home right now.
Lou Williams — 15%
When the Clippers desperately needed a scoring punch, the NBA’s all-time leader in scoring off the bench unfortunately could not provide it. In the entire Nuggets series, Williams averaged just 10.0 points and 4.1 assists on 35.4 percent shooting from the field and 14.8 percent from beyond the arc.
It wasn’t like Williams didn’t get good looks. He shot just 3-of-12 (25 percent) on “wide open” shots (defined as having the closest defender 6 or more feet away), including 0-of-6 from beyond the arc. He also shot just 8-of-24 (33.3 percent) on “open” shots (defined as having the closest defender 4-6 feet away), including 4-of-15 from 3-land. In the regular season, Williams shot 45.7 percent on “wide open” shots and 39.7 percent on “open” shots.
To put it plainly, Williams’ jumper abandoned him, as his shot chart from the Nuggets series shows:
Coming into the series, you knew the Nuggets would try to pick on Williams and Jackson, the two worst guard defenders on the team. Doc Rivers adjusted by taking Jackson out of the rotation entirely, but stuck with Williams, who displayed some solid defense at times throughout the series. In the end, though, if Williams isn’t scoring for the Clippers, it’s tough to have him out on the court. He didn’t score, Doc Rivers stuck with him, and the Nuggets picked him apart.
Montrezl Harrell — 25%
In the Clippers’ first-round series against the Dallas Mavericks, Ivica Zubac finished as a team-high plus-78, meaning the Clippers outscored the Mavs by 78 when he was on the court. Montrezl Harrell finished with a team-worst minus-31. Zubac had a team-high net rating among rotation players of 25.6, meaning the Clippers were 25.6 points better than the Mavs per 100 possessions when Zubac was on the court, while Harrell finished as a team-worst minus-11.6.
In the Clippers’ seven-game series against the Nuggets, Ivica Zubac finished with the second-highest plus/minus on the team at plus-32. Montrezl Harrell finished with a team-worst minus-37. Zubac had the second-highest net rating of 10.2, while Harrell finished with a team-worst minus-11.7 net rating.
With Zubac as the primary defender, Nikola Jokic shot 29-of-61 from the field (47.5 percent) from the field. With Harrell as the primary defender, Jokic shot 13-of-20 (65.0 percent).
When Ivica Zubac was on the court against Jokic (169 minutes), Denver had a minus-8.8 net rating. With Zubac off the court vs. Jokic (96 minutes), Denver had a 20.8 net rating.
When Harrell was on the court against Jokic (72 minutes), Denver had a 27.1 net rating. With Harrell off the court vs. Jokic (192 minutes), Denver had a minus-8.3 net rating.
If you’re wondering if Harrell’s horrific numbers are because he mostly played with second units and not starters, there’s this: In the 50 minutes Harrell played with both Kawhi Leonard and Paul George in the Nuggets series, the Clippers had a minus-26.9 net rating.
Not to continue piling on here, but you get the idea. Montrezl Harrell has to shoulder a good percentage of the blame from this series. Now, it is important to note that Harrell had been going through a lot over the last couple of months, mainly with the passing of his grandmother. That was not an easy thing for him to deal with, and winning Sixth Man of the Year also brought the emotions back as it was something the two of them had discussed before she passed.
The Clippers were simply not good whenever he checked into the game. The eye test told you that and the stats more than backed it up, as we saw sequences like the one below happen over and over again:
A brutal stretch here from Montrezl Harrell. Bad pass, no box out, weak close out. He’s fantastic offensively, but has got to be better for the Clippers defensively. pic.twitter.com/yPaUi9a5GU
— Tomer Azarly (@TomerAzarly) September 10, 2020
Although Harrell’s subpar play was a contributing factor in the Clippers’ collapse, it wasn’t entirely surprising. Everyone, including the Nuggets, knew that Harrell was an offensive threat and a complete defensive liability. Heck, Nikola Jokic himself took his time to use the right words to say that Ivica Zubac was a much tougher defender for him to deal with than Harrell.
“They’re completely different types of defenders,” Jokic said. “Zubac is kind of bigger, taller. He’s covering the space really good. I can’t shoot over him that easy. And Harrell is a strong guy who is always into my body. They’re kind of completely different. Harrell gonna have a couple post-ups per game, he can attack the basket, he’s a really athletic player, and Zubac is kind of looking for dump-off passes and offensive rebounds so they’re a little bit different.
“They really accept their roles and they’re really doing that role at a really high level.”
Asked Nikola Jokic about the differences in Ivica Zubac and Montrezl Harrell – “They’re completely different types of defenders. Zubac is bigger taller. He’s covering the paint really good. I can’t shoot over him that easy. And Harrell is a strong guy who is always into my body.” pic.twitter.com/nWrkqeZxer
— Tomer Azarly (@TomerAzarly) September 12, 2020
With Rivers now gone, it’s safe to expect the Clippers to move on from Montrezl Harrell. The undersized center simply doesn’t fit what the Clippers are looking for in a backup big man: someone who can play spot minutes, rebound, and potentially space the floor if necessary. Harrell isn’t all that effective from outside the restricted area, he only averaged 2.6 rebounds in seven games against the Nuggets, he will be looking for a big payday coming off an award-winning season, and is entering the prime of his career.
Harrell is who he is, for better or worse, and at some point, it comes down to the guy at the helm who continues to play him. That brings us to head coach Doc Rivers.
Doc Rivers — 30%
Let’s start with this: Doc Rivers is an incredible person, a great leader, and a much-needed voice for the Clippers and the NBA in its entirety. I’m convinced that the LA Clippers organization does not get through the Donald Sterling scandal, which had players wanting to quit, and everything that came with it, without the leadership of Doc Rivers. He gave the team an identity and a culture that it never had before.
In my four years covering the Clippers, no one has been as kind, open, and real about any topic you can think of as Doc Rivers. At some point, however, Rivers had to shoulder some significant blame for blowing not one 3-1 lead but two 3-1 leads in the last five years.
The one thing we’ve seen over the last few years is Rivers’ ability to get players to trust and buy into the culture. In the trade for Chris Paul, Rivers and the Clippers got a dejected Lou Williams seriously considering retirement, and Montrezl Harrell, who was strictly an energy guy. A conversation with Williams helped turn him into a two-time Sixth Man of the Year with LA, while the opportunities he afforded Harrell were life-changing (said by Harrell himself).
The trust that Rivers put in his players, however, is also something he was willing to die by. Rivers refused to bench Harrell despite his poor play throughout both the Dallas Mavericks series and the Denver Nuggets series. Harrell finished the 2020 postseason playing just under 19 minutes per game, but in reality, he probably should’ve been playing 10 minutes a game. The stats mentioned earlier in the Montrezl Harrell section all but prove that.
Zubac played just 18.4 minutes per game for the Clippers during the regular season. That number jumped to 24.6 per game in the playoffs, where Zubac showed glimpses of how effective he can truly be as an anchor on both ends. Zubac had five games over 29 minutes in the playoffs, including multiple career-high nights. Considering the fact he was recovering from the coronavirus and wasn’t afforded a lot of minutes prior to the playoffs anyways, it was tough to expect any more than what he was already providing. That’s not to say he wasn’t in good shape, because he was, but it was a big difference in workload.
In terms of lineups, JaMychal Green at the backup center position made all the sense in the world for the Clippers. He didn’t need the ball to be effective offensively, he could step outside the arc and knock down the 3-ball, and he also provided a strong albeit undersized defensive presence for the second unit as opposed to Harrell. If you ask anyone who covered the Clippers during the playoffs, one of their biggest knocks is that Green should’ve played more than the 17 minutes per game he did in the playoffs. Rivers had long talked about playing Green at the backup 5 position, but it clearly wasn’t done enough.
The Clippers needed both Lou Williams and Montrezl Harrell during the regular season as the team worked through multiple injuries and load management regimens, but you knew they’d be liabilities at times heading into the playoffs. Despite that, Rivers continued trusting in his guys and played them too many minutes. It ended up costing them the series and a chance at a championship.
Plus, even if they did advance to face the Lakers, was this team good enough to beat them? Probably. Would they have beat them? The way the Lakers look in terms of their chemistry, togetherness, mental toughness, and trust in one another, the answer might not be what Clippers fans are looking for.
I was admittedly 50/50 on whether Doc Rivers should be let go. Coming back next season meant he’d have all the pressure in the world on his back. I initially believed he meant far too much to the organization and was a key component in Kawhi Leonard choosing this LA team and not the other or Toronto.
However, Rivers does shoulder a significant amount of responsibility for the Clippers’ inexplicable collapses in multiple seasons. Part of me feels like the Lakers making quick work of the Denver Nuggets in the days leading up to his departure played a part in the decision. His departure from the Clippers all but confirmed the organization felt a different direction was necessary in order to reach the mountaintop that is the NBA championship.
Doc Rivers won just three playoff series as head coach of the Clippers. Despite having significant star power in Chris Paul, Blake Griffin, and DeAndre Jordan for nearly a half-decade, he won just two playoff series with that core (both in Game 7s). Despite having the deepest roster on paper led by Kawhi Leonard and Paul George, he was only able to win one series.
Sure, no one saw the Golden State Warriors’ rise to dominance coming. No one also saw the immense injuries they had to deal with coming. Rivers’ teams still had their chances and failed to come through.
Another factor to look at is possible fatigue. Doc Rivers has been coaching for essentially 21 consecutive years now, and that can’t be easy. He took over as coach of the Orlando Magic in 1999 and coached them until 2003 (he was fired early in the 2003-04 season). Rivers didn’t coach the rest of that season and then took over as head coach of the Boston Celtics for the 2004-05 campaign and stayed there until 2013, when he was then traded to the Clippers.
And guess what: he’s the No. 1 free agent on the head coaching market right now. Immediately after his release, both the Philadelphia 76ers and New Orleans Pelicans reached out to Rivers about their openings. He could easily land another gig, but no one would blame him if he wanted to take a well-deserved break from the grind.
As for the Clippers, reports have already linked them to current assistant Tyronn Lue as well as Jeff Van Gundy, who hasn’t coached since 2007 but has been serving as a color commentator for ESPN. Here are the current betting odds for the Clippers’ head coach opening, with Lue as the favorite:
Lue probably makes the most sense for the Clippers if they want to hire a familiar name. He has already won an NBA championship in 2016 with LeBron James and the Cleveland Cavaliers. He has coached a number of big egos in James and Kyrie Irving, while showing he isn’t afraid to hold stars accountable both privately and publicly. In his three seasons with the Cavs, Lue compiled a 128-83 regular-season record and a 41-20 playoff record while reaching the NBA Finals three times in a row.
Whether it’s Lue, Van Gundy, or someone else as the new head coach, you can be sure the front office has done their due diligence, led by Steve Ballmer, Jerry West, and Lawrence Frank.
I’m sad to see Rivers go. In my years as a fan going through the Donald Sterling controversy to my time covering the team, Rivers displayed incredible leadership and professionalism from the head coach’s seat. He turned in one of the more magnificent coaching jobs in recent history during the 2018-19 season, he was a voice for social justice over the last few months, and he did so much behind the scenes inside the Orlando bubble in terms of leading players and helping them find their way when things got tough.
As someone who grew up as a fan of this team and has covered the team over the last four years, I want to say thank you to Doc Rivers. He’s a fantastic human being and a great coach who turned the franchise around.
Unfortunately, it was simply time to move on.