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Clippers’ championship window isn’t closed, but team has key decisions to make

Los Angeles Clippers' Kawhi Leonard and Paul George walk downcourt
The Clippers came up short in 2020 despite signing Kawhi Leonard and acquiring Paul George during the offseaosn.
(Darren Abate / Associated Press)

In the month since the Clippers bowed out of the playoffs, players went silent on social media after coach Doc Rivers’ departure and discussions about the direction of the team’s coaching search have remained mum. Then, before the Lakers and Miami Heat met in Game 5 of the NBA Finals last week, a window into their world emerged on Instagram.

Patrick Beverley, the fiery guard, shared a quote: “Sometimes you gotta watch the confetti fall on somebody else.” The statement’s truth “hit different now,” Beverley added — a nod, presumably, to the sting felt watching L.A.'s other team on the verge of a championship, weeks after the Clippers’ own chances crashed.

As the NBA enters its most uncertain offseason, with the salary cap and start dates for free agency, training camp and the season yet to be set, the Clippers are wrestling with their own questions. Their championship window is not closed. Realizing that lofty ambition, however, will hinge heavily on key decisions taking place over the next several months.

There have been several instances in NBA playoff history of teams blowing 3-1 series leads, twice by the Clippers. A look at what happened to those teams in the ensuing seasons.

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The first is who will succeed Rivers as coach. The Clippers intended to run a broad search that would consider veteran coaches and up-and-coming assistants and that has been the case so far, with would-be first-time coaches such as Wes Unseld Jr., a Denver Nuggets assistant, and more experienced candidates including Mike Brown and Tyronn Lue, a Clippers assistant who coached Cleveland to the 2016 championship, among those who have spoken with the team, people with knowledge of the situation confirmed. The Clippers are also known to hold interest in speaking with Jeff Van Gundy, the television analyst and former coach in New York and Houston who is close with Lawrence Frank, the team’s president of basketball operations.

From the outset, the Clippers also intended to run their search at their own pace even though the top jobs in Houston, New Orleans and Indiana had opened earlier and could affect the Clippers’ pool of candidates if filled soon. Lue, who is still considered a prime candidate to succeed Rivers, his mentor and close friend, interviewed Monday in Houston, according to reports, and remains a candidate in New Orleans as well.

Hiring a new coach will herald a significant change for the Clippers after seven years under Rivers, who won more games than any coach in team history, with more anticipated to follow. Coaches with more experience typically are given leeway to dictate their staff, but Frank understands coaching circles deeply after spending more than two decades on NBA sidelines. Some members of Rivers’ staff had coached with him since his tenure in Boston, but it remains unknown how many assistants could make the transition under the new coach.

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In the wake of the Clippers’ collapse against Denver, one league executive said few of his peers were gloating at the result because they understood all too well that the Clippers were expected to rebound as one of the top contenders next year. Clippers starters held the fourth-best net rating — the points differential per 100 possessions — of any postseason lineup to play at least 70 minutes. Yet that group was rarely together, owing to the fact that forward Marcus Morris wasn’t acquired until February, along with injuries, absences and other lineup choices.

Keeping that lineup intact will require re-signing Morris, an unrestricted free agent whom the Clippers can offer a multiyear contract worth up to $18 million next season.

Accomplishing the expected bounce-back will require roster changes. It was Kawhi Leonard, the All-Star leading scorer who can become a free agent after next season,who said the team needed “better basketball IQ,” and one area seen as critical is adding a point guard to share the play-making workload with Leonard, who averaged a career-high 4.9 assists in his first season with the Clippers.

Finding significant upgrades isn’t a given. The free-agent class is not considered especially deep. The Clippers can use a mid-level exception and sign players on short-term, less-expensive contracts, but their ability to entice trade offers is limited as they don’t own a first-round draft pick outright until 2027 after last year’s trade for Paul George.

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Los Angeles Clippers' Montrezl Harrell reacts after making a basket
Montrezl Harrell, who was named the NBA’s sixth man of the year, will be an unrestricted free agent this offseason.
(Mark J. Terrill / Associated Press)

The unrestricted free agency of backup center Montrezl Harrell is being watched closely. During the postseason, he never regained the form that made him the NBA’s top reserve during the season, after he left the team for one month for family reasons,and Rivers’ continued use of Harrell despite his inefficiency was a constant critique throughout the playoffs.

Harrell’s durability and consistent production during the regular season — particularly on offense, as he averaged a career-high 18.6 points while playing all but one game — were clearly valuable on nights when either Leonard or George was unavailable to play or they had their minutes restricted because of injuries. There is interest in re-signing Harrell, who might command a smaller salary than expected because of the combination of his postseason performance and a market in which few teams have cap space.


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