Playoff hopes gone, Clippers will take aim at title run next season

New Orleans Pelicans center Jonas Valanciunas slam dunks over Clippers forward Marcus Morris Sr.
New Orleans Pelicans center Jonas Valanciunas, right, slam dunks over Clippers forward Marcus Morris Sr. to seal a 105-101 win over the Clippers in Friday’s play-in game.
(Robert Gauthier / Los Angeles Times)

Eight months after tears rolled down Reggie Jackson’s cheek and his voice cracked while trying to review a Clippers season over before he hoped it would end, the point guard was in the same room inside Arena late Friday undergoing the same task.

This time he departed bumping fists with team employees and arena staffers, his outlook sanguine. It was clearly different because it was clearly not about the eight months that had preceded the moment but what was to come next.

“It sucks the season ended the way it did this year,” Jackson said. “I can’t help but smile already thinking about next year.”


Every NBA team operates in the present with an eye on the future but perhaps no team this season looked forward more to the 2022-23 season than the Clippers. Ostensibly, the objective was an 11th consecutive winning record (accomplished, at 42-40) and a fourth consecutive postseason berth (denied after a 105-101 loss to New Orleans in the play-in tournament).

In the background, of course, it was always about one injured knee — and how the Clippers could best use 2021-22 to put themselves in position to vault into title contention next season when Kawhi Leonard is again healthy enough to play alongside co-star Paul George.

“I don’t look at it as a failed season,” Jackson said. “More so of a season to learn from.”

Missing leading scorer Paul George (protocols), the Clippers rallied from a big deficit before giving up their own lead and losing 105-101 to New Orleans in a season-ending play-in game.

April 15, 2022

Friday’s third quarter was one example why. A lineup of five long-armed wings and floor-spacing shooters outscored the Pelicans by 20 before fatigue and mistakes doomed their bid to face Phoenix in the first round of the playoffs.

“The way that we played tonight when we went small, imagine PG and Kawhi in that lineup,” said forward Robert Covington, who will be a free agent but said he’s drawn to returning. “That’s a lot of versatility, a lot of toughness, that’s a lot of guys that you just sit down and guard but can also make plays on the other end.”

The Clippers referred to this as a “bridge” season and was reserved for getting a head start toward the championship that owner Steve Ballmer so badly wants. A February trade for Covington and guard Norman Powell from Portland added to their wing depth, with the Clippers describing Powell as a two-way cornerstone perfect for playing alongside Leonard and George.


“We building the right culture, going in the right direction,” coach Tyronn Lue said. “Our next step is we just got to stay healthy at some point, hopefully.”

Culture is one of the most overused words in professional sports, one with a definition that changes from team to team, but to Lue it means building good habits while developing a resolve to win five games after trailing by at least 20 points, the most by any team in the 26 years since the NBA began keeping play-by-play data, according to the league’s accounting. In an eight-day stretch in January they won after trailing Denver by 25, Philadelphia by 24 and Washington by 35.

“We fought so hard the entire year,” forward Marcus Morris Sr. said. “It was a lot of ups and downs, a lot of comebacks. Getting our guys back towards the end, it felt like it was turning in the right direction for us. To go down like this, it’s tough.”

Among the other team records set in Lue’s second season: most single-game points (153), most single-season three-pointers (1,047), largest comeback (35 points), largest margin of victory (50) and most compliments paid to the veteran leadership of Morris, Jackson and Nicolas Batum.

It’s wait ‘til next year for the Clippers after losing Friday. It always is, and that’s getting tired, writes L.A. Times columnist Helene Elliott.

April 16, 2022

With Leonard around the team often but not always as he rehabilitated his injury, and George sitting out three months because of an elbow injury, Lue leaned on his veteran trio to guide the locker room.

“That was fun, we showed like we can be a good team without our two top-10 guys,” Batum said. “That’s what I like. That’s what we showed this year. We can do anything.”


The veterans’ task mattered because the development of the role players around a future core with Leonard and George is vital to their championship ambitions. Next season those two and Powell will earn $101 million out of a salary cap projected to land around $121 million. Building a championship-caliber team requires slotting in complementary players, and it was in part why the Clippers elected against signing a backup point guard after the trade deadline, hoping the increased repetitions as a ballhandler would force third-year wings Terance Mann and Amir Coffey to grow in an area of need.

Afforded opportunity by George’s elbow injury, Coffey became a breakout player while averaging 13.7 minutes and 5.8 points more than last season, and proving himself as a pick-and-roll ballhandler. The team has Bird rights on Coffey and Covington, allowing them to exceed the salary cap to re-sign them.

Development was why after Lue stopped a drill during training camp to call out Luke Kennard for passing up an open shot, the Clippers were pleased to see Kennard gradually become more comfortable with the green light and make a league-best 44.9% of his three-pointers on a career-high 7.9 three-pointers attempted per 36 minutes.

The team watched the progression of rookies Brandon Boston Jr. and Jason Preston, in hopes they can be entrusted with rotation minutes next season. Boston, the ever-smiling former Chatsworth Sierra Canyon High star, scored 46 points in a G League game in November only to score 27 against Boston less than a week later, although he appeared in only 12 of 28 games after the trade deadline.

The roster’s youngest players “had to mature very fast considering the circumstances,” Lue said.

Clippers coach Tyronn Lue is often at his best in his ‘happy place’ of the NBA’s postseason. Colleagues believe he’s underrated. Here’s a look at why.

April 15, 2022

Preston turned heads during pickup games in September only to injure a foot on the eve of camp. Instead of a season to learn the ropes of point guard under relatively pressure-free stakes, his NBA debut will come next season with less margin for error.


Asked Friday where the team needed to improve to increase its title odds, Morris identified backup point guard — and if Preston isn’t the answer, the Clippers have the kind of contracts, between $10 million and $20 million, that are valuable building blocks for trade packages.

For holding together at times patchwork lineups riddled by injuries and COVID, Lue will earn votes for coach of the year. An obsessive preparer, Lue said he had become a better coach by being forced to adjust on the fly, often learning his rotation would change only hours before tipoff, such as Friday, when George entered the league’s health and safety protocols.

Lue’s acumen helped build a defensive game plan to stop Minnesota’s Karl-Anthony Towns in Tuesday’s play-in game that one scout predicted would be the model for other teams. His tactical change in the second half put New Orleans on its heels.

It was jarring when the Clippers’ season ended after losing fourth-quarter leads of 10 and 13 points.

“One thing that’s probably like sitting with me is we go from thinking we going to make the playoffs to starting our summer,” Morris said.

As spring arrived, Ivica Zubac said he had grown tired of being asked the same question by friends, family and reporters: When will Leonard be back? The question no longer hovers over next season. The Clippers enter camp in 2022 having an additional 10 weeks to rest up than last year, key for a roster whose best players are well into their 30s.


“When you get Kawhi back, top-five player, PG, a perennial All-Star, your team changes tremendously,” Lue said. “Guys who have taken on bigger roles this year who have never been in this position before, they can kind of fall back into their original roles.”