Last Word On Basketball

The Los Angeles Clippers’ Quest for the Conference Finals

DENVER, CO - JANUARY 12: Kawhi Leonard (2) of the LA Clippers takes a breather against the Denver Nuggets during the fourth quarter of Denver's 114-104 win on Sunday, January 12, 2020. (Photo by AAron Ontiveroz/MediaNews Group/The Denver Post via Getty Images)

The Los Angeles Clippers entered the 2019-20 season with sky-high expectations, making the Conference Finals seemed to be a given. Four games into the second round, the Clippers lived up to those expectations. They had a commanding 3-1 series lead and were up by double digits in each of the last three games. Somehow, someway the Denver Nuggets came back and won the series. So now the Clippers are in a tough spot because they potentially only have one year left to win with their two stars, Kawhi Leonard and Paul George. If the Clippers flame out again and Leonard leaves, it would be an unmitigated disaster for the franchise.

However, it is not all bleak and dreary in Clipper land. After all, they still have this amazing duo and some good supporting pieces. So as much as people want to count them out completely, you can’t. The truth is the LA Clippers are still one of the best teams in the league and have a legit shot at winning this season’s NBA championship. Or at least making their first-ever Conference Finals.

The Los Angeles Clippers’ Quest for the Conference Finals

In order to make the Western Conference Finals, the Clippers don’t need to change that much. After all, they were only one win short of accomplishing that last season. If the Clippers just play their game the way they did last regular season, they will most likely make it past the second round. The way they lost to the Nuggets almost feels like an anomaly. Head coach Doc Rivers and reigning sixth man of the year Montrezl Harrell both took a heavy share of the blame for the loss and now they are no longer with the team. If these two really were at fault then the Clippers should cruise to the Conference Finals this season. Going beyond that is another story with its own challenges.

Newfound Chemistry?

The Clippers’ biggest issue last season was not their roster but their chemistry. An extra season of playing together should bring the team closer together and result in a better product. The Clippers were one of only two teams to be ranked top five on both offense and defense so they were clearly an elite squad. They also brought in one of Leonard’s closest NBA friends in Serge Ibaka who will not only help off the court but is also a 7 footer who can block shots and shoot threes (38.5% last season). Rim protection was one of the Clippers’ most glaring weaknesses and that should be shored up now. The Harrell Ibaka swap alone could be enough to push the Clippers over the edge to the Conference Finals.

Another reason why the Clippers’ chemistry was lacking last season is the injuries and load management. It is hard to build on-court chemistry when the lineup is different every night. Leonard played 57 games, George played 48 games and starting point guard Patrick Beverley played 51 games. Hard to build any kind of cohesion with that many missed games between three of your best players. A healthier season would do wonders for the Clippers.

Under Pressure

Last season, the expectations got the best of the Clippers. This season the expectations are no longer there but the pressure to win is as high as ever. If this season does not go well and Leonard opts to leave Los Angeles, the Clippers will have nothing. They don’t have a blue-chip prospect on the roster nor do they have control of their own draft picks for the next several years. The only positive would be at least they still have George after he signed a massive extension over the offseason. The only team that is in a more “championship or bust” situation is the Milwaukee Bucks

Bubble Trouble

Another potential benefit the Clippers have this season is no bubble. We will never know for sure if the bubble caused their downfall or if it was inevitable from the beginning. But based on the comments from players reiterating how difficult the bubble was, it is safe to assume that no bubble this time around will make it easier on the Clippers.

The Other Team in LA

As much as a Conference Finals appearance would mean for the Clippers, it will be all for naught if they can’t beat their rivals down the hall, the 17 time NBA champion Los Angeles Lakers. Last season the Lakers played with maximum effort in the regular season and it got them the number one seed and some great chemistry. Will the Clippers learn from their big brother Lakers to take the regular season seriously? If not then the Clippers could be looking at another early exit.

The Lakers have the better duo and the superior bench depth. The Clippers only hope to defeat them is to take the regular season seriously so they can remove the chemistry issues that plagued them last season. It’s championship or bust for the Clippers.

Record Prediction: 50-22

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