The Los Angeles Clippers’ Best Season: 2021

At last we come to a team whose best season was the one just concluded, the Los Angeles Clippers. There will be no deep dives into a team of the distant past here, nor would there have been even if the 2021 Clips fell short of the franchise’s first-ever Western Conference Finals and instead lost to the top-seeded Utah Jazz in Round 2.

The Clippers have made the playoffs every year save one since 2012, and the one year they missed—the 2017-18 season—they posted a winning record of 42-40 but ended up 10th in a stacked Western Conference where the 3 and 9 seeds were separated by just three wins, Portland winning 49 games and outside-looking-in Denver winning 46 after losing to Minnesota on the last day of the season.

The hapless franchise of old has been old news since 2011, the last time they posted a losing record.

Of course, before that, the Clippers were an absolute laughingstock. In all their time in California prior to 2013, they only made the playoffs twice in a row a single time, in 1992 and ’93. And since that 1993 team went 41-41, you have to go back even further—to when the team was still the Buffalo Braves in the 1970s—to find the last time they even put together consecutive winning seasons, doing so in 1974, ’75, and ’76, also the only time the pre-2012 Clips made the playoffs three times in a row.

So the bar wasn’t exactly high at the Staples Center for the “other” LA team to set a new standard. So let’s set the time machine for…well, now, since recapping a previous season on the eve of the next one hardly requires a time jump.

The On-Court Record

The Clippers’ 47-25 record is not the best in franchise history; it’s only the fifth-best, as a .653 winning percentage was a dropoff from the 49-23 season in 2020 and serves as a lower 82-game win rate than the 56, 57, and 56 wins the team posted between 2013 and 2015.

But that doesn’t matter, since those teams didn’t make the conference finals. The ’13 team, a 4 seed in a wild West, lost to Memphis, a team that posted an identical 56-win season that year.

The 2014 team came up snake eyes against the Oklahoma City Thunder, a team whose 59 wins grabbed the 2 seed and forced the Clips onto the road in a second-round series.

And the 2015 team epically choked against the Houston Rockets, blowing a huge lead in what would have been a series-clinching Game 6 at home, getting outscored 40-15 in the fourth quarter, and then getting smacked by double digits in Game 7, a common thread for Doc Rivers-coached teams in Rivers’ coaching history (I’ve talked about that elsewhere, and Sixers fans are probably nodding their heads right now.)

The 2021 Clippers finally got over that second-round hump. They beat Luka Doncic and the Dallas Mavericks in the first round, a team that may be suffering the effects of being victims of their own success, too good to add young talent but not good enough—and not an attractive enough free-agent destination—to surround Doncic with veteran talent.

Then they took on the top-seeded Jazz, a team whose net rating was on crazy pills for most of the season, and ground them into dust in six.

It took Chris Paul and a team-of-destiny Phoenix Suns unit that only faltered against the greatness of Giannis Antetokounmpo and the Milwaukee Bucks in the Finals to stop the Clippers’ roll.

The Clips, on paper, were one of the best teams in the league. Fourth on offense, eighth on defense, second in Net Rating, and with an ability to slow the game down (third-slowest pace, although 96.9 would’ve been blinding fast even five years ago) and choke off opposing efforts to build quick swings in momentum.

They were every bit worthy of their place in the final four when conference final time rolled around; in terms of expected won-lost record, only the Jazz were better.

The Featured Players

Paul George found his way back to the conference finals for the first time since he’d gone in 2013 and ’14 as a member of the Indiana Pacers. While his self-proclaimed “Playoff P” moniker is a joke at best considering that one should not trumpet one’s playoff bona fides without first reaching at least the NBA Finals, he at least was able to shake the stigma of being thought of as a choke artist after a particularly ugly 4-of-16 meltdown in Game 7 of the second round against the Denver Nuggets in 2020.

Kawhi Leonard‘s playoff bona fides, meanwhile, are subject to no question at all. That will happen when you win Finals MVP twice, first in 2014 in San Antonio and then in 2019 in Toronto. Sure, Leonard wasn’t any better in that Game 7 previously mentioned—he was just 6-of-22 from the field—but nobody was going to blame him because he’d already proven plenty just a year earlier.

The rest of the Clippers, meanwhile, were an interesting hodgepodge of the kind of talent that drives wedges between stat nerds and casual fans.

For one thing, there was the injury-and-COVID cocktail that led to eight different players starting at least 29 games and another two starting at least 10. The Clippers, during the regular season, never had anything resembling a stable rotation, but at the same time, it stands testament to the depth of their supporting cast that they won 47 games and posted the second-best Net Rating in the league behind George and Leonard (who between them missed 38 games) nonetheless.

13 players posted a measurable positive VORP; the lowest of them, DeMarcus Cousins, posted plus-0.2 in just 16 games and 207 minutes. Lou Williams, a paragon of inefficiency whose counting stats betray that fact (and the fact that he can’t guard a dead cat defensively), wasn’t even one of them—his VORP was 0.0 in 42 games and 918 minutes, and he ended up traded to Atlanta for his trouble.

Nicolas Batum revived his career, posting 1.6 VORP; Ivica Zubac continues to develop as one of the best second-round talents since Draymond Green and posted a 1.1 VORP.

If you prefer WS/48, the Clippers had 14 players post at least .100 in that stat; Serge Ibaka (.150 WS/48 in 950 minutes) and Terance Mann (.141 in 1263 minutes) were the notables there, both exceeding George’s .139. Zubac again showed his impressive talent on the rate-stat sheet, posting a .206 WS/48 that was second on the team to Leonard’s .238 and which, since Zubac started 33 of his 72 games, shows the very real possibility that his ceiling is higher than anyone could possibly have imagined when he came into the league as the 32nd pick in 2016. Hitting 65.2 percent of his field goals and 78.9 percent from the line gave Zubac a .693 True Shooting that was the best in the entire league, and while Clippers fans have seen that sort of thing before—DeAndre Jordan was, until 2020 when Mitchell Robinson broke the record for FG% in a season, the only guy besides Wilt Chamberlain ever to hit 70 percent of his shots in a single season and is the only one to do it more than once, having done it for three straight years in 2015, ’16, and ’17—it’s still impressive in a threes-and-layups league.

It’s all the more interesting that the Clippers were able to keep that depth after losing 2020 Sixth Man of the Year Montrezl Harrell, especially since Trezz earned $9.28 million to put up a career-high .221 WS/48 with the Lakers after earning $6 million in each of the previous two years with the Clippers. That they could make that much of a misstep in free agency and still have all that depth? Amazing.

The Coach

For Tyronn Lue, the 2021 conference finals trip is a redemption and a way to silence everyone who said the only reason he got any notice as a coach was because he was LeBron James‘ waterboy in Cleveland.

He took the team further than Doc Rivers ever took them, indeed, he took the Clippers further than any coach in any era of the team’s 50-year history had taken them.

Let’s give the man his due. Left to prove that he wasn’t just an empty suit, he coached the team with the fourth-best offense and eighth-best defense in the entire league.

It helped that Lue had Kenny Atkinson—a disciple of Mike D’Antoni‘s style of offensive basketball—as an assistant. But the Clippers were just 13th in 3PAR (a dead-even .400) and 27th in FTR. Nor were the Clippers any good at getting to the rim—they took just 21.9 percent of their shots from 3 feet and in, 25th in the league, for a woeful D’Antoni Index of minus-.052.

But then again, the Clippers shot 41.1 percent on their 3-pointers, best in the league by a mile (the Nets and Knicks, at 39.2 percent, tied for second.) They shot 83.9 percent on free throws, also best in the league. And as mentioned, Zubac led the league in True Shooting based largely on his ability to make shots close to the basket consistently. The team was just 13th in that stat, but their center was a kingpin.

That’s what good coaching buys you, and it will be interesting to see if the success the Clippers had in efficiency becomes more of a model for teams that previously relied more heavily on pure volume. That’s not to condone the midrange jump shot, but taking what the defense gives has become a game-within-a-game as defenses have adapted to the modern offense.

Lue has already proven adept at coaching it.

Honorable Mentions

Yeah, right. Credit is due to the Chris Paul, Blake Griffin, and DeAndre Jordan Lob City squads that led the Clippers out of NBA purgatory, especially after the loathsome Donald Sterling was banned for life in 2014 and Steve Ballmer turned the Clips into Microsoft Hoops—though sadly he kept them in Los Angeles rather than move them to Seattle, where Ballmer made his name.

The 2013, ’14, and ’15 teams were mentioned earlier.

The Buffalo Braves don’t count under the moved-franchise rule, but it is worth mentioning Bob McAdoo, who won three scoring titles on those Braves teams that stood as the franchise’s high-water mark before the 2010s. The five-time All-Star and two-time NBA champion with the Lakers in 1982 and ’85 is in the Hall of Fame, to date the only member of what is now the Clippers franchise to join that august museum while having done his best work for them—yes, Bill Walton was on the Clippers for four seasons, but he was never a major factor and those teams were terrible. He’s in the Hall because of his time first in Portland and then in Boston. McAdoo was on the Braves in his prime.

But really, it was always going to be one of the post-2012 Clippers teams for this honor. The 2021 edition just grabbed the spotlight by boldly going where no Clips team had gone before—to the Western Conference Finals.

NEXT: Los Angeles Lakers. Now this is going to be a hard choice, and there will be a ton of honorable mentions. Stay tuned, and thanks for reading!

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