When the Clippers saw fit to restart in the offseason, the mandate was clear. They had just experienced failure in the bubble, and of the type that served to further fuel their disappointment. They were supposed to be primed for greatness, with the arrival of All-Stars Kawhi Leonard and Paul George installing them as favorites to bring home the hardware. Instead, they collapsed in the worst possible way. They didn’t just give up a three-one lead in the Western Conference semifinals; they did so after holding double-digit leads in each of the potential series clinchers against the Nuggets.
The collapse, and the wave of bitterness it engendered, led to a changing of the guard. Out was erstwhile head coach Doc Rivers and in came erstwhile assistant Ty Lue, and the move bore optimism that the Clippers’ 2020-21 campaign would feature a string of successes ultimately netting them the Larry O’Brien Trophy. The seemingly defining moment spurred the Clippers to hit the ground running. Among their early strides included emphatic victories over the Lakers, Nuggets, Mavericks, Blazers, and Heat, earning for them a robust 13-4 slate early on. They were crowding the top of the highly competitive West, poised to generate continuing momentum.
Now, halfway through the season, that optimism still burns, but not as brightly. In fact, it’s flickering under the strain of play so disjointed that even Leonard, not normally predisposed to airing dirty linen in public, saw fit to grouse about the situation. “It’s very concerning,” he told scribes in the aftermath of a blowout loss to the supposedly overmatched Pelicans, their seventh setback in the last 11 outings. “It’s all about consistency, from teams to players to coaches. That’s what makes a team great, players great, coaches great. A consistency of being, wanting to win, and doing pretty much the same habits of winning.”
Leonard’s right. The Clippers appeared to have the consistency he spoke of at the outset. And then they wavered. Over the last month, in particular, they’ve managed to turn a 21-8 record into a 25-15 mirage. They’re still fourth in the conference, still in possession of a healthy — on paper, at least — plus-5.4 point differential, and still deemed legitimate contenders. The flipside, of course, is that they were likewise in the same position prior to their monumental collapse in the 2020 Playoffs. Which is what the offseason shake-up should have fixed, and which, as things stand, haven’t been addressed to the satisfaction of all concerned.
Lue knows the score. He understands the pressure the Clippers are in given their talent level, all the man-hours lost due to various issues notwithstanding. “We have shown what we can do, and we can play at a high level, but we have to do it every single night. We can’t keep talking about it,” he argued. The question, though, is when. And, considering how much they need to, in Leonard’s words, develop “a consistency of being, wanting to win, and doing pretty much the same habits of winning,” the resolve has to come sooner rather than later. Else, they’ll once again get to prove that their Hyde side is a hurdle they simply cannot overcome.
Anthony L. Cuaycong has been writing Courtside since BusinessWorld introduced a Sports section in 1994. He is a consultant on strategic planning, operations and Human Resources management, corporate communications, and business development.