Column: What’s next for SDSU alumnus Kawhi Leonard and the Clippers?

Former+SDSU+forward+Kawhi+Leonard+dunks+the+ball+during+a+preseason+scrimmage+agianst+Point+Loma+Nazarene+on+Nov.+10%2C+2009.

Courtesy of SD Dirk, Wikimedia Commons

Former SDSU forward Kawhi Leonard dunks the ball during a preseason scrimmage agianst Point Loma Nazarene on Nov. 10, 2009.

by Dustin Magallanes, Staff Writer

“Disappointing” is a word that perfectly sums up the Clippers 2020 run in the postseason.  

After an offseason in which the Clippers were able to acquire the services of former San Diego State standout Kawhi Leonard and perennial all-star wing Paul George, the onus was placed on the Clippers to deliver their first NBA Championship.

However, those title aspirations did not come to fruition, as the Clippers surrendered a 3-1 series lead to the Denver Nuggets in the second round of the playoffs. Despite boasting arguably the most talented roster in the league, the Clippers showed that they are far from being the complete team that many thought they could be. 

That presents the question: how can the Clippers take the next step and deliver on their potential?

 1. Adding a true point guard

In the modern NBA, it has become increasingly clear how important it is to have not one, but two players who are able to create offense for others. We saw this with the reigning champion Los Angeles Lakers, who were able to count on LeBron James and Rajon Rondo to run the offense while the other was on the bench. 

Although Leonard was able to improve on his ability as a playmaker this last season, the Clippers’ roster construction lent itself to Leonard being the main facilitator on offense.

This, in essence, took away from what made Leonard so dominant during his one-season stint with the Toronto Raptors. Raptors guards Fred VanVleet and Kyle Lowry were in large part the main facilitators, allowing Leonard to focus on breaking down the other team through isolation and driving to the paint. 

Leonard understands this, as recent reports have suggested he has asked the Clippers to acquire a point guard “who can run a team and can shoot.” Currently, the Clippers have Patrick Beverley and Reggie Jackson as their primary point guards.

With both of these options having their fair share of offensive deficiencies, help is going to have to come from the outside. Additionally, with a bevy of player salaries that the front office could look to move, the Clippers will have some room to work with when it comes to finding a potential trade partner.  

One option on the table is to organize a sign and trade for Sacramento Kings guard Bogdan Bogdanovic, who, despite coming off the bench at the beginning of last season, still averaged a career-high 14.5 points for the Kings.

Another option is to acquire a player through free agency. However, with little cap space left and a trio of impending free agents in Marcus Morris, Montrezl Harrell and JaMychal Green free agency won’t be the easiest route.  

Regardless of which avenue they take, fulfilling Leonard’s wishes of acquiring a point guard is in the Clippers’ best interest. Both their championship aspirations and their effort to retain Leonard, who has a player option after this season, may depend on it.

2. Take the regular season seriously

It was no secret that on paper, the Clippers had one of the most talented rosters in the league. But what can’t be understated when it comes to building a championship team, is chemistry. For a variety of reasons including injuries, load management, personal reason, and violating NBA bubble protocols, the Clippers were at full-strength only a handful of times throughout the season.  

Much of the focus last season should have been placed on fully integrating George and Leonard while also establishing roles for the rest of the roster. Additionally, having all your options available during the regular season would have allowed for former head coach, Doc Rivers, to get a better feel for the roster and evaluate possible adjustments he could have made in the playoffs.  

For much of the regular season, it felt like the Clippers were just going through the motions, banking that they would be able to flip a switch in the playoffs.

This would later leave the Clippers looking for answers when they were matched up with a team in the Nuggets, whose core had been together for a few seasons now. When Nuggets center Nikola Jokic continued to dominate offensively in the series, Doc Rivers and the Clippers failed to make adjustments. This would inevitably leave the Clippers in a hole, as both Leonard and George failed to score a single point in the fourth quarter of the series-deciding game 7.

In contrast, the eventual champion Los Angeles Lakers were able to craft some dominating runs during the regular season, including a 10-game winning streak last November. With star players James and Anthony Davis only sparingly missing games, Lakers head coach Frank Vogel was able to experiment with lineups in hopes of maximizing their abilities. By season’s end, it became very clear that the Lakers were a much better team than they were at the beginning.  

3. Adding veteran leadership

Having a player with experience, who also adds a calming presence on the court as well as in the locker room, may very well have changed the Clippers’ championship fortunes last season.  

Going into the season, Leonard was the lone player on the Clippers that had  NBA Finals experience.  This lack of experience became evident in the playoffs. Visually, the Clippers looked like they were out of answers and simply folded under the pressure, especially during the waning moments of Game 7 against the Denver Nuggets. 

Conversely, when looking at the Miami Heat, it was easy to see how Jimmy Butler’s leadership affected the entire team.  His presence had clear adverse effects on the younger players including Tyler Herro, Duncan Robinson and Bam Adebayo, who all were able to perform above expectations this season.   

Although the Clippers may not be able to acquire a player of Butler’s caliber, they would be wise to give veteran players like Marc Gasol and Tristan Thompson a look in free agency.  The stability and experience they would bring could wind up being a season-defining move.

The future of Kawhi Leonard’s career is largely dependent on what the Clippers are able to accomplish this upcoming season. The Clippers mortgaged their future when they traded multiple first-round picks, pick swaps and a very talented young guard in Shai Gilgeous-Alexander for George.

If they aren’t able to deliver hardware to Los Angeles, Leonard may exercise his player option and elect to play for another team. But if the Clippers are able to push the right buttons this offseason, Leonard could be back in the driver’s seat for what would be his third NBA Championship.