The Phoenix Suns defeated the LA Clippers last night to take the Western Conference Finals, 4 games to 2 which means the Suns have made it to the NBA Finals for the first time since 1993. For those sport’s junkies, in a sport revered in Canada, the Montreal Canadians have made it to the Stanley Cup Finals for the first time since 1993. Coincidence?
Being a sport’s junkie, especially during big games, I watched several of these games between the Suns and Clippers so here is my commentary. I will quickly apologize to any Suns fans as my focus is on the other round ball team in Los Angeles, the Clippers.
Kwahi Leonard is arguably the best player on the Clippers but injured his knee earlier in the playoffs so didn’t play against the Suns. So what does Leonard do during the series as he sits out, he’s up in a box suite taking in the game? Apparently, for the first two home games, he came down at halftime to provide some insight for his team although some argue that he’d be better served by being on the bench and providing real-time insight for all games. One other thing to note, during the last game of the series, Leonard did appear on the bench so perhaps he got the memo of where his most value would be provided from.
One more thing about Leonard, when healthy, he’s arguably among the top 3 players in the NBA. However, Leonard has physical issues that mean “load management” comes into play, where he may only play 70% of the games. For those who aren’t familiar with the term, just brace yourself because the “loan management” philosophy will seep into all forms of media and corporate America at some point. Getting back to fragile Kwahi, and well before he signed with the Clippers several years ago, there was the “load management” when it came to Kwahi Leonard. He brought you to the dance, if you’re the General Manager or Owner of the Clippers, do you continue to ride the success of the franchise on Kwahi?
As many informed fans should know, the LA Clippers are owned by Steve Ballmer. Ballmer, 64, purchased the LA Clippers for a then-record $2 billion. With an estimated worth of 41.2 billion, his goal was to bring the Clippers a championship. Some say that Ballmer has a lot more money than social graces but there is nothing Ballmer wants more than to bring the NBA title to Los Angeles, but not to a team that has incredible brand awareness among NBA fans and sports fans alike.
Paul George is listed as a power forward on the Clippers and he once gave himself a nickname, “Playoff P.” I wouldn’t be the first individual to say giving yourself such a nickname means you have a lot to live up to. Just to be clear, George gave himself that nickname years before he played for the Clippers. But signing a max deal with the Clippers, if you’re number 2 and number 1 goes down, you become number 1. Just to clarify his shooting stats in 11 years, he's averaging 43% from the field, 38% from 3 point territory, and 85% from the free-throw stripe. All those numbers are slightly lower for his playoff career.
George is no 'Playoff P' although he’s a talented player. I watched him play all 6 games in the series with the Suns but also caught him against the Mavericks. He’s good, but not great. He can score with the best of them but often his decision-making could come into question. There were plenty of occasions when he’d dribble down the court transfixed on taking the shot during this possession even if his decision wasn’t always the right one. There were other occasions where he’d take it to the hoop to get a buck or free throws, all the while not exactly engaging his teammates. He gave the impression that the entire weight of the team rested on his strong shoulders – it’s not as though he didn’t have qualified players to assist even while Leonard was out. I just didn’t see much consistent movement of the basketball when Paul George was orchestrating the offense. Phrased differently, many of his teammates knew he was going to take the last shot so while George dribbled, his teammates were often stationary during the possession. If I noticed this I’m certain the Suns’ coaches tweaked their defense knowing who was going to take the last shot on many of these possessions.
As I mentioned earlier, Paul George is a very talented player who perhaps lacks focus at pivotal moments in the game. If I were a coach, I’d love to have him on my team although he’s going to have to change his game. I’d place him in situations where he could succeed as the team succeeds. And if necessary, remind George that regardless of your stature, it’s still a team game regardless of one's self-made nickname.
If George had to do it over again, I’d wonder whether he’d assign himself that nickname, Playoff P? Could anyone at the time seen an issue with someone's actual play versus someone's image? If a teammate had coined a nickname to George, such as PG13 (Paul George’s jersey number), that would be another story. If someone gives you a nickname, then you’re less likely on the hook when things don’t go well against an opponent.
Let’s realize that the Clippers play in the same arena as the Lakers, which makes the Staples Center a venue where its use has been optimized. Having said that, even though they share an arena, Los Angeles is a Lakers town and I can’t see that ever-changing, even with a potential championship by the Clippers. I’m not sure if a poll has been taken but I’d reckon that 80% of basketball fans root for the Lakers – their brand is not in any jeopardy of being lost anytime soon to the Clippers.
Some celebrities indeed support the Clippers. Take Billy Crystal or Lil Wayne, they regularly appear at Clipper home games. It makes sense that some celebrities have either broken from the Lakers or just chose the Clippers from the start. If Magic Johnson, Jack Nicholson, or a younger celebrity switched over to the Clippers from the Lakers, then we’d have plenty of material for talk show hosts to discuss. In the meantime, their support among celebs might be similar to the majority of LA supporting the Lakers. Even if the Clippers were to win twice during the next six years, which would be an incredible feat, even after that, I don’t know if that will make a big difference in terms of fan support.
What did Lakers fans do during this series? Did they root for the Clippers because, in a way, it represents Los Angeles? Most Lakers fans look at the Clippers as a weak and unsuccessful franchise so these fans would do anything to prevent another team from LA having success.
Steve Ballmer has wisely delegated basketball-related activities to well-season veteran scouts and former coaches and players. He brought Leonard and George here, trying to do “whatever it takes” to bring the Clippers a championship. Unfortunately, they have fallen short again although they have shown remarkable improvement from the 2020 season. With many successful pieces in place, Ballmer and the Clippers will go back to the drawing board to determine what type of team they’ll compile moving forward in the hopes of chasing that elusive NBA Championship.