When the Los Angeles Clippers' current nucleus came together on a fateful July night back in 2019, it felt like a seismic event, and not just because it coincided with a literal earthquake in the L.A. area. By pairing the superstar wing tandem of Paul George and Kawhi Leonard - the latter of whom was just three weeks removed from a championship run that culminated in Finals MVP honors - the Clippers seemed to have radically altered the NBA landscape.
But three-and-a-half years into their team-building endeavor, they haven't done much to shape the league terrain. Three playoff series wins are all they have to show so far for the all-in moves that cost them Shai Gilgeous-Alexander and a half-decade's worth of draft capital, and their two stars have been on the court together for just 40% of the Clippers' games (127 of 314, including playoffs) since joining forces. They did end a 50-year franchise curse by finally reaching the conference finals in 2021, but that wasn't exactly the goal when this team was assembled.
Last year was a spirited but ultimately futile campaign, with Leonard rehabbing an ACL tear and George missing more than half the season due to an elbow injury. This season was supposed to mark the Clippers' return to the ranks of the contender class, with George healthy and Leonard rejoining a group that added even more wing depth in his absence. That may yet happen, but two-thirds of the way through the regular season, they're a middling 29-26, having outscored their opponents by a grand total of five points.
Their mediocrity owes in large part to the still-sporadic availability of Leonard and George, who have continued to miss big chunks of time with injuries and planned absences during back-to-back sets. Leonard struggled initially upon returning and has only rediscovered his burst and rhythm within the last month. But that doesn't fully explain the team's purgatorial malaise. The Clippers are frustratingly inconsistent - not just in terms of who plays from night to night but in the way they play, even at full strength. They can look like two completely different teams from one possession to the next.
They don't typically have a ton of offensive structure, but there are times when they at least create an organized brand of chaos, with movement and flow and simultaneous actions and zippy drive-kick-swing-relocate sequences. Other times, everything is sludgy and predictable; they give up on running anything after the defense stifles their initial action (if they even execute one), and four guys stand in place while someone dances or burrows with the ball before eventually settling for a contested look.
Their fall-from-ahead loss to the Bucks on Thursday night, in which they blew a 21-point third-quarter lead and went scoreless over the final four minutes, was a perfect microcosm of those maddening tendencies. They built up their big lead with crisp ball movement and an egalitarian approach - and then let all of that fall by the wayside in crunch time.
The Clippers had nine offensive possessions over those four scoreless minutes, and after crossing midcourt, they made six total passes (excluding inbounds) on those possessions. All but one of those passes started and ended above the 3-point line, and the lone exception was an entry feed to Leonard posting up Jrue Holiday at the nail. No one other than Leonard or George took a shot, and they went a combined 0-for-8 on almost exclusively isos.
Even when they ran a sensible action like the one above - an inverted empty-corner pick-and-roll to let George attack a weaker defender in Pat Connaughton - George dithered long enough to let the Bucks switch themselves right back out of that matchup without making any attempt to exploit the gap that let Reggie Jackson slip into a wide-open pocket on the wing. When Jackson came up to screen for him again, George rejected it and wound up air-balling a pull-up three with Holiday right in his face.