The Denver Nuggets are going to the 2020 Western Conference Finals.
Down 3-1 against the heavily favored LA Clippers. the Nuggets took Game 7, 104-89, to arrange a date with the LA Lakers.
Now, after much mockery was made online at the expense of Steve Ballmer’s club, we’re here to look at the bigger picture, and check out all of the winners and losers from this intense series.
WINNER: Denver Nuggets
Let’s start with the obvious here. The Nuggets have been the comeback kings of the bubble, rallying in round one from a 3-1 deficit against the Utah Jazz, and now pulling off the same feat versus the Clips, to go a perfect 6-0 in elimination games so far.
Versus LA, Denver had to scrap and claw their way back to get those Ws, rallying from 16 down in Game 5, 19 down in Game 6, and 12 down in Game 7.
It’s crazy to think too that the Nuggets virtually spotted the Clippers Game 1, as they had just a day’s rest after topping the Jazz in Game 7, before turning around and playing the West semis due to the bubble schedule.
Luckily for Denver, they won’t play again until Sept. 19 (PHL time), this time around.
WINNER: Oklahoma City Thunder
LOSER: LA Clippers
The Oklahoma City Thunder were negotiating from a position of strength, and basically got whatever they wanted.
See, the Clippers needed Paul George, in order to secure Kawhi Leonard. The Thunder knew this, and took advantage of the fact, extracting a TON of assets from LAC.
- Danilo Gallinari
- Shai Gilgeous-Alexander
- 2021 first-round pick (via MIA)
- 2022 first-round pick
- 2023 first-round pick (via MIA, top-14 protected)
- Right to swap 2023 first-round pick with LAC
- 2024 first-round pick
- Right to swap 2025 first-round pick with LAC
- 2026 first-round pick
That’s a package that puts the legendary Brooklyn-Boston trade to shame. Not only did OKC get a forward that helped them make the postseason in Gallo, SGA is a potential All-Star caliber player, and just take a look at all those picks! And the timing of those picks too!
See, both Leonard and George have player options for the 2021-2022 season. That means, if they’re both unsatisfied with the situation in LA, the first season they can exit stage left is also when the draft picks start heading the Oklahoma City’s way. “Thunder up” indeed.
Furthermore, because the Clippers are basically bereft of any picks right now, it makes it that much harder for them to improve their roster, ahead of next season. Worst case scenario: they’ll be forced to part ways with some of their depth in order to improve their squad. With that said though, who realistically could they pick up in exchange for, say, Lou Williams, or a signed-and-traded Montrezl Harrell? The team’s top asset right now is Landry Shamet, but he’s not making a ton, certainly not enough to add someone who can move the needle.
WINNER: LA Lakers
LOSER: Neutral NBA fans
About 99% of the crowing you probably heard on social media yesterday came from Lakers fans, who reveled in the fact that their arena co-tenants, well, stayed true to their Clipper selves. LA’s other squad remains one of three NBA franchises to have never reached a conference final (the other two being the Charlotte Hornets and the New Orleans Pelicans).
Mixed in with the glee though, is probably a bit of relief on their part, and disappointment for NBA fans who don’t claim a rooting interest in either LA squad.
If the Clippers played up to par and didn’t wet the bed, we would have had a very intriguing Battle of LA in the West Finals, given how the two teams went 2-2 in the regular season. It’s bad enough that COVID-19 robbed us of the potential of having this series in Los Angeles (just the thought of all the celebrities watching courtside!), now we’re not going to get it at all!
As a bonus, for fans of the Purple and Gold, even if the Lakers fail to reach the Finals, at least it won’t be because of whom they perceive to be the hoops equivalent of the annoying little brother.
WINNER: The Toronto Raptors
Kawhi Leonard opted not to defend the title he won with the Raptors last offseason, choosing instead the comforts of home. And for most of the 2019-20 season, Toronto showed that they could do just fine without him.
In 2018-19, the Raptors finished with a 58-24 record in the regular season, a .707 W/L%. In this COVID-19 shortened campaign? They went 53-19, good for .736 W/L%.
To top it off, they even went as far as the Leonard-led Clippers did, a Game 7 in the conference semis. You could even make the argument that the Raptors were in better position than the Clips, since they forced the Celtics to go the distance.
(Canada is also loving the fact that Nuggets star guard, Jamal Murray, is one of their own)
WINNER: The Milwaukee Bucks
It was only a few days ago that fans were ripping Giannis Antetokounmpo and the Milwaukee Bucks. Despite having last season’s MVP and the best record this season, the Bucks were disposed off by the Miami Heat in a five-game series that for the most part, wasn’t very competitive.
Good thing misery loves company.
Now, both the Bucks and the Clippers enter the offseason with plenty of eyes on them, as they try to pick themselves up off the ground, following disappointing campaigns.
WINNER: Damian Lillard and CJ McCollum
Maybe it’s wrong to poke fun at a team that at least went seven games, compared to losing via a gentleman’s sweep. But if that’s wrong, then Dame and CJ don’t want to be right, as they straight-up ROASTED the Clips, particularly Patrick Beverley, on Twitter, as the loss played out.
If wine has this effect all the time on McCollum, then his post-playing career as a basketball analyst ought to come with an open bar during commercial breaks.
LOSER: Paul George
It wasn’t too long ago that Paul George was considered a legit MVP candidate. That might seem laughable now, as Pandemic P memes have taken over, but flash back to the first half of 2019, and George was Western Conference Player of the Month for February, and finished third in the MVP race behind James Harden and winner Giannis Antetokounmpo. And while we remember George as being on the wrong end of Dame’s series-winning long bomb, PG was the Thunder’s best player in that Game 5, top-scoring with 36 points on a tidy 14-of-20 clip.
So what happened?
It turned out that shoulder woes that had been hampering him in the latter part of the 2018-19 season was worse than everyone thought and he required a pair of surgeries during the offseason, prior to the trade with Clippers. He would appear in just 48 regular season games, missing stretches due to hamstring issues. Fast-forward to the 2020 Playoffs, and PG finished with about 20 points per game on 39.8% shooting, career-lows if you exclude his first two runs as a role player with the Pacers in 2010-11 and 2011-12.
It’s also notable that George was honest about facing anxiety and depression while inside the bubble, and it’s safe to wonder if he would have played better in a world without COVID-19.
But to play devil’s advocate, George has a history of struggling in tight postseason games, and should his health continue to decline, it might be safe to wonder if he needs to be the third option, not even the second, on a winning team.
LOSER: Kawhi Leonard
This time a year ago, some analysts had Kawhi Leonard as one of the best players in the NBA. That reputation has certainly taken a hit in the wake of this unceremonious exit from the Playoffs, with the Klaw coming up way short when the Clippers needed him the most.
In the must-win Game 7, Leonard came a point shy of tying his postseason-low and within three of his season-worst, with 14 markers. Leonard shot a dreadful 6-of-22 from the field with no free throw attempts, including a 0-of-5 goose egg in the final quarter.
Entering this season, most thought that Kawhi’s achilles heel was his inability to get teammates involved more. True, on the surface, he normed a career-best 4.9 assists per game, a number that grew to 5.5 in the postseason, but it’s hard to say that he made his teammates better, something that his fellows in the “best in the biz” conversation like LeBron James or Stephen Curry regularly do.
This campaign also casts a shadow on his talent evaluation/team-building skills. Remember, it was Leonard who sought out George, but only after he was turned down by Jimmy Butler and Kevin Durant. And while his low-key attitude has served him well, the team might have been better off had he been more forceful in the locker room, a role that was instead taken up by Williams.
Don’t get things twisted. Any team would love to have Leonard. But the contrast between his stints in San Antonio and Toronto, where he didn’t have to take a big leadership role and instead was the basketball equivalent of a tactical nuke on the court, and this first go-around with the Clippers, is huge. Should he reach free agency again, teams interested him might have to pause and consider who is already in their locker rooms first.
LOSER: Doc Rivers
“Are we sure Doc Rivers is a good coach?” /Bill Simmons voice.
It might be a bit of a “prisoner of the moment” situation to suddenly label Rivers a bad coach, but there was admittedly, plenty he could have done to adjust in this series versus the Nuggets, especially when it came to his rotations.
Furthermore, Rivers and his coaching staff might want to examine their approach to practice, which was alluded to by several analysts:
Luckily for him, reports indicate that owner Steve Ballmer will retain Rivers’ services, giving him a chance to make amends next season.
LOSER: Montrezl Harrell
Though he was named the Sixth Man of the Year, Harrell did himself no favors as he enters free agency. After averaging 25.1 points and 7.5 rebounds on .730 percent shooting per-36 minutes versus the Warriors a postseason ago, Harrell saw his numbers drop to 20.1 markers and 5.6 boards on just a .573 clip this time around.
Normally, Harrell is able to compensate for his shortcomings on defense with his contributions on offense, but this definitely wasn’t the case here. Despite getting shredded by Nikola Jokic though, Coach Rivers stuck with Harrell, in a gamble that ultimately did not pan out.
To be fair to Harrell, he was a late entrant to the bubble due to a death in his family. Still, he was one of many Clippers, who came up short, especially against the Nuggets.
LOSER: Pat Beverley
LOSER: Marcus Morris
Please proceed to the Reddit forum “Aged Like Milk”
LOSER: Scrappy, overachieving teams that go out and add stars
Let this be a warning, perhaps, to the Phoenix Suns.
It wasn’t too long ago that the Clippers were darlings of the NBA. In last year’s Playoffs, they made history against the Golden State Warriors, rallying from a league-record 31 points to beat them in Game 2, and forcing them to go six games.
Everyone loved the scrappy, underdog Clippers. They were easy to embrace, and you loved to see them hold their own against the Light Years Evil Empire.
But then they went and added Leonard and George and, well, became the Evil Empire themselves. To make things worse, their swagger cut checks they ultimately couldn’t cash.
It’s quite possible we’ll see the same thing next season when the Nets have a healthy Kevin Durant and Kyrie Irving in tow. Brooklyn was a fun team to root for as they crawled back from their fiasco of a trade with Boston, heck they were even fun in the bubble, as they did their best to prevent the Trail Blazers from getting into the Playoffs. But will they be a great team for casual fans to support come the 2020-2021 (or is it just 2021?) season? Probably not.
To be fair, when you get the opportunity to take your team from “up-and-comers” to “title contenders” when a few superstars want to join up with you, it’s very, very, very, very hard to say no. But the Clippers have shown that chemistry is still something you have to consider, and simply having a strong squad on paper, won’t always win you an NBA title.