Just like that, the Clippers ran out of comebacks, out of luck, out of gas. On Wednesday night at Staples Center, the season ended with a loss to the Suns, which was expected given the battering the team had taken with its health—star forward Kawhi Leonard has been out with a knee injury since the Utah series, center Ivica Zubac missed his second game with a sprained right MCL, and center Serge Ibaka remained an anchor on the injured list.
The Suns won Game 6, securing the Western Conference finals and the franchise’s first Finals appearance since 1993. The Clippers will have to be satisfied with being among the league’s Final Four, a feat accomplished for the first time in franchise history and despite falling down, 0-2, in each of the team’s three series this postseason.
Coach Ty Lue and the Clippers put the mess of last season behind them, a significant step even if they’d remained hopeful for more. What comes next is the housekeeping before what figures to be a critical offseason for L.A. Here are the three items the team needs to most address in the coming weeks.
The top issue the Clippers face is the free agency of Leonard, whose knee injury gave the Clippers a very thin margin for error against Phoenix. Leonard is just wrapping up his second season as a Clipper and can—almost certainly will—opt out of the final year of his contract, worth $36 million. There is still a widespread consensus around the NBA that Leonard will re-sign with the Clippers on a max deal, a no-brainer given that he is coming off a season in which he averaged 24.8 points, 6.5 rebounds and 5.2 assists, shooting 51.2% from the field. But there have been recent rumblings that Leonard is not happy with the Clippers’ handling of his knee injury and could seek a change, much as he had done while leaving San Antonio for Toronto in 2018.
Who’s the point?
The Clippers entered the postseason with Patrick Beverley banged up, Reggie Jackson on a bit of a hot streak and Rajon Rondo holding down the fort off the bench. By the end of the postseason, Jackson emerged as the starter, averaging 18.1 points on 49.2% shooting in the Clippers’ first 18 games. Jackson was signed on a veteran’s minimum deal in the offseason, at $2.3 million. But his play in recent weeks puts him in line for a significant raise, at least o the midlevel exception at $10 million, if not beyond.
The Clippers have Beverley on hand, making $14 million in the final year of his deal next season, as well as Rondo at $7.5 million. If Jackson sticks around, the Clippers will look to move one, if not both, of those players. But after the way Jackson played in the postseason, he could prove to be too expensive for L.A.
Time to Mann up?
We’ll always have Game 6. Despite the disappointment that the franchise did not reach the NBA Finals, there’s still some hope in one of the best highlights of the entire 2021 postseason: The way second-year man Terance Mann blossomed and scored 39 crucial points. Mann is already 24 and ready to contribute, but he will need the Clippers to put some faith in him and give him a larger role next season.