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The cautionary tale of the Clippers

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With Los Angeles built around wings Kawhi Leonard and Paul George, could their postseason struggles signal anything to Jayson Tatum and Jaylen Brown?

Boston Celtics v Los Angeles Clippers Photo by Meg Oliphant/Getty Images

When we were kids, stories of the boy who cried wolf or Little Red Riding Hood were regular fables shared during circle time at pre-k or at home before bed. They were parables that acted as cautionary tales, teaching us morals while instilling important life lessons at an early age. As we continue to grow, we find new, exemplary stories in movies and music, as they help shape our understanding of the world and how to succeed in it.

Basketball’s no different. From draft busts (we’re looking at you, Anthony Bennett) to poor roster construction (where’s the wizardry, Washington?), there’s always teaching moments with struggling franchises around the league. Recently, the Celtics have traversed the roster construction minefield admirably (except for the most recent roster, of course). Yet, there’s one team the Celtics should be looking at, wondering how to avoid a similar stagnation: The LA Clippers.

NBA: Boston Celtics at Los Angeles Clippers Gary A. Vasquez-USA TODAY Sports

The similarities are striking. Both the Celtics and Clippers are lead by elite wings as their primary offensive outlets. However, both teams have struggled to figure out their point-guard situation - although Boston’s issues in this regard are far more prevalent. And both teams lack the ball movement required to succeed against the sterner defenses of the league. In essence, if their wings aren’t firing on all cylinders, then it’s going to be a long night at the office.

When looking at the remaining teams in the playoffs, one striking similarity jumps out. The more dominant teams have legitimate shot creators on their roster, players that make their offense tick. Phoenix has the never-aging Chris Paul, Philadelphia has Ben Simmons, Utah has Mike Conley, Atlanta? Trae Young. These teams beat to the drum of their guards who can create offense for themselves and others, ensuring the stagnant isolation play Celtics fans become accustomed to doesn’t derail their playoff hopes.

But the Clippers? Well, herein lies the cautionary tale. Having gone down 0-2 in the first round, LA’s second team found a way to progress primarily due to the talent on their roster. With their series tied 2-2, it seems as though Kawhi Leonard and Paul George have flipped a switch, but that hasn’t always been the case. In the first round, it took them seven games to finally wake up and beat the Mavericks. Sound familiar?

The NBA’s landscape is forever changing; roster constructions that dominated just a few years ago no longer impact the game as intensely. From the dominant bigs of the ‘80s and ‘90s to the point guard revolution of the naughts and, more recently, the small ball movement that swept the league over the last six-to-seven years.

Another change is rapidly taking over the league now: size with skill.

Point guards that could easily slide into power forward roles, centers that can jockey an offense, and point forwards so good they make Scottie Pippen blush. You need a plethora of skilled players in your rotation to be a good NBA team; that’s no secret, but now? Well, now they need to be long and athletic, too. So miniature point guards with score-first mentalities are becoming a thing of the past (unless they’re named Steph Curry, of course), being replaced by taller, more diverse threats.

Say what you will about Trae Young’s deplorable attempts at defense. On the other end of the court, he’s a maverick, carving defenses open with shot-making and passing vision. Ben Simmons couldn’t hit a three if there were a million dollars on the line, but his playmaking, size, and ability to punish teams around the rim make him a threat that’s unfathomably hard to contain - oh, and his size, speed, and strength have made him one of the league’s most imposing defenders.

Neither the Celtics nor Clippers boast a shot-creator of that ilk. Instead, both teams have focused so much on their star pairing that fitting the right pieces around them has become the most tangled of webs. From Serge Ibaka and Robert Williams to Luke Kennard and Kemba Walker, neither team has found the right mix of talent, fit, and health to elevate their stars into supernovas. Heck, it’s becoming increasingly evident that even the great Giannis Antetokounmpo can’t be a team’s primary option; he’s going to need an actual shot-creator besides him. And now the league is moving on again.

So, where does this leave the Celtics? And what can they learn from their counterparts on the West Coast?

Luckily for Boston, their roster is filled with high-upside young players capable of improvement and enticing trade assets to teams looking to rebuild. The Celtics also own their future picks, which is a luxury the Clippers will be lamenting in the coming years.

The Celtics could quickly embark on a culture shift this off-season by drafting somebody like Josh Giddy, a guard with size and skill, before making some roster moves to modernize their rotation. But, quite frankly, while there are severe similarities between the two teams, the Celtics find themselves with more room to maneuver than the Clippers, courtesy of their star wing pairing coming through the draft rather than free agency and trades.

But should Brad Stevens and the rest of the front office fail to heed the cautionary tale of the Clippers’ unquenchable thirst for their first banner, the Celtics could quickly find themselves stuck in a similar form of purgatory.

The Clippers have preferred veterans while the Celtics chose youth, there is a middle-ground to be found with these two teams, and the one who finds it first will reap the ensuing success. Yet, for now, the Clippers remain in the hunt for a championship, riding the coat tails of Kawhi and Paul George, hoping that in the end, their top-heavy roster will ultimately pay dividends. Otherwise, it will be more than just Boston who uses the Clippers’ recent spending and roster construction as a cautionary tale to any would-be GM’s entering the league.