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Clippers latest to learn pairing two stars doesn’t guarantee success

Be careful what you wish for when putting two stars together.

New York Knicks v LA Clippers
Paul George of the LA Clippers and Kawhi Leonard of the LA Clippers look on during the game against the New York Knicks on March 06, 2022 at Crypto.Com Arena in Los Angeles, California.
Photo by Adam Pantozzi/NBAE via Getty Images

It was a momentous day for the Los Angeles Clippers when they unveiled Kawhi Leonard and Paul George to the media in the summer of 2019. Leonard had dragged out his free agency a bit, and ultimately pushed the Clippers to make the trade for George to pair the stars together. After building up the franchise during the Chris Paul era, the Clippers believed they had finally arrived at championship status. They had the reigning Finals MVP and a six-time All-Star who had been named to the All-NBA first team. Two Los Angeles natives in their prime together on a team that had made the playoffs as the No. 8 seed a year ago. The entire room, and NBA landscape, felt titles were on the horizon.

Fast forward four seasons and the Clippers have just one conference finals appearance to show for themselves. They famously blew a 3-1 lead to the Nuggets in the 2020 Orlando bubble, and have been marred by postseason disappointment since. Of course, injuries have played a big part in their lack of success. Leonard has missed substantial time rehabbing a series of leg injuries stemming from his quad issue in his final season with the Spurs. George came down with COVID-19 last year ahead of the play-in tournament, missing both games as the Clippers got bounced from playoff contention. Both stars missed time in the first round of the 2023 NBA playoffs against the Suns. George was ruled out for the series after suffering a leg injury late in the regular season, while Leonard once again came down with knee issues after Game 2. It was eventually revealed he suffered a torn meniscus. After winning Game 1 of the series, the Clippers dropped four in a row.

Leonard and George now enter the 2023-24 season as potential free agents. Both carry player options for the 2024-25 season. This hasn’t gone the way either of them expected it to and they’ll surely assess their futures based on the outcome of next season. The Clippers, who were celebrating the two stars when they arrived, now exist in a state of uncertainty stemming from health scares and the prospect of both guys leaving.

There’s no perfect way to build a championship team in the NBA. If there was, everybody would attempt to follow that formula. The most conventional way to compete is to first acquire a superstar. Teams would follow that superstar up with another star, and maybe even a third one if they are lucky. Rounding out the roster around the stars with role players who fit is also important, but the stars dictate how teams do.

The Clippers aren’t the only ones to learn that simply pairing two stars together doesn’t guarantee success. In fact, the method in which the stars come together also might matter. Here’s a look at all the teams that have attempted to put together star pairings since that 2019 summer and how they have fared.

The Los Angeles Lakers acquired Anthony Davis in a trade in the summer of 2019, pairing him with LeBron James. James had joined the Lakers as a free agent the summer before. This is the only pairing in recent memory to win a championship where neither star was drafted by the team. And even that championship came in the Orlando bubble, where things were a bit different from the typical playoff setting. The Lakers have had their fair share of drama, but James and Davis have been relatively successful.

The Brooklyn Nets, on the other hand, have been through the roller coaster too many times. The Nets landed Kevin Durant and Kyrie Irving in 2019, thinking they had turned the corner. They were similar to the Clippers; a secondary team in a large market built on a recent winning culture without any true star on the roster. The thinking was Brooklyn, like LA, would skyrocket to the top of the NBA with the addition of the stars, especially after the team added a third in James Harden. Instead, the Nets flamed out in the conference semifinals in 2021 against the Bucks and haven’t done much since. Injuries have played a part in the lack of success here too, as the Durant-Irving-Harden trio played just 16 games together. After having all three players in the fold, the Nets now hold none of them.

In contrast to the Laker and Nets, the Miami Heat only landed on star in free agency in 2019. Jimmy Butler, who had bounced around a bit over the previous two seasons, decided to make South Beach his new home. The Heat already had a rising star in Bam Adebayo and also added highly touted 2019 first-round pick Tyler Herro ahead of signing Butler. That trio hasn’t won a championship, but the Heat have a Finals appearance and a No. 1 seed since all three players were on the roster.

The Phoenix Suns acquired Chris Paul in 2020 and immediately saw results. Paul was able to lead a homegrown core featuring Devin Booker, Deandre Ayton and Mikal Bridges to the Finals in 2021 and a No. 1 seed in 2022. The Suns had an ownership change and have now added Durant in a trade, so they could become another team to reach the title without necessarily having drafted either of their stars. It’s safe to say at this point that Booker is the star over Paul though, so the point might still stand.

Since that 2019 offseason, the Lakers, Heat, Bucks, Suns, Warriors and Celtics have reached the NBA Finals. Five of those teams featured at least one player from the core who was drafted, and four of those teams featured two or more players who were drafted. In the four seasons since the 2019 summer, here’s a look at the No. 1 seeds in each conference for the playoffs.

2019-20: Lakers, Bucks
2020-21: 76ers, Jazz
2021-22: Suns, Heat
2022-23: Nuggets, Bucks

The 76ers have two drafted players in their core, while the Jazz have blown up their core for a rebuild. Utah’s core also featured two players who were drafted by the organization. The Lakers remain the exception, with James and Davis both coming in through other avenues.

Several other teams have attempted the two-star model. The Hawks added Dejounte Murray last summer to pair with Trae Young. The Minnesota Timberwolves landed Rudy Gobert to pair with Anthony Edwards and Karl-Anthony Towns. The Cavaliers added Donovan Mitchell to their previous All-Star trio. The Dallas Mavericks acquired Irving to team up with Luka Doncic. However, all these teams already had one star or potential star through the draft. So which team is next when it comes to two stars who entered the organization outside of the draft?

The New York Knicks could be a candidate, depending on how fans view Julius Randle and Jalen Brunson. Both were added in free agency. The Knicks also have some homegrown pieces like R.J. Barrett, Immanuel Quickley and Mitchell Robinson, but Randle and Brunson are the focal points at the moment. The Knicks did have a strong season and are up 3-1 on the Cavaliers as of this writing. Could they swing a deal for a third “star”? Or will they let this core ride things out?

This isn’t to say teams shouldn’t acquire stars. Every champion has had at least one star, if not two or even three. There is something to be said for having at least one homegrown talent on a championship team. The Clippers and Nets seemingly did everything that way too, building up the roster with drafted role players before landing the stars. Injuries had an outsized impact in those two cases but there was also a lot of turmoil when everyone was healthy.

Teams won’t stop trying to pair superstars together in any way they can. The Clippers and Nets would probably still do the same thing if they knew what was to come. Stars are important for the health of the team. But where the star comes from also seems to matter. We’ll see if the story of the Clippers and Nets has any sort of trickle-down effect going forward.