The Clippers 2018-19 season was an under-budget success story. The sequel was a critical flop. This situation leaves us with only one question: will the 2020-21 Clippers be Mission: Impossible III or The Matrix Revolutions?

The Los Angeles Clippers closed the 2018-19 NBA season with a six game, first round playoff exit against the defending champion Golden State Warriors. A roster which, by season’s end, contained zero all-stars and zero max players had, in the immortal and questionably accented words of Mickey Rourke, “made god bleed.” Their depth was celebrated, their Lou-Will/Harrell bench pick-and-roll actions ogled, and the talent of rookie guard Shai Gilgeous-Alexander served as a beacon of genuine hope for the future.

And then, a sudden and unexpected double-acquisition upended expectations; reigning playoff MVP Kawhi Leonard and one of the few players who could approach his two-way wizardry (at least on paper), Paul George, suddenly joined the roster, vaulting LA’s second-tier team to top-contender status. Concerns about assets loss in the deal for George took a backseat to league-wide terror about a roster that now threatened depth AND top level talent.

When Kawhi inked his 2+1 on July 10, 2019, I remember joking about—but largely dismissing—the potential for disaster; more than likely a financial play and/or a move to align with PG’s contract. Hardly a concern with rings so clearly within reach.

Yet in the wake of their disastrously disappointing, chemistry deflating, locker-room-infighting-and-subtweet-filled, 3-1 series-lead-blowing defeat by the Denver Nuggets, the Los Angeles Clippers now stand on the precipice of a potential collapse, made all the more perilous by that short-term contract: the possibility that this coming season could be the last of the Kawhi/George era, with nothing left to show for it but an empty war chest. While a disappointing middle chapter can still be overcome, failure in the last two installments of this trilogy of seasons would be an unmitigated, franchise crippling defeat.

So only one logical question remains: are the 2020-21 Los Angeles Clippers The Matrix Revolutions or Mission: Impossible III?

You’re confused. I can explain. Let’s start here:

SEASON 1 – The Matrix Franchise, The Matrix

The year was 1999. Michael Jordan had retired (Last Dance spoilers, sorry). The world awaited the millennium with bated breath, stockpiling water and ramen in anticipation of a societal collapse. Amidst the simmering panic, a pair of sibling directors with little Hollywood experience to their name, merged those pervasive sentiments of impending technological doom with Hong-Kong-style martial arts to create a pioneering action film that also laid the pop-culture foundation for the world-is-a-simulation-theory your uncle keeps Facebook messaging you about. With the Wachowski’s at the helm, The Matrix just-over-septupled its (relatively) miniature budget at the box office, distilled the essence of Keanu Reeves into a digestible “I know kung-fu” sized soundbite, immortalized Carrie-Ann Moss as the coolest person you could ever hope to be crane-kicked in the face by (apologies to the decidedly uncool Daniel-san), and opened the door to an incredibly promising, potentially long-running franchise.

SEASON 2 – The Matrix Franchise, The Matrix Reloaded

Four years later, and that promise (further bolstered by the additions of Jada Pinkett Smith, Monica Bellucci, and Gloria Foster to the sequel roster) gave way to The Matrix Reloaded, a film that can best be described as a missed breakaway dunk in a blowout game. The film’s more-than-double-the-original’s budget allowed extensive CGI to take over a sizable percentage of stunt work, displacing some of the live-action fight-choreography that was so celebrated in the original; armchair philosophizing was inflated to obscene extents (even by the franchises own standards); bizarre sequences involving sexual abuses between A.I. demi-gods ate up a more-than-insignificant portion of runtime. While undisputedly a financial success, the inability of the movie to live up to the hype left many with questions about the trilogy’s terminus.

Mission: Impossible follows a similar first-two-installments arc:

SEASON 1 – Mission: Impossible Franchise, Mission: Impossible

The year was 1996. Michael Jordan led the Bulls to the fourth of their six championships of the decade (Last Dance spoilers again, sorry again). Pokémon was released into the world, inspiring a new generation of video game addicts. And an acclaimed director with a penchant for psychosexual tension and a plucky young movie-star with a penchant for pretending to be as tall as his castmates teamed up for a long-kicked-around-Hollywood adaptation of a popular secret-agent TV show. Despite starting pre-production without a finished script and numerous inter-studio conflicts, director Brian De Palma, leading man Tom Cruise, and a deep bench of overqualified role players ultimately produced an eerie, unique, and foundational take on the spy genre in Mission: Impossible. Coming in under its B-movie budget of $80 million, the film went on to more than quintuple that number at the box office, becoming the third highest grossing movie of the year.

SEASON 2 – Mission: Impossible Franchise, Mission: Impossible II

Four years later and this highly anticipated follow up hit the big screen, bringing new star talent into the fold with celebrated Hong-Kong action Director John Woo, as well as Brendan Gleeson, a young Thandie Newton, and a less young Anthony Hopkins. The result, despite retention of key players and high expectations for new additions, was a critical disappointment, rife with nonsensical drama and thinly-if-at-all veiled misogyny (Hopkins, for his part, would attempt a Paul-George-esque disappearing act by ultimately going uncredited in the project). Though commercially surpassing its predecessor, its creative failures left the franchise in question.

The Matrix, Mission: Impossible, and the 2018-2020 Clippers: Three exciting starts, three disappointing follow-ups.

As we look towards the 2020-21 season, questions about Los Angeles’s best path forwards must, in part, be informed by the somewhat worrisome state of their roster:

Kawhi Leonard: 1+1. 

Paul George: 1+1. 

Offensive Second-To-Third Option & Defensive Enes-Kanter-Impersonator Lou Williams: expiring.

Team Engine and Vibe-Master-General Montrezl Harrell: On Kawhi’s trainer’s shit list (and expired)

Team “Will Sack Tap Their Best Player Like Draymond but Won’t Hurt You When He Gets Tossed Like Draymond” Marcus Morris: expired 

Ivica “According To Mark Jackson A Top-5 Center” Zubac: 2 + team. Not a Top-5 center

Vast Majority of Future Picks: In Sam Presti’s pocket

There is a daunting lack of long-term stability here. And it is inextricably intertwined with rumors of frustration at the excessive star treatment afforded to Leonard and George, which quickly spread around the league following the early playoff exit, providing an off-court explanation to the on-court disunity most apparent in their game seven defeat by Denver. The Clipper’s path forwards will necessarily require a realignment (or reaffirmation) of priorities.

Which brings us back to our foundational question: Are the Los Angeles Clippers The Matrix Revolutions or MI3?

SEASON 3 – The Matrix Franchise, The Matrix Revolutions

Most often critiqued for its inscrutable, rain soaked climax, The Matrix Revolutions’ broader inability to land the metaphorical Nebuchadnezzar was at the core a consequence of misunderstanding its earlier successes: we loved bullet-time because it was original, not because it was an expensive special effect. We loved Neo because he knew kung fu, not because he was anyone’s biblical savior. We loved the Matrix not for its high-budget pseudo philosophical tragic grandiosity, but for its sleek action, its unique yet accessible world building, and its ability to make you think you could pull off a leather trench-coat.

But rather than return to (and build upon) the strengths it had, The Matrix Revolutions gave itself the green light to jack up deep contested three after deep contested three, upping the CGI anti even further than Reloaded, pushing that once-cute-now-quaint dorm-room philosophizing further to the center of the frame, and expecting heavy-handed visual Jesus cues to carry the emotional load of a franchise that never should have been about the emotions in the first place. If not fully a disaster, a disappointment on its own terms.

A Clippers team in the Matrix Revolutions mold is one that continues to misunderstand its most important strengths (its chemistry and on-court doggedness) and contort itself around the superstars at the top of its payroll. This likely means trying to move Harrell (or letting him walk), finding short term pieces to build around the Leonard-George core, and crossing their fingers that the continued preferential treatment of their superstars will encourage them to re-sign without further undermining the bench depth that was so central to its early success. I for one am not optimistic about the short or long term possibilities for success.

But there’s a better option:

SEASON 3 – Mission: Impossible Franchise, Mission: Impossible III

Helmed by J.J. Abrams (then in the midst of early-season success with Lost), the third installment of the M:I franchise jettisoned the hyper-stylized, super-human, dove encircled action set pieces of its predecessor, and in the process discovered the trope that would become the beating heart of the franchise long term: Ethan Hunt, no longer an unflappable super agent, but an all-too-human man, desperately and constantly in over his head. The film opens with a mission failed (as far as we can tell), and immediately resets our expectations to a more grounded plane. Key acquisitions of essential pieces Michelle Monaghan (longtime member of the “deserved an even bigger career” all-stars), Phillip Seymour Hoffman (delivering his greatest villain turn since George Jr. in Scent of a Woman), Billy Crudup (offering up a truly punchable performance), and Morpheus himself, helped elevate the on-screen chemistry of the franchise to its original heights. Critics and fans responded in kind, praising the film as perhaps an even greater achievement than the original. A success on new terms of its own making.

The M:I:3 version of LA is a team that remembers its core strengths, returns to its team-centric identity, and approaches the offseason with an eye for players who would fit well in that sort of locker room. Goran Dragic immediately comes to mind (and could likely be had for the money on hand). Other more expensive Van-Vleet-shaped targets would require moving a significant amount of salary and may be out of reach. Bogdan Bogdonovic could be a possible in-betweener who’s shown an ability to play with starters or come off the bench and run a unit.

If the Clipper’s go the MI3 route, Paul George needs to be the John Woo doves left in their transitional wake. It’s a move that will hurt, with little to no chance of returning on the hefty price paid for his initial acquisition. But the possibilities of him walking for nothing at the end of the season are very real, and the Clipper’s lack of depth and long term security is frightening. A move that could bring in some combination of young talent and assets could be the shakeup the squad (Denver and Brooklyn jump out as options).

On the leadership front, it will be incumbent upon new head coach Ty Lue to thread a different needle than his Cleveland days: Kawhi Leonard is not LeBron James, and has not proven an ability for (or interest in) leveraging his position of power to facilitate greater team unity. This is not inherently a personal failing as it is sometimes spun, but it is a character trait that team leadership must account for. Lue’s ability to bring role players back into the fold and reignite the 1st-through-12th man fire that defined the ‘18-19 Clips will be central to the success of a MI3-esque cultural reset, much the way J.J. steered the film franchise back towards the crew-based-caper model that would come to define its later installments.

There is risk in the MI3 path, of course; a more measured approach doesn’t guarantee success, and the risk of losing stars in the process will always make team leadership nervous. But most stars won’t stay for preferential treatment alone. And if the goal is long term sustained success, the franchise needs to reset expectations and return to its scrappy, team centric ways. It’s difficult to know for sure which direction LA will go. But in the immortal words of The Oracle and/or your Philosophy 101 textbook, “everything that has a beginning has an end.” And if LA chooses the Revolutions path, that end may come sooner than they hoped.