Sports

The Clippers Are at a Crossroads: Run It Back or Blow It Up?

The Clippers pushing the Western Conference finals to six games should assure that Kawhi Leonard will return for the 2021-22 season. The team showed what it can do without him by knocking off the Jazz and coming within two wins of the Finals. Adapt. Compete. Persevere. Ty Lue proved his coaching acumen, and the team performed selflessly with different players going in and out of the rotation. Paul George had his ups and downs, but his best nights positioned the Clippers to get as far as they did without Kawhi. Imagine what they could do next year with both stars healthy in the postseason.

But Leonard can exercise his player option and become an unrestricted free agent this summer. No one knows what’s truly going on inside Leonard’s head, but front office executives and agents around the NBA often gossip about the possibility that he leaves since teams are lining up and conspiring to get him.

The Mavericks and Heat plan to make a hard push to acquire Leonard, league sources say. The Knicks will also pursue any superstar that becomes available, and a long list of other suitors would at least make an attempt if he hits the market. Who wouldn’t want a 30-year-old two-time Finals MVP still performing at an All-NBA level?

Dallas is considered by some executives to be the most serious threat to land Kawhi because of Luka Doncic’s presence and the front office’s ability to create maximum cap space or work out a sign-and-trade. During Leonard’s years with Nike, he also developed a good relationship with Nico Harrison, the Mavs’ new general manager and a former longtime executive at the company.

Leonard tried to recruit Jimmy Butler to the Clippers before George was acquired, so Miami could offer Kawhi an enticing chance to play with him. Though the Heat can’t create max cap space, they could always work out a sign-and-trade just like they did to acquire Butler from the Sixers in 2019.

All that said, signs still point to Leonard staying. In March, he reportedly purchased a $17.1 million home in Pacific Palisades, a coastal neighborhood of Los Angeles. While buying a mansion isn’t a guarantee that he’s planning to re-sign long term, multiple league executive sources say Kawhi no longer travels via helicopter from his other home in San Diego, like he often did before Kobe Bryant’s passing in January 2020. Leonard already owned a $6.7 million penthouse near Staples Center. Investing so much in a home is at least an acknowledgment of the possibility he plans to stick around L.A.

But no matter what Leonard does, Clippers president of basketball operations Lawrence Frank has work to do to improve the roster. As a luxury tax–paying team, adding any additional salary will be pricey. If the Clippers dip their toes into the free agency waters, they won’t have any cap space and could only use the taxpayer midlevel exception, worth $5.9 million, to sign a player.

Serge Ibaka has a $9.7 million player option for next season. Reggie Jackson and Nic Batum will both be unrestricted free agents. Following his breakout postseason, keeping Jackson went from an afterthought to an important item. But he could command a contract that exceeds the five-year, $80 million deal he signed with the Pistons in 2015. If he’s not retained, finding a replacement who can perform at the level he did in the playoffs would be a challenge.

The trade market is L.A.’s best route to finding talent and the right playmaking presence for the roster, but the team lacks high-value pieces to dangle. The Clippers own the no. 25 pick in the 2021 draft, and they don’t have another first-rounder until 2027. Luke Kennard’s four-year, $64 million contract kicks in next season. He may have more value to another team than he did to the Clippers this season. L.A. should explore trading him to see what it can get in return.

There are several free agents who could also become sign-and-trade candidates: Kyle Lowry from the Raptors, DeMar DeRozan from the Spurs, Spencer Dinwiddie from the Nets, and Lonzo Ball from the Pelicans. The Clippers had discussions with the Raptors about Lowry prior to the trade deadline, league sources said at the time. Perhaps Leonard could try to recruit his former Toronto teammate to Los Angeles for a reunion.

Acquiring a player of Lowry’s caliber could be a necessity depending on what other contenders do. The Lakers and Warriors are among the West teams that should be healthier and back in contention next year. Younger teams like the Mavericks, and even the Finals representative Suns, could also get even better. The Clippers have less flexibility to make big movies than almost any other contender in their conference.

With so few avenues to make significant moves, some executives wonder: What if Leonard wants the Clippers to dump George in order for him to re-sign long term? It’d be a heck of a power play. But we’ve seen this before from Kawhi when he first joined the Clippers. He threatened to stay with the Raptors or go to the Lakers if the Clippers weren’t able to find a costar. So they emptied the coffers for George. Does Leonard feel like running it back? Or could he be ready for a new look?

Damian Lillard is disgruntled with the Trail Blazers, according to Yahoo’s Chris Haynes. It’s worth noting that in 2019 Lillard was on Leonard’s list of stars he wanted to team up with, league sources say. But Lillard has four seasons remaining on his contract. Portland doesn’t need to trade him. If it came to the point where a trade was inevitable, Los Angeles wouldn’t have many goodies to add to a trade involving George, and if the Blazers would rather have younger players and picks, the Clippers would easily be outbid.

There’s also Ben Simmons, the Sixers All-Star who spends nearly all of his off time in Los Angeles and would add a much-needed playmaking dimension to the Clippers. But regardless of the other pieces involved in a potential deal, would Leonard want to team up with Simmons after the latter’s disastrous postseason? Is that a deal the Sixers would want to make, when league sources say they’re also hoping for an opportunity to land Lillard?

Star-for-star trades happen in the NBA but they aren’t common. If Leonard returns to L.A. next season, the odds are George will still be there. Is that such a bad thing? The disrespect online toward George has gone a bit overboard. Yes, George makes some blunders. The missed free throws. The 24-second violation. The occasional no-show quarters. But he’s also one of the best two-way wings in the game and he can make scoring 40 points look easy. He was an iron man this postseason, too. He played 776 minutes, 129 more than any other player has logged. Without him, the Clippers wouldn’t have made it past the second round. George may not be the guy, but he’s still one of the top 15 guys in the NBA.

He’s not untouchable, though, so the Clippers should at least explore every possibility to maximize their roster; if Lillard becomes available, you do what you can to get him. Just as the Clips did two years ago to net Leonard and George. But so far, the duo hasn’t been able to lead the team to its ultimate goal. They ended the franchise’s 51-year drought of failing to make a conference finals—but that isn’t enough to satisfy the team’s best player.

“I don’t care about the Western Conference finals. I’m trying to win a championship,” Leonard said during the second round. The Clippers choked in the 2020 playoffs, so they fired their coach and hired a better one. They made tweaks to the roster and made their playoff team a better one. This year’s Clippers team overcame two 0-2 deficits and showed a level of resiliency the franchise hasn’t seen in decades. Kawhi’s injury just struck at the worst time. Maybe next year.

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