clock menu more-arrow no yes mobile

Filed under:

Don’t Blow Up the Clippers

A season with so much promise ended in disappointment once again for Los Angeles. There’s no magical blockbuster trade that fixes everything, but with a little (overdue injury) luck and fine tuning, the Clippers could be as dangerous as anyone next year.

Getty Images/Ringer illustration

The NBA playoffs are a boiler room for knee-jerk reactions. After six long months of evidence gathering, self-appraisal, and consolidation, all it takes is one bad quarter, game, or week for an organization that should, by now, fully understand what it’s capable of to spiral out of control.

It’s a results-oriented business, and only one team gets to raise a banner every year. The other 29 are faced with varying degrees of uncertainty and doubt. But sometimes discouraging results are also somewhat arbitrary; without context or nuance, the decisions that follow can be rash and ultimately devastating. That’s what makes building an NBA team so precarious. That’s why the postseason is such an emotional tempest. And that’s why, sometimes, knowing when to take a deep breath in the face of incredible disappointment can lead to a brighter tomorrow.

This brings us to the Los Angeles Clippers, a 44-win contender that was eliminated by the Suns in the first round on Tuesday night. Their best was excellent. But Kawhi Leonard and Paul George, a duo that gave Steve Ballmer 332 million reasons to believe his team would win it all this year, combined to play just 80 minutes in the series. On Wednesday, The Athletic reported that Leonard tore his meniscus, an injury that may require surgery but isn’t likely to have a major impact on next season.

It’s been almost four years since the Clippers became a real contender. Now Leonard is about to turn 32, George is about to turn 33, and both are one season away from entering unrestricted free agency. It’s natural to look at this situation and call it a failure. The upshot of surrendering Shai Gilgeous-Alexander and a boatload of draft capital to seemingly vault them to the front of the line has yielded zero minutes in the NBA Finals, let alone a ring ceremony. Time is running out.

That assessment is the reality. It’s also, in a conversation about what should happen next, slightly beside the point. The Clippers front office has done everything within its power over the past three years to win at the highest level. With limited resources, the Clippers’ personnel moves have been gold. Their process has been sound and forward-looking—from acquiring Robert Covington and Norman Powell last year to turning Luke Kennard and John Wall into Eric Gordon and flipping Reggie Jackson for Mason Plumlee (and then adding Bones Hyland) a few months ago. They took a chance on Russell Westbrook and then watched him kick the hinges off even the most optimistic expectations of what he could still do. (Westbrook was their leading scorer in the playoffs.)

There’s tangible reason to believe they could’ve won it all in 2021, when they made the Western Conference finals, or even this year, had their two-time Finals MVP not torn his meniscus during a remarkable 38-point Game 1 performance that confirmed how high his peak still clearly is. Moving on from Kawhi (load management and all) could be a colossal misstep. The list of superstars in NBA history who dictate the rhythm of a game with more command than Leonard is short. Since he signed with the Clippers, no player has posted a better point differential per 100 possessions (minimum 5,000 minutes).

Leonard is powerful machinery, cunning, streamlined, and precise. There’s not even a minor weakness to his game, which still intimidates on both ends. George is smooth and explosive—making 52.1 percent of his two-point shots this season (the second-highest mark of his career)—with effortless playmaking chops. Few stars, if any, double better as a complementary sidekick without altering their own identity in any way.

There are plenty of rational people who will look at another early postseason exit and believe Los Angeles should pull the plug on an era that’s been marred by a combination of poorly timed health issues (a.k.a. atrocious luck) and the general strain that accompanies load management. Leonard’s torn ACL in the 2021 conference semifinals was a catastrophe. George’s torn UCL the following season limited him to 31 games before a bout with COVID-19 forced him to miss the play-in tournament. Both are nursing sprained knees that prevented them from being at full strength for this year’s run. But abandoning a Hall of Fame duo that lifts the Clippers to a level of excellence few teams can reach would be reckless.

Including the playoffs, Leonard and George have played 3,662 minutes together since 2019. The Clippers boast a plus-10.4 net rating over that span, with an elite offense and a defense that was about as good as this season’s no. 1–ranked Cleveland Cavaliers. What this team does in the offseason will be fascinating to watch, but if they run it back with the same core, the only argument against Leonard and George competing for a title is injury related. That sentence will make some people laugh. Durability is admittedly a risky variable. But every contender is at the mercy of how well their two best players are able to manage overtaxed bodies over a long season.

And pragmatically speaking, what is the alternative for a team that’s built to win right now? What George or Leonard trade exists that can keep the Clippers where they are, or even improve their current situation, while building a bridge to whatever comes next? How many teams even exist with enough draft picks and star-level talent to make it worth L.A.’s while—and believe either George or Leonard can push them over the hump?

The Knicks? Julius Randle, R.J. Barrett, and a couple of first-round picks? Think about some of those hypothetical Durant packages from last summer, the ones that theoretically involved untouchable young building blocks like Scottie Barnes or Evan Mobley. The Clippers will want that. But for two injury-prone guys in their 30s who can hit unrestricted free agency next summer? That type of deal is a daydream.

This doesn’t mean Ballmer will happily accept paying a $175 million tax bill—which is higher than the Celtics’ and Suns’ payroll—just to get bounced in the first round, though. Money may be no object for one of the 10 wealthiest people on the planet, but change will come in some form or fashion. And instead of trading Leonard or George, the Clippers should make moves in support of those two, before severe restrictions (which will be phased in over the next two years) are imposed on L.A. by the new Collective Bargaining Agreement, as a team that’s deep past the “second” tax apron.

For some, George and Leonard are to blame for this organization’s extended letdown. They’re also, objectively speaking, the first and second reasons why winning a championship has been, and will continue to be, realistic. Doing so will require a busy offseason. The first order of business, with a new arena opening in 2024-25, will be negotiating long-term extensions with Leonard and George. Both are eligible for $220 million pacts that tack four seasons onto their player options. Regardless of how strongly you believe that “the best ability is availability,” failure to reinvest could open the door for a doomsday scenario, wherein the Clippers play out this upcoming season and then lose both stars for nothing in free agency. On long-term contracts, they’re more compelling in the trade market, too.

Should the Clippers lean into continuity and show faith in what they have, this would remain a deep, adaptable, and mature roster. Their role players are ideal. Everyone plays hard and handles adversity. Westbrook can be brought back using the $3.8 million non-Bird exception, and Mason Plumlee can be re-signed with his Bird rights. But the Clippers could shake things up, too, with a handful of tradable expiring contracts (Marcus Morris, Nicolas Batum, Covington, Gordon) that can be attached to their own first-round picks in 2028 and 2030, plus six future second-round picks. Consolidation can be a cure.

Ty Lue remains one of the best coaches in the league, but it’ll be interesting to see whether he’s around next season—by his own choice or as an undeserved fall guy. If not, Nick Nurse makes sense as a replacement, particularly through his experience of coaching Leonard (and Powell) to a championship in 2019.

Back then, the Clippers were coming off a first-round defeat against the Warriors. Today, George and Leonard are still one of the top pairings in the league, more than talented enough to lead the Clippers to a title in 2023-24. But the clock is ticking. Neither star is getting any younger, and the financial burden Ballmer is about to endure has no precedent in pro sports. Still, as foolish as it sounds, a few months from now it may make sense to pick the Clippers as a preseason favorite to go all the way. They have every ingredient to win it all and sufficient resources to improve. It’s a tantalizing group with unfulfilled ambition. Now, all they need is some luck.