Since Steve Ballmer purchased the team in 2014, the Clippers haven’t really made subtle gestures. In Ballmer’s world, everything—from trades to new arenas—is done on a big scale. Take Blake Griffin’s famous free-agency pitch in 2017, for which the franchise made a temporary art gallery on the floor of the Staples Center full of pictures of Griffin throughout his life, and then did a mock jersey retirement ceremony for him that called him a “Clipper for Life.” We know how that all worked out: Griffin was traded to Detroit before he could even be a Clipper for one more season. But earlier this week, there wasn’t much need for pageantry. The situation was flipped: Paul George went out of his way to say that he wanted to be a Clipper for life.
“I want to retire a Clipper,” he told the media last Friday. The Clippers didn’t take long to oblige in a major way. On Thursday, they signed George to a four-year, $190 million extension.
“Um, I was confident in myself and where I wanted to be at,” George said coyly when asked Thursday if he knew the extension was imminent when he said he wanted to retire in L.A. “This is home. I’m at home. And I want to build something, a real foundation, and ultimately this is where I want to leave the biggest imprint.”
What George says these days, whether in private or public, always seems to come with a lot of baggage. His own prior remarks and playoff shortcomings have made him a punch line on Twitter (shortly after news of the extension broke yesterday, “Pandemic P” was trending), but he’s still one of the best two-way players in the league and a top-three MVP candidate a season ago. For the Clippers, retaining George is a triumph.
George has always been the prototypical second star: not ball dominant, but can easily score; not the best at any one thing, but elite in multiple facets of the game. He’s able to become a superstar on any given night and fill in gaps on others. It makes sense that the Clippers want to keep him and keep him for a while, no matter the price tag. Add to that the fact that they gave up their entire portfolio of future picks to get him in the first place and this deal shouldn’t have much shock value.
The numbers are eye-popping nonetheless. When George turns 35 (his 15th year in the league) he will be making nearly $49 million. All you have to do is glance at Russell Westbrook and John Wall to see how that kind of deal could backfire on a team quickly. According to a front office source, there was chatter around the league that the Clippers did their due diligence in seeing what they could get on the market for George before deciding that the extension was the best option. One front office staffer said that, despite the ugly numbers on the back end of George’s deal, the market for George around the league would have likely gotten him that same contract elsewhere. George is a number two that you have to pay number-one-level money.
That same front office member did say they were puzzled by the fact that the Clippers were both doing the extension now and giving George as player-friendly a deal as possible. “I don’t see why you don’t let things play out,” they said. “I can’t imagine he’d be itching to get out of LA next year.” George, for his part, said he wanted the deal done before the season because he’s “a player that don’t play for contracts.”
Of course, the receipt on George can be crumpled and thrown in the trash if it means that it guarantees that Kawhi Leonard will stay a Clipper, too. Kawhi isn’t eligible for an extension until next offseason, when he has the option to become a free agent. As we saw this season, a lot can happen in a year, but multiple front office sources said the timing and intent behind the extension is also a way of showing Kawhi that the franchise is committed to competing with that duo. The Clippers’ own messaging seemed to indicate such as well. President Lawrence Frank said he won’t make assumptions that Kawhi is staying, but that the Clippers are “super excited” about the partnership between the two players. And before George signed, new head coach Ty Lue said he expects both George and Leonard to be Clippers for a long time.
“What I would love is to play with him for, you know, the rest of my contract,” George said Thursday. “He’s one of the guys that I’ve talked to and kind of wanted to inform. … It’s not putting a gun to Kawhi and, you know, tell him he’s got to do this or do that. Hopefully it’s a mutual bond, and, you know, we both enjoy playing with one another.”
There’s pressure that came built in when the Clippers decided to exchange their future for what, back then, looked like only two guaranteed years of Kawhi and George. The stars had the leverage, and now George has cashed in. If Kawhi does too, then the concern over the haul of picks they had to dole out to OKC dissipates. If Kawhi stays.
Some of that seems to hinge on George—not just his performance on the court, which was lackluster in the bubble, but also his position in the locker room. Despite plenty of reports during and after the season about the Clippers’ chemistry corrosion, due to the preferential treatment received by George and Kawhi, or how the locker room was annoyed with George, the Clippers seem to be willing to either ignore those issues or believe they can paper over them with talent and winning.
Just as the trade for George set the stage for a homecoming, this extension is being billed as a move motivated by loyalty, location, and family. But the reality is that a megastar’s whims can change like the wind, now more than ever, it seems. George, more than most, seems wed to the idea of being in Los Angeles, an idea he’s seemingly been chasing since he was a Pacer. But there were some initial questions after the Clippers’ bubble collapse about how committed the Clippers and Kawhi were to George. However, when reports of trades that involved George and Harden surfaced, they were quickly shot down.
For now, all that speculation has been put to rest. The Clippers want George to stay and they want Kawhi to do so too. This was the plan all along when Ballmer and Co. went big and all in. There’s no backing down now, no hesitating or changing course despite 3-1 series collapses or locker room issues; there’s only tweaking the edges, swapping out a coach or a handful of rotation players, and adding Serge Ibaka while losing Montrezl Harrell. The Clippers believe the foundation is set, for better or for worse.
For now. The Clippers didn’t hesitate when they saw an opportunity to offload Griffin; it was the Clippers’ decision not to make him a Clipper for life. Will the franchise hesitate to move George if, over the next few years, they see a better future without him? History says no. As one rival general manager pointed out, the deal makes George more tradable in some way because he’s a player who has shown he can be a star and is now under contract, but given the size and length of his contract, the only way that happens is if George returns to playing at an elite level. George, for one, seems to believe that will be the case next season:
Paul George has a message for his haters;— Hoop Central (@TheHoopCentral) December 10, 2020
"I'm back with my trainer that I had my MVP season...I'm locked in. As locked in as you can be...I'm on motherf**ker's asses."
(h/t @Farbod_E, via “All The Smoke) pic.twitter.com/9sByzE5wt9
During his press conference on Thursday, George kept repeating the word “legacy” and emphasized that he wanted to be remembered for what he did as a Clipper. It underlined two things: one, that George doesn’t want to go anywhere else and, two, that he knows the stakes.
“I owe them a trophy,” he said. “That’s what I owe this organization. This is a window we’re trying to capture.”