After one of the most frustrating and disappointing seasons in recent Clipper memory, LAC’s front office will look at this off-season as yet another crucial opportunity to turn the undeniable talent that the team has under contract into a team that is capable of winning the NBA Championship. Naturally, there’s nothing that Clippers President of Basketball Operations Lawrence Frank can do this summer that will guarantee that Paul George and Kawhi Leonard will be healthy in the 2024 NBA Playoffs–Leonard has missed the Clippers’ last 3 eliminations while George has missed the last 2; their only healthy finale together was the infamous 2nd round meltdown against the Denver Nuggets in the 2020 NBA bubble under previous head coach Doc Rivers. But when asked about potentially giving Paul George and Kawhi Leonard contract extensions after the team was eliminated in the first round of the 2023 NBA Playoffs, Frank certainly seemed open-minded.
The nature of the Clippers’ failed 2022-23 season means it’s fair to put everything on the table, including moving on from one or both of their superstars. At the same time, it feels safe to say that this Clippers brain trust isn’t going to lean into a full tear-down-and-rebuild project. The Clippers won’t have their own first-round pick until 2027, meaning that they won’t get elite prospects even if they’re bad in the next 3 years, and they’re highly motivated to be winning games and drawing crowds in the Intuit Dome, their new arena opening in fall of 2024. Inevitably, just as moving on from the 213 era could be on the table this summer, the Clippers will also assuredly consider contract extensions for Paul George and Kawhi Leonard to keep their top talent in-house and stay competitive for as long as they are still making payments on the trade that brought George to LA.
Can the Clippers give contract extensions to Paul George and Kawhi Leonard?
Yes. Contracts that are 3-4 years in length can be extended on the 2nd anniversary of signing, while contracts that are 5-6 years in length can be extended on the 3rd anniversary of signing. Leonard signed a 4-year contract to stay with the Clippers in July 2021, meaning that the Clippers could add additional years to his deal during this summer’s free agency period. George’s last deal with LAC was actually itself an extension–a December 2020 agreement that left him with 5 years remaining on his contract. While we’re still half a year short of the 3-year anniversary, the NBA has recognized the way that COVID-19 schedule adjustments to the last few seasons have impacted league business typically done according to a 365-day calendar. George signed his extension after the opening of the free agency period and before the start of the regular season, so I expect the league to consider his contract’s “anniversary” based on where it falls on the league calendar–probably making him extension-eligible again later than Kawhi but not in any meaningful way (late August or early September).
What would extensions for Paul George and Kawhi Leonard look like?
George and Leonard have essentially twin contracts, each due to make $46M next season with player options for $49M the following season. Options can either be declined or accepted as part of an extension, and extended contracts can run for a maximum of 5 total seasons (seasons remaining on the original deal + new seasons added). So, full-length extensions for George and Leonard could push their option dates back to the 2027 off-season, or, if their contracts are fully guaranteed with no options, keep them on the books through the end of the 2027-28 season. Of course, there’s no rule that the contracts have go to for the maximum length; it would certainly make sense for the Clippers to angle to not want to commit major money to George and Leonard for ’27-’28 when the duo will be 38 and 36, respectively, during the 2028 NBA Finals. But from a player’s perspective, of course they want to lock in as much guaranteed money as possible before aging, and in these situations we often see teams choose a potential problem in 5 years (owing someone who has declined a bunch of money) over a real problem right now (not re-signing an All-Star).
Figuring out the exact cost of these extensions isn’t an exact science. Again, of course, the Clippers don’t have to give these guys the most money possible, but haggling with players of this caliber is uncommon, so for our purposes it probably makes the most sense to look at what a maximum deal looks like and then consider if the Clippers need to play hardball or not. These extensions can start at the league maximum salary, whether that’s in 2024 (with the 24-25 player options declined and 4 additional years added) or 2025 (with the options picked up and 3 additional years added). But that’s 35% of the salary cap (or 105% of the previous year’s salary, whichever is greater), and it’s unclear where that cap will land in the next few years, as the newest CBA negotiations seem to have seen the Player’s Association concede roster flexibility tools in exchange for increasing the total pot of money (half of Basketball-Related-Income, or BRI) available to the players. New cap smoothing rules will limit the salary cap increases to 10%, and I think we’ll hit that 10% consistently for the next few years. The salary cap is at $123.7M for the currently ending season, meaning we can estimate $136M for 2023-24, $149.6M for 24-25, and as high as $164.6M for 25-26 (again, it could be less, but with the expanded BRI definition and a new TV rights deal incoming, I doubt it).
Why does that matter? Well, if the cap is $149.6M in the 2024 off-season, Paul and Kawhi’s max would be $52.36M, more than the value of their options, meaning it would make sense for them to opt out and tack on 4 more years. Here’s what that could look like:
Of course, there’s still a lot to work out with this collective bargaining agreement–especially if the nature of cap smoothing, expanded BRI, and a new media deal locks in 10% cap increases for the foreseeable future and bird rights contracts remain capped at 8% annual raises, we could see more and more max contract players opting for short-term deals if their raises aren’t going to keep up with salary cap inflation. The Clippers could always negotiate for fewer years or smaller salaries, or the salary cap increases could be less than I estimated. But still, you get the idea: the Clippers are poised to potentially double down on the 213 era to the tune of well over $500 million dollars this summer after four years together yielded just one conference finals appearance three years ago.
Should the Clippers give Paul George and Kawhi Leonard extensions?
This, of course, is the elephant in the room. As George, who just turned 33, and Leonard, who will turn 32 at the end of June, continue to age, how do we project out their declines after already being unable to get over the hump in their 4 years together so far? How do we project out their health after their infamous lack of availability has overshadowed this entire era of Clippers basketball? Will the Clippers be able to build a team good enough to win a championship around these two with the new restrictions on roster flexibility for teams with high payrolls? Are these two good enough to win a title regardless of who you put around them? Is there realistically a path forward without them that makes contention more likely?
As far as Leonard is concerned, I actually think this is an easy question. He’s 14 months younger than George and significantly better. He’s proven that he can be the best player on a title team with 2 NBA Finals MVP awards in 2014 and 2019, and he just rattled off one of the best 3-month stretches of his regular season career after working his way back from ACL reconstruction surgery in the summer of 2021. It’s possible that injuries hold Kawhi back in his 30s and keep the Clippers from reaching the mountaintop with him. But there are only a select few players who seem realistically likely to be capable of being the best player on a championship squad in the next 3-5 years, and not only is Kawhi one of them, but the Clippers have no avenue with which to acquire one of the others. If you want to be the process Sixers, tear things down, win 20 games for the next few years, and hope to strike gold in the draft, you had better go root for a different team–the Clippers don’t have their own picks, and any picks they get from a team they trade Kawhi to won’t be in the top 5. Moving on from Kawhi closes the door on any hope of a Clipper title for the next 5 years. Keeping him won’t guarantee one, but it does keep the door open.
It’s Paul George who causes me to waver more. While he still had an All-Star 2022-23 campaign, George has shown more worrying signs of slowing down, and also seems pretty openly not up for the challenge demanded of him as the 2nd best player on a title team. When Doc Rivers left, he complained that he didn’t have the ball in his hands enough under Rivers. The Clippers made the Western Conference Finals the next year with George shouldering the primary offensive creation load, but this year, he rejected those duties, repeatedly advocating behind the scenes and publically for the Clippers to acquire veteran point guards to take the ball out of his hands. He said on his podcast that bringing the ball up against Jrue Holiday was too hard (it didn’t seem to bother Jimmy Butler) and he wanted to be filling a lane instead. He praised Russell Westbrook, a mid-season buyout addition, for being the Clippers’ leader–a statement that is both undeniably true as it is embarrassing for George, who has been the highest-paid player on the team for 4 years and will be again next year.
Overall, I have concern about George’s evolving fit next to Kawhi Leonard as both players, already not natural lead playmakers, age and look to teammates to shoulder more of the nightly regular season offensive creation. In the 2021 regular season, George and Leonard played 1,027 minutes together, with the Clippers winning those minutes by 17.8 points per 100 possessions. This season, in 994 minutes together, the Clippers won by just 8.2 points per 100 possessions. I wish I could say I think that the entirety of the difference could be attributed to the declining veteran role players on the supporting cast.
But if you aren’t going to extend George, you have to trade him–the last thing the Clippers can afford to happen is to spend next season on a partnership they don’t believe in long-term anyway and then find themselves stuck between paying him next summer or losing him for nothing. If giving George a $200M+ extension is terrifying, not extending or trading him is foolish; the odds of building a winner without him or a good trade return for him are essentially 0. What can the Clippers realistically get for George? Well, we’ll have a lot more time to track rumors and brainstorm as the off-season goes on, but obviously any proposal has to be weighed in terms of fit around Leonard, upside for a medium-term window (assuming Kawhi extends), and whether it makes it more likely for the Clippers to win a title in the Kawhi window. Contratry to some pessimistic Clippers fans, I don’t think it’s unrealistic to think that such a deal could emerge–All-Star level wings are still the most coveted archetype in the NBA, and George is still really good. The Clippers would presumably search for a lead guard at the center of any return, and there are a lot more high-quality 6’2″ starters than 6’8″ ones around the league.