The Los Angeles Clippers have reached a deal to extend Paul George’s contract through the 2025 NBA season, the team announced Thursday. George, who came to the Clippers via trade in July 2019, is a six-time All-Star and five-time All-NBA player who finished 3rd in MVP voting in 2018-19 (while he had a strong 2019-20, he missed too many games due to shoulder surgery to be considered for league-wide honors).
On his previous deal, originally signed with the Oklahoma City Thunder, George was under contract for the upcoming season with a player option for 2021-22. This extension, which is limited by league rules to cover 5 total seasons, will guarantee his presence on the team for that 2022 season and keep him a Clipper through 2024-25, pending unannounced contract details (there have been no reports of a player option that I’ve seen).
In terms of raw salary, reports have indicated that George could end up making as much as $226M over the next 5 years with these new extension figures–but the reality is that his actual salary will end up being much lower. By virtue of his 10 years of NBA experience, he is eligible for a starting maximum salary that is the equivalent of 35% of the salary cap, with 8% annual raises. My guess is that this deal includes George officially opting out of his pre-existing $37.8M deal for 2021-22, with four “new” years added on to the upcoming season. That means that the starting salary for his extension will be 35% of next year’s salary cap, with then 8% raises following.
After this year’s cap was held flat to account for revenue shortfalls due to COVID, the NBA promised players that the cap would increase between 3% and 10% next year. Once next year’s cap is set, we’ll know what 35% of it is and George’s subsequent salaries will be determined by 8% annual raises. Here’s what George’s total contract status looks like at each end of that range:
|Cap Raise Next Year||George’s 20-21 Salary||21-22||22-23||23-24||24-25||Total|
There’s little doubt that George is worth a maximum salary deal, as one of the league’s top players. He finished 3rd in MVP voting two years ago and posted incredibly similar per-minute and per-possession stats last season while playing fewer games and minutes as he recovered from shoulder surgery. Some outlier struggles in the NBA’s Orlando bubble aside, he is a destructive force on both ends of the floor and shot a career-best 41.2% from three last season on an astonishing 12.7 attempts per 100 possessions. The only other players in the league last season who met that level of efficiency and volume (40%+ and 12+ per 100) were specialists Duncan Robinson and Davis Bertans. George brings a diverse offensive game around that shooting as well as all-NBA level defense, making him a bona fide superstar.
Still, the salary amounts in the later years of this deal are staggering, especially as George ages into his thirties. He’ll turn 31 late this season, and as the league calendar reverts to normal post-COVID his playoff birthday will see him turn 35 during the closing months of this extension. To be clear, 35 ain’t 38, but it’s a far cry from 32 also. It should be reasonable to expect that he’ll be playing at a lower level at the end of this contract, when his salary will approach or exceed 50 million dollars, than he is now. We’ve seen how tricky these 35% maximum deals can get late in players’ careers–even as Chris Paul has maintained on-court value, trade options have been limited by his massive salary, and for players like Russell Westbrook and John Wall who have started severe declines, the multiple remaining seasons reaching into the high $40Ms have kept even star-desperate teams like the New York Knicks from being willing to take on their deals, forget about provide any serious return value.
It would be dishonest to dismiss the notion that there’s risk attached to signing a contract this huge, but it’s equally dishonest to suggest that it shouldn’t have been done. Paul George is absolutely a maximum-salary player, and if the Clippers didn’t give it to him now, they would have either given it to him next off-season or seen one of any number of potential suitors gladly line up to do so. You don’t trade a half-decade of draft picks for one of the league’s premier players just to balk at paying him a year later; this was part of the deal from the jump. Giving someone a 5-year contract worth over $200M is certainly a gamble, and there’s a chance it could end poorly–but there’s also a chance it could end well, and passing on the opportunity to have superstars on your team in the NBA also means passing on that chance of a happy ending. It’s a risk worth taking every time.
I think the Clippers actually come out of these extension negotiations as winners, by virtue of an extension getting done at all. George could have easily played out this season on his current contract, opted out next summer, and signed a new, 5-year max contract in free agency that would also include the 2025-26 season. Look at how that would impact his earnings:
|Next Year’s Cap Raise||George’s 25-26 Salary||Total Pay (6 years; 2020-2026)|
If the goal is to keep a superstar on the roster during his prime while mitigating the long-term downside of bloated salaries as he ages, then signing the extension now and keeping that last year cleared off the books is a major win for the team. Even if things go bad, they will be several orders of magnitude less bad by nature of not having an additional year worth over $50M either pushing away potential trade partners or consuming LAC’s cap sheet. And if things go well over the next five years, George’s 2025 free agency will be the least of the Clippers’ concerns.
As far as George’s running mate Kawhi Leonard is concerned, there’s nothing to read into Paul signing this new deal while Kawhi is still set to enter free agency next summer. As I mentioned above, George is extending a contract originally signed with the Oklahoma City Thunder. Technically, he has already been under contract for two seasons on his pre-existing 3+1 deal, making him extension eligible. Leonard, who has only been under contract for one season after signing a new deal with the Clippers as a free agent next summer, is not extension eligible to begin with. Instead, Leonard, who is a year younger than George, will likely decline his player option and enter free agency next summer, where he’ll be eligible to sign a new deal with the Clippers. Kawhi will be eligible for the 35% maximum as well, but only a 4-year contract with 8% raises due to having only spent two years with the Clippers. He will have to choose between that 4-year contract or signing another 1+1 deal to hit free agency again in 2022, when he will be eligible for the 5-year max.
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