The first domino of what could be a major offseason renovation for the LA Clippers fell on Saturday, when Paul George opted out of the final year of his contract to become an unrestricted free agent. George’s future is currently uncertain: he is reportedly seeking a full, four-year maximum-salary contract (worth either 4 years and $212 million from another team, or 4 years and $221 million from the Clippers with higher raises due to bird rights) that the Clippers have been unwilling to offer in talks up to this point, citing concerns about the league’s new harsh second apron penalties.

At this point, here’s my read on the situation: the Clippers’ rumored offer, worth about $150 million over 3 years, would accomplish two goals for the team. First, by having George’s salary flat at 50M instead of increasing, the team will gain wiggle room against the second apron as that threshold rises in the coming years. This will help the team retain and expand the supporting cast around the Clippers’ stars in the next two off-seasons as they think about a new three-year window with Kawhi Leonard’s extension. That brings us to the second goal: clean books at the end of that window. Sure, maybe things go great in the next few years, maybe the Clippers are successful and the guys age well and they decide that 2027, the end of Leonard’s new deal, doesn’t have to be the end of the road. But in all likelihood, it will be. When Kawhi’s contract expires in 2027, he will be 36. George will be 37. Harden will be about to turn 38. They aren’t going to add another player with all-star potential in that three-year window who can carry the torch. It will be time for a reset.

It’s pretty clear, to me at least, that the first piece of that is essential and the second is something the team can compromise on. There is no point giving George a full max contract with escalating raises that are going to make it difficult to be competitive around Harden, George, and Leonard for the next three seasons. But while owing 38-year-old Paul George a bunch of money in the 2027-28 season would hurt, that’s likely to be a gap year for the team anyway. Maybe Lawrence Frank has grand designs on the 2027 free agent class, but that type of wishcasting 36 months in advance shouldn’t come at the expense of All-Star talent today. For me, while a full 4-year max isn’t palatable, something like 4 years, $180M is a palatable compromise from the team’s perspective, keeping the annual salary slightly lower to build a team around three aging stars and accepting that 2028 will be ugly. It’s up to George, should a full max contract offer come from Philadelphia or Orlando, to decide if that $30M hit is worth all that he loves about being a Clipper–Los Angeles, warm climate, being close to family, and most importantly, being far away from Philadelphia sports fans.

The last consideration to mention here is the no-trade clause, which George is eligible for. No other team can grant this to Paul, so it isn’t something the Clippers have to worry about competing with when he meets with the Sixers and Magic. I am pretty strongly anti-NTC except for obvious “lifer” cases and/or situations where veterans are taking substantial paycuts to aid their franchise in team-building; it makes sense they want to control staying a part of that team. I’d be willing to talk NTC for George, but he’d have to truly help the team out on the price tag so they could work around him, something like 3/$120M. Since that’s not on the table, NTC shouldn’t be either.

I honestly don’t know if George is coming back or not. I don’t know if the offers from Eastern Conference teams he’s using as leverage are real or not, I don’t know if he’s really serious about leaving his family in Southern California, and I don’t know if the Clippers will ultimately cave and adjust their offer to keep him. Here’s what I do know: free agency is starting Sunday at 6pm Eastern Time, with or without the Clippers and George. Even if he stays, but especially if he leaves, the Clippers are going to have work to do, and they’re going to need to be ready to pull the trigger on subsequent moves once his future is decided. Here’s what that looks like, first if he returns and then if he does not.

What’s next if George stays?

The short of it is that there isn’t much that the Clippers can do with George back. In both scenarios, we’re going to assume that James Harden also re-signs with the Clippers, as there’s been very little noise to suggest otherwise. Let’s put him at a team-friendly 3 years and $100M, though realistically I think that number could push higher. Let’s also say that regardless of what George’s full deal looks like, he’s starting at $50M for next season. The result is a team that is $13.4M over the second apron 11 players. That number is going to get a little worse when the Clippers round out the roster, even taking into account some savings for Cam Christie compared to a veteran’s minimum. Even if the Clippers dumped the contracts of PJ Tucker ($11.5M) and Russell Westbrook ($4M) for nothing, which they don’t have the assets to do via trade, they’d still have to go over the second apron to fill out the roster with a bunch of minimum salaries (remember, being over the second apron next year is fine, as long as the team is built in such a way where they can be under going forward).

Being over the second apron means that the team’s only free agency tool is the minimum salary, and trade flexibility is extremely limited. Second apron teams don’t get normal trade math on their side, meaning that anyone the Clippers trade for must make the same or less than the player LAC sends out, to the dollar. Second apron teams also cannot aggregate salaries in a trade, meaning that the Clippers can’t combine two smaller contracts to return one larger one. That John Collins fantasy? Gone. He makes $26.5M, and no Clipper outside of the big 3 makes more than Norm Powell’s $19.2M. Norm’s contract could return a range of PF options, though all feel to me either unattainable with the Clippers’ limited assets or unappealing for the Clippers’ needs: Harrison Barnes, Bojan Bogdanovic, Jonathan Isaac, Rui Hachimura, Davis Bertans, and a few others. It’s hard for me to fully sell myself on teams wanting Powell’s expensive contract, with $20M on the books for 2025-26, back, let alone giving the Clippers a quality player as well. The Clipper with trade value is Terance Mann, but his $11.4M salary can’t bring back many qualified PF candidates, and I wouldn’t call him expendable to this group. Also, as a second apron team, the Clippers’ 2031 first round pick will be “frozen” and cannot be included in trades–which is probably for the team’s own good.

The result of all that is that a trade for a significant contributor is very unlikely this summer, in my opinion. The Clippers will be left looking to make moves around the edges to retool their depth, which could mean trading smaller contracts (Russell Westbrook and/or Bones Hyland seem like candidates here as LAC figures out the backup point guard position going forward–I would be shocked if the team didn’t move at least one of those guys) and pursuing minimum-salary free agents. Technically, the Clippers can go higher than the minimum to bring back their own free agents: Brandon Boston Jr., Mason Plumlee, and Daniel Theis. But then again… why would you? Ultimately, I would expect that if George returns, the Clippers’ 9-man rotation next season looks largely similar to last seasons: same starting 5, with Powell and Coffey as the wings off the bench. The backup point guard could be Westbrook again, or if the team moves on, it could be Hyland or a new minimum-salary acquisition (buyout Chris Paul anyone?). The backup big could be Plumlee, or Theis, or a new minimum-salary acquisition. Beyond that 9-man rotation, PJ Tucker, Kobe Brown, and Cam Christie would be rostered as depth, leaving 3 open roster spots (though the Clippers would likely only use 2, leaving one open for luxury tax savings and mid-season transactions). Third C, third PG, another body on the wing–whatever floats your boat.

What’s next if George leaves?

So, this is the more complicated answer, because there are a lot more variables at play here. Let’s keep it consistent with 3/100 for Harden. In this scenario, the Clippers now find themselves $25.8M under the first luxury tax apron for 10 players (again, a more expensive Harden contract could easily eat another $10M of that margin). Right off the bat, the Clippers have the ability to add free agents above the minimum salary: they can use the full non-taxpayer mid-level exception (which starts at $12.8M and can run up to 4 years, $55M) and bi-annual exception (which starts at $4.7M and can run up to 2 years, $9.6M). However, both of those tools hard cap the team at the first apron, meaning that everything has got to get done in that margin. If Harden signs 3/100 and the Clippers don’t make a major trade, $25.8M is plenty. Add an MLE signing and a BAE signing and you’re at $8.3M in margin left with 12 players on the books. Throw Christie on a rookie min and add one more min guy and you’ve got your 14-man roster with about $5M to spare.

Even if the Clippers need more margin, they can make it. Using assets to dump Tucker and/or Westbrook’s deals would still be inadvisable given their situation, but the league’s stretch provision (which allows the cap hit of waived players to be spread across multiple years) is an option. Stretching Tucker would save $7.7M against the cap this year, that would be deferred in the form of $3.8M dead money cap hits each of the next two seasons. Stretching Westbrook’s smaller salary would save $2.7M this year. The cap hits in subsequent years are regrettable, but there are worse ways to free up an extra $10M if the Clippers need it. If the Clippers aren’t planning on committing to Bones Hyland for a full-time rotation role, it also probably makes sense to move his $4.2M salary instead of paying an above-minimum premium.

Presumably, the Clippers would keep their 4 returning starters in the lineup and look for more size in the starting lineup using the mid-level exception. Nobody is going to be a like-for-like Paul George “replacement,” so it’s better to think about the team that they’re going to be going forward, and adding youth and athleticism and size and defense is going to need to be a part of that. Plus, I think everyone is ready for a year of Kawhi Leonard not having to defend power forwards full-time. I’m not going to get into the pros and cons of different forward candidates here, but I’ll list some: Obi Toppin (restricted free agent–for what it’s worth, a Pacers writer I reached out to said they’d match a full MLE offer), Naji Marshall, Derrick Jones Jr., and Kelly Oubre make up something of a short list. Patrick Williams just got 5 years and $90M to stay in Chicago, if you want to know what the market looks like for forwards. If the Clippers were to trade for a PF, and that trade involved Terance Mann, I’d go all-out on De’Anthony Melton as the replacement at shooting guard. There are a couple of big names that warrant mention here as well: Klay Thompson and DeMar DeRozan, who both seem just a little too good to be true, but still worth mentioning 12 hours before free agency begins. In either case, the talent is considerable but the fit is questionable (DeRozan’s talent even more considerable and his fit even more questionable than Thompson’s), and work would need to be done to make the roster fit around them.

The bi-annual exception isn’t as substantial of a tool, but it’s still something. Because the minimum for 10-year veterans doesn’t lag too far behind the BAE, those dollars are a little more meaningful for younger players. This could be a chance for an upside play (thinking Precious Achiuwa, unrestricted after not getting a qualifying offer from the Knicks; Saddiq Bey, worth way more than this but going to miss most of next season with a knee injury; Jalen Smith, intriguiging skillset/production but didn’t stick in Indiana’s rotation) or just a way to have a slightly stronger offer for a priority minimum guy that has multiple playoff teams chasing him (think Andre Drummond, who is probably this summer’s top veteran backup C option).

Back to DeRozan for a moment, the post-George, non-second apron Clippers get back a lot of trade flexibility. First of all, they can acquire signed-and-traded players (this also triggers the first apron hard cap, which I’m assuming is a reality they’ll embrace dealing with because of the tools it makes available to them), including potentially DeRozan at a higher salary. Second, they get normal flexibility in trade math, and are allowed to aggregate salaries. They’d also be allowed to trade their 2031 first round pick. The John Collins fantasy is back! That means that the first step for the Clippers, once they find out that George is leaving, is to work through any trade scenarios for medium-sized targets, and once that is settled, immediately get to work on identifying roster needs and utilizing their exception money to make it happen. Even though a large number of last year’s rotation players could still be in next year’s rotation, there’s guaranteed to be at least 1-3 new faces playing regular minutes, and there is a lot more flexibility for trades to shake up the supporting cast.

Lucas Hann

Lucas Hann

Lucas has covered the Clippers since 2011, and has been credentialed by the team since 2014. He co-founded 213Hoops with Robert Flom in January 2020.  He is a graduate of Saugus High School in Santa Clarita, CA and St. John's University in Queens, NY.  He earned his MA in Communication and Rhetorical Studies from Syracuse University.

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