By Devin Zanskas
Following an uninspiring track record, the Clippers found success over the past decade upon the arrival of their current owner, Steve Ballmer. Despite the Lob City Clippers not living up to their hype, the summer of 2019 will be a landmark offseason for a while, as that’s when the Clippers acquired Kawhi Leonard and Paul George. After another 3-1 series collapse in the Bubble, they responded the next season by making the 2021 Western Conference finals, their first conference finals trip in franchise history. Unfortunately, Kawhi tore his ACL in the conference semifinals, and that caused him to miss all of the next year. He would go on to return for 2023, but then he tore his meniscus in the first round. In addition to Kawhi, it’s hurt the Clippers tremendously that George has been unavailable for large stretches at a time throughout his Clippers tenure. He’s played in only 87 of the 164 regular season games throughout the past two years. George also missed last season’s play-in tournament, when they were upset by the New Orleans Pelicans, and the first round this year. Ty Lue spoke about the team’s sense of urgency this regular season, “I told Kawhi and PG, let’s be serious about it because it matters. Not fighting in the last ten games, so then you can get your rest.”
The new player participation policy, which allows only one All-Star or All-NBA player from the past three years to rest at once, will provide a stronger regular season showing from the Clippers’ stars. Acquiring Russell Westbrook on the buyout market also proved to be a steal for the Clippers as he scored at least 28 points in three of the five games in their first round series. A theory that supported the Lakers’ Westbrook experiment was that he could be a version of his 2021 self, when he averaged a triple double, and take some weight off of their stars’ shoulders. That didn’t produce great results, but LeBron and Davis averaged 34.8% and 28.1% from beyond the arc over the past four years, respectively, while Kawhi and George each averaged at least 39%. Therefore, the increased spacing on the Clippers lets Westbrook unleash the pressure that he puts on the rim and showcase his stellar passing vision, even if they’re not at the same level as 2017. Thanks to Ballmer’s spending power, they also have a lot of depth to help raise the floor of the Clippers when their stars miss time.
Before the KJ Martin and Kobe Brown acquisitions, the Clippers were already a deep squad, but they also maintained everyone on their roster from last year besides Jason Preston and two-way players. If the ten players with the most starts from last season make up the ten-man rotation, but KJ Martin replaces Amir Coffey, then Coffey, Hyland, and Covington could struggle to get off of the bench. That leaves Brown, the 30th overall pick in 2023 draft, fighting to be the 13th man in the lineup, and often spending time with the Ontario Clippers. Besides having more capable rotation players than the average team, the Clippers have really high-level bench depth as well, as Norman Powell finished fourth in the Sixth Man of the Year voting. Despite the fact that he’s already 26, Terance Mann may also have the best chance to change the way that fans think of him. Although, he did famously score 39 points to send them to the 2021 conference finals. In addition to Mann, Martin is a tantalizing role player for many contenders, including the Suns and Warriors, who were interested in him before he was traded to the Clippers, per The Athletic. With their superstars, they have enough contributors to win a ring when they’re healthy, but adding someone close to the level of Kawhi and PG could still give them a chance if injuries arise.
On June 29th, The Athletic’s Shams Charania reported that the 76ers’ guard, James Harden, surprisingly opted into his $35.6 million player option, and the two parties would find a new suitor via trade. The first destinations brought up by ESPN’s Adrian Wojnarowski were the Clippers and the Knicks, and Harden may be more inclined to join fellow LA natives in Leonard, George, and Westbrook. Bleacher Report’s Dan Favale created multiple trades for Harden, one of which was a return of Terance Mann, Nicholas Batum, and Robert Covington, which may not be too intriguing for 76er fans. Another All-Star guard that wasn’t long for their team was Jrue Holiday, who was shipped from the Bucks to the Trail Blazers in exchange for a member of the 75th Anniversary Team, Damian Lillard. It only took four days for the Celtics to ante up and take Holiday off of the board from the rest of the contenders that were making calls to the Trail Blazers. It helped that Holiday doesn’t have as many individual accolades as Harden, so the Blazers may not have expected a colossal return like the 76ers might for a perennial All-Star talent. LA is able to move unprotected first round picks in 2028 and 2030, and those first rounders could be combined with Mann and quality rotation players to get a Harden deal across the finish line. Before the Clippers send out too much future value though, they might want to determine how long their partnerships with their two superstars will last.
With less than two weeks remaining before the start of the regular season, Kawhi and PG could still be free agents next offseason, as both of them have $48.8 million player options for 2024. Per the LA Times, the two superstars have until the end of June to sign extensions, should the Clippers make an offer that’s satisfactory to them. According to ESPN’s Ohm Youngmisuk, the Clippers’ President of Basketball Operations, Lawrence Frank, shared that they’ve maintained a dialogue with Kawhi and PG about their contract extensions. Both sides have strong cases to either receive full maximum deals, or provide new contracts with slight discounts to enhance the safety net around Kawhi and PG. Four years ago, Kawhi won the Finals MVP award in his lone season with the Raptors to stop one of the best teams ever from winning three championships in a row. That same season, PG was third in MVP voting, so the idea of him being considered a potential second option probably sounded unfair to many analysts. Some people might disagree with the notion that “availability is the best ability”, but the Clippers’ front office could use that during negotiations to protect them from the new second apron. However next year, the Clippers are finally going to be playing in their own arena, the Intuit Dome, and that may keep pressure on the organization to hang onto Kawhi and PG, regardless of the cost. If that’s the direction that the Clippers decide to take, then they should lean all in, and explore possible roster upgrades to compete with the Nuggets, Lakers, Suns, and Warriors.