Can the Clippers afford to give Kawhi Leonard and Paul George two more max contracts?

Clippers forward Kawhi Leonard, speaking with coach Tyronn Lue during a game in April, is entering his fifth season after suffering a meniscus injury this spring. (Luis Sinco/Los Angeles Times)

After NBA draft completed at the end of June, The clippers‘ top basketball executives arrived in a hotel conference room and described how they envisioned their new draft to account for the team’s future.

By center of that futurereiterated Lawrence Frank, the president of basketball operations, stars remained Kawhi Leonard and Paul George.

“We’re trying to maximize those two and figure out how we can get better,” Frank said.

The earliest indications of how far the Clippers are willing to commit to either player could come in the coming days or weeks. Leonard and the team can begin discussing a contract extension starting Wednesday. George will be eligible for his own extension in September. The maximum either can sign is four years and $220 million.

What other teams are watching is whether a Clippers franchise that has gone out of its way to accommodate its superstars since their arrival in 2019 is still willing to invest the full amount in either of them given their injury history , or whether the Clippers will seek shorter offers instead.

“We’re talking a little bit about what the plan is, but we really can’t get into those details until the appropriate date,” Frank said after the draft. “And you know, we just want to have the dialogue and just have very, very honest and open conversations and see if there’s something that makes sense for all sides.”

Read more: The Clippers have summer vision for Jason Preston, whose surgery sharpened his shooting eye

When Leonard and George become eligible for extensions, each will have until June 30 of next year to sign a four-year extension, contingent on declining their player option for the 2024-25 season. Or both players have until Oct. 23 to sign a three-year extension that would build on their options for 2024-25, according to a person with knowledge of extension timetables.

Since the All-NBA wings arrived, both have produced All-Star seasons while pushing the franchise to its first conference finals two years ago. Yet injuries have made the highlights fleeting and created frustration at the lack of continuity on the pitch.

The Clippers are one of the NBA’s top-spending teams under Steve Ballmer’s ownership, and starting this season, the league’s most free-wheeling spenders will suffer penalties under the new collective bargaining agreement. Finding younger, cheaper talent will be even more important, as will making sure the players who earn the most provide significant production.

“When people talk about the Clippers, they’re at a crossroads,” said one agent, who spoke on condition of anonymity. “Do they lock them in or keep some flexibility with the new arena?”

The Clippers have been without one or both of their stars due to injuries for three consecutive postseasons. Out of a possible 308 regular-season games over the past four seasons, Leonard has appeared in 161 and George 189. Frank said this summer that he “100%” expects Leonard to be ready for October camp as well as George. Both suffered knee injuries in the spring.

A team executive, who asked for anonymity so as not to hurt relationships within the league, believed it would be “bad business” to commit the full four years and $220 million to both players because of their unpredictable availability.

Another Rivals executive, also seeking anonymity, said they would be wary of making a big extension offer, doubting how much value could be brought in if the team tries to break up the duo, citing “low trade value” for both players in the wake of their recent injuries.

Clippers guard Bones Hyland, left, high-fives forward Paul George during a game last season.
Paul George, who received a high-five from teammate Bones Hyland, had played 189 games over four seasons with the Clippers. (Darryl Webb/Associated Press)

As The Times reported in June, The New York Knicks were hesitant to potentially acquire George in part because they believed his representatives would ask for an extension. Other teams considering signing George this offseason were reportedly somewhat cooled by the belief that he would seek the maximum.

Leonard and George retain significant influence in the Clippers. Front office executives don’t always listen to players’ opinions on roster additions, but the Clippers have both approached potential moves.

“It’s important to share things as we see it, listen to what those guys see and try to work through it together and build a team that every year has a chance to compete for a championship,” Frank said.

But if their influence remains extensive, so does their injury history.

George injured an elbow ligament in 2021 when an opponent landed on it. He missed the final month of the spring when an opponent bumped his knee for a rebound, leading to an awkward landing. He has since resumed training on the field.

Leonard missed the entire 2021–22 season with a torn knee ligament suffered when an opponent fouled him while dribbling. Taken individually, the injuries can be read as a stroke of luck, but dents and strains have increased. The entire reshuffle of the Clippers’ roster before February’s trade deadline was moot when Leonard injured his meniscus in the first game of the playoffs against Phoenix while George watched from the sidelines nursing his own injury.

“Our two best players got hurt,” coach Tyronn Lue said in April. “Take Steph and Klay away from Golden State, take KD [Kevin Durant] and Booker. … Take the best two players away from any team in the league and see if they can win in the playoffs.”

George called the timing of their injuries “super frustrating” in April but expressed optimism the duo could make their championship ambitions a reality as they enter the fifth season of their partnership.

“Obviously we had big plans to win and do something special for Clipper Nation, but I’m a big believer that everything happens for a reason and you just pick up the pieces and try to make a hand out of what you’re dealt with.” said George. “So that’s just how I stay positive. I’m very optimistic that our time will come.”

And the time for potential expansions is coming soon.

Sign up for the LA Times SoCal high school sports newsletter for scores, stories and a behind-the-scenes look at what makes prep sports so popular.

This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.

Leave a Comment