The disaster scenario would be entirely on-brand for the Clippers, Kawhi Leonard abandoning them and leaving behind a broken-down version Paul George on a maximum-level contract. The jokes would write themselves, as they have for the majority of the Clippers’ 50-year existence.
The Clippers signed George to a four-year extension on Thursday, with president of basketball operations Lawrence Frank describing the deal as “a really significant moment for the franchise.” Except George’s contract is but a precursor to what could truly be a transformative deal in another eight months or so: Leonard’s.
Leonard’s anticipated free agency after the upcoming season will serve as the ultimate referendum on the franchise.
Are they still the same Clippers of old? Or did the arrivals of Leonard and George last offseason really mark the start of a new era?
Whatever Leonard has or hasn’t told them, George’s deal represents a gargantuan leap of faith, as there’s nothing the Clippers can do at this point to safeguard against the Leonard’s possible departure.
George was entering the third year of a deal he originally signed with the Oklahoma City Thunder, which made him eligible for an extension. Leonard is starting the second year of his contract with the Clippers, which makes him ineligible.
In other words, they couldn’t extract any guarantees from Leonard before extending George’s deal. But if they didn’t offer George a new deal, they were in danger of sending the wrong message to Leonard, who was the driving force behind his acquisition.
There’s plenty of downside to George’s contract, as it only makes sense for the Clippers if they manage to re-sign Leonard. On his own, George isn’t a maximum-contract player.
George is 30 with a history of major injuries.
When Leonard and George were on the court together last season, the Clippers were 13 points per 100 possessions better than their opponents, according to the Elias Sports Bureau. When Leonard played without George, that figure was 11.4 points. The number dropped to 0.4 points when George played without Leonard.
George has shot 25% or worse in nine postseason games, the third-most of any player in the shot-clock era.
In a loss to the Denver Nuggets in Game 7 of the Western Conference semifinals, George committed five turnovers while making only four baskets. He was 0-for-6 shooting in the fourth quarter.
Leonard has to be a part of the package. The Clippers essentially wagered $226 million they can convince him to be. They are betting on new coach Tyronn Lue. And they are betting on George, whom Frank called “a partner.”
George was the key to the Clippers winning the free-agent sweepstakes for Leonard last year. He could also be the key to retaining him next year.
As widely as George is mocked for making regrettable statements, he knows the right things to say when put on the spot.
Asked on a video conference call what he owed the Clippers for their investment in him, he replied, “I owe ‘em a championship.”
And while he said he wouldn’t put “a gun to Kawhi,” George later acknowledged he has a responsibility to make sure Leonard remains a Clipper.
“The responsibility is to make him feel like the way I felt when I came into my extension,” George said. “I knew where I wanted to be. I knew who I wanted to play with. That’s my responsibility to go into the season.
“Again, it’s Kawhi’s decision. I’m a grown man. If he decides to go elsewhere, that’s a decision that I’ll be happy for him. But my hoping and my responsibility, what I would love, is to play with him for the rest of my contract or the rest of his contract. I guess I have to work on that when it comes to his time.”
Earlier in the day, Showtime released the episode of the “All the Smoke” podcast on which George appeared.
On the podcast, George said it was Leonard who informed him last year that a trade to the Clippers from the Thunder was possible. Leonard was a free agent and had told the Clippers he would sign with them if they could acquire George.
At one point, George said, “me and (Leonard) was on the clock, on the hourly clock, like, ‘Yo, what they saying on that side? They saying this on my side.’ So we were just hip to hip with what was going on. Everybody my side, his side, working together to where, ultimately, man, we was able to pull it off.”
With the two players working in concert, it’s almost certainly no accident that Leonard structured his contract the way he did, in which he wouldn’t have to decide about his long-term future until after they showed him how they treated George.
The question now is whether Leonard still feels about George the way he did a year ago. Or, if he doesn’t, whether George can make him feel like that again.
This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.