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

new balance

Los Angeles, CA - April 05: Clippers forward Kawhi Leonard tal;ks with coach Tyronn Lue.

Clippers forward Kawhi Leonard, talking with coach Tyronn Lue during a game in April, enters his fifth season coming off a meniscus injury this spring. (Luis Sinco / Los Angeles Times)

After the NBA draft concluded in late June, the Clippers’ top basketball executives arrived in a hotel conference room and described the ways they envisioned their new draft picks factoring into the team’s future.

At the center of that future, reiterated Lawrence Frank, the president of basketball operations, remained stars Kawhi Leonard and Paul George.

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

The earliest indications for how far the Clippers are willing to commit to both players could arrive 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 both can sign for is four years and $220 million.

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

“We do talk kind of what the plan is, but we really can’t get into those specifics until the appropriate date,” Frank saidfollowing the draft. “And you know, we’ll just have the dialogue and just have very, very honest and open conversations and see if there’s something that makes sense for all sides.”

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Once 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, either player will have until Oct. 23 to sign a three-year extension that would build off their 2024-25 options, 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 appearance two years ago. Yet injuries have made the highlights fleeting and produced frustration about the lack of on-court continuity.

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

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

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

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An executive for one team, who asked for anonymity so as to not damage relationships within the league, felt that committing the full four years and $220 million to either player would be “bad business” because of their unpredictable availability.

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

Clippers guard Bones Hyland, left, high-fives forward Paul George during a game last season.
Paul George, receiving 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 about potentially acquiring George in part because they believed his representatives would ask for an extension. Other teams that considered acquiring George this offseason were said to be somewhat cooled by the belief he would seek the maximum.

Leonard and George retain sizable influence within the Clippers. Front-office executives do not always court players’ opinions on roster additions, but the Clippers have looped in both on potential moves.

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

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

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

Leonard missed the entire 2021-22 season because of a torn knee ligament suffered when an opponent going for a foul bumped him as he was dribbling. Taken separately, the injuries can read as flukes, but the bumps and strains have added up. For all of the re-arranging of the Clippers’ roster by February’s trade deadline, it was moot when Leonard injured his meniscus in the first game of the playoffs against Phoenix, while George watched from the sideline nursing his own injury.

“Our two best players got hurt,” coach Tyronn Lue said in April. “Take Steph and Klay off of Golden State, take KD [Kevin Durant] and Booker. … Take the two best players off of 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 reality entering the fifth season of their partnership.

“We obviously had big plans to win and do something special for Clipper Nation, but I’m a big believer of 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,” George said. “So, that’s just how I remain positive. I’m very optimistic that our time will come.”

And the time for potential extensions is coming soon.

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This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.

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