Some may question if the Los Angeles Clippers should run it back with Kawhi Leonard and Paul George if they can’t stay healthy. But do they even have a choice?
It’s not that the duo can’t win — it’s that they just can’t stay healthy enough to get on the floor together. Leonard missed the final three games of LA’s five-game first-round series loss to the Phoenix Suns with what turned out to be a torn meniscus, while George missed the entire series with a sprained right knee.
As the saying goes, the best ability is availability. It’s something these superstars lack.
When Kawhi and PG played together this season, the Clips were 24-14, outscoring opponents by 8.5 points per 100 possessions, according to NBA.com. Ty Lue’s club was 33-19 when Leonard played during the regular season and 32-24 when George played. But PG only played in 12 games after the All-Star break and Kawhi only managed to play 20, including the postseason.
So with that in mind, heading into the offseason, that begs the question: Should the Clippers keep this core intact for another run behind a deteriorating duo, or admit defeat and start over?
You could understand why Steve Ballmer and Lawrence Frank would want to keep things going. You saw the playoff run in 2020-21 when the Clips reached the conference finals. When Kawhi is healthy, he’s almost always the best player on the floor. He was in Game 1 against Phoenix with a masterful 38-point performance where he was in full command and control on both ends of the floor. But he’s just not playing frequently enough, despite load management and copious amounts of rest.
Yet, the Clippers stuck with Devin Booker, Kevin Durant, Chris Paul, DeAndre Ayton, and the rest of Phoenix for much of that series without their two best players. Russell Westbrook showed he still had something left in the tank; Norman Powell averaged nearly 22 points per game against the Suns; Ivica Zubac, Terrance Mann, Mason Plumlee, and Bones Hyland are capable rotation players on a legit playoff team.
But is it worth keeping things together? It’s a serious question the Clippers’ front office needs to ask itself this offseason.
Here’s a better question: Do they really have a choice?
LA still has more than $180 million in salary on the books next season and $144 million in projected salaries in 2024-25. Leonard and George have identical four-year, $176.3 million deals that include respective $48.78 million player options for 2024-25. Westbrook will be an unrestricted free agent but said he’d like to return, but will that mean the Clippers won’t be able to keep February trade acquisition Eric Gordon, who has a $20.9 million team option he can exercise this offseason?
Plumlee will also be an unrestricted free agent, but most of the Clippers will be back next season, meaning major change would have to come via trade. Would there be a robust market for players like Kawhi and PG who can’t stay healthy? Would they really pass up those player options and test free agency after next season? And from a team standpoint, LA doesn’t control its first-round pick until 2027, so rebuilding via the draft wouldn’t really be a very effective option.
In short, the Clippers’ offseason options seem fairly limited in what it can do to improve the team next season to compete with the top teams in the West. For at least the next season or two, the Clippers will only go as far as their two best players will take them. And for this franchise, it’s proven pretty hard to carry a team on your back when your knees can’t support the weight.
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