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Mirjam Swanson: Why Paul George and the Clippers might be breaking up

Mirjam Swanson, The Orange County Register on

Published in Basketball

Now that the Boston Celtics’ championship is out of the way, we can finally get to what you’ve all been waiting for: NBA free agency.

The league has poured a little accelerant on this year’s fun and decreed that for the first time teams can begin negotiating with upcoming free agents on their own rosters the day after the last game of the NBA Finals. That means free agency technically began Tuesday.

So let’s talk about the Clippers and Paul George — even though, in this case, it’s just a ceremonial starting line: The nine-time All-Star isn’t a free agent until he declines his $48.8 million player option for 2024-25.

That’s pretty clearly coming: The team and the star have had months to negotiate an extension, and it hasn’t happened.

It might not.

It’s a standoff happening at a fork in the road — perhaps the fork in the road.

And I get it. I get how they got here. I get why PG would choose to take the road going east, and why the Clippers would let him. Why I think he inevitably will.

But I also get why they’d veer west together once more, why they’d look at the landscape around them and the shiny, new arena they’re stepping into and choose radical optimism. Why they’d believe, with better health and the luck of a good playoff draw, we could be calling 213 Era — the L.A. area code-inspired nickname for No. 2 Kawhi Leonard and No. 13 George — champions at last.

“I understand the skepticism, but I would guard against the cynicism,” was the message from Lawrence Frank, the team’s president of basketball operations, after the chronically short-handed Clippers lost their first-round series against the Dallas Mavericks in six games.

He’s right. As good as Boston looked against the Dallas Mavericks and the Eastern Conference field, the NBA hasn’t had a repeat champion since the Golden State Warriors won a second consecutive crown in 2017-18.

What could be the start of a Bostonian dynasty is more likely the result of an NBA that wants a large swath of teams to have a puncher’s chance.

This is a league that’s invited more teams to play-in and that’s putting the clamps on would-be superteams. That’s introducing a second apron to handicap teams that most exceed the luxury tax by taking away basic building blocks like the mid-level exception and the ability to combine multiple players’ salaries into trades.

All that surely puts constraints on the Clippers, who presently are $47.1 million over the threshold. But on everyone else too — which offers these Clippers, as presently constructed, hope.

Do I think a team with future Hall of Famers Leonard, George and James Harden could win an NBA title next year? I do.

And PG might too; it’s not perfect here in L.A., but nowhere is. Imagine trading one injury-prone star teammate for another — but in a much more cutthroat Philadelphia market. Or swapping Southern California’s sunsets for Florida’s, spending the twilight of a decorated career in Orlando, far from home and in relative anonymity, with a team on the rise but far from peaking.

Now, do I think the Leonard-George-Harden Clippers would win an NBA title next season? I would … not bank on it. Not if you’re counting on good health and good luck along the way.

That’s why it’s starting to feel, after staring at the tea leaves trying to stitch together a predictive pattern for the past few months, like they’re headed for a divorce.

Sometimes the squeeze just isn’t giving you enough juice to fill a glass even halfway.

 

Leonard’s availability has been inconsistent, but when he’s been healthy and available, he’s been consistently excellent. George’s output has fluctuated (see this recent Dallas series), and he’s played only 34 more regular-season games as a Clipper than Kawhi, who signed a three-year, $152.4 million extension — less than the maximum, and what the Clippers are said to be offering George.

But if you’re George, a 34-year-old, nine-time All-Star who will have just one more opportunity to earn a massive payday, wouldn’t you want to cash in?

The 76ers, who are among the collection of teams in contention mode, could — and pretty clearly would — offer George a max deal of four years and $212.2 million. So could the Magic, with whom George could flourish, playing relatively pressure-free basketball — and, in either scenario, paying significantly less state income tax than he would in California.

The Clippers know this. And they’re letting it be known that they’re fine with it.

Perhaps they’re assuming the Palmdale product will find it in his heart to take a hometown discount? I don’t know, though. It’s not been the warmest homecoming; the guy gets booed every time he appears on a Jumbotron outside of Crypto.com Arena.

And George has been pretty clear about the pecking order: “Kawhi is No. 1, and I’m totally fine with it.” He gets ridiculed for those sorts of statements, but wouldn’t you feel like that if you arrived as Leonard’s plus-one?

If you were a late invitee arriving on the arm of a two-time champion whom the Clippers had been stalking for a full season, with whom they wanted to partner so badly they were willing to do just about anything to close the deal — including paying an exorbitant price to procure the star running mate he requested?

No matter how sensational Shai Gilgeous-Alexander becomes, Clippers fans will defend the trade, tell people their team didn’t give up a cruise ship’s worth of present and future assets and a future MVP candidate for just PG — rather for Kawhi and PG.

Now, they’re not even tied together. When word came that Leonard signed a surprise extension in January, it dramatically reduced George’s leverage. The Clippers don’t have to consider how Leonard might react to negotiations with his co-star, and more, they’ve locked in Leonard — the team’s “No. 1,” by George’s own admission — at a team-friendly price point.

What’s more, the timing of Leonard’s extension means he is eligible to be traded July 8 — not late in the summer when rosters are cemented, but a couple days after teams can begin signing free agents. When construction is still going on.

So when ESPN’s Adrian Wojnarowski went on TV in January and said, “there’s a part of the Clippers, they’re ready, they will reboot this if they have to,” that rings like it could be something more than just a negotiating ploy.

It sounds like there could be a world wherein the Clippers — as they did so dramatically with Lob City — actually turn this car around.

They wouldn’t do it haphazardly, of course. They’re not incentivized to stink — not in Year 1 in the Intuit Dome, not after having traded away next year’s draft picks and not ever with bombastic team owner Steve Ballmer cheering on the baseline.

But if they want to reset, or rebuild, or reboot and they lose George in free agency, what they’ll get in return is some financial flexibility — which these days isn’t nothing. They’ll get closer to the second apron. And conceivably, with some additional cost-cutting moves, under it.

That won’t improve their immediate title chances, necessarily, because which role players could realistically replace George? But if the parties are inclined to go in a different direction after five fruitless seasons calling on 213, it would be hard to blame them.

Sometimes, when you’re just spinning your wheels, it makes sense to back up and straighten out — and take the road so far untraveled.


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