It feels like a lifetime ago that NBA fandom was lit ablaze by the news that Kawhi Leonard and Paul George were signing for the LA Clippers.
The excitement was justified, too, considering that Leonard was fresh off leading the Toronto Raptors to an NBA title in his half-season rental in Canada. He was the NBA Finals MVP after averaging 28.5 points, 9.8 rebounds and 4.2 assists as the Raptors won 4-2.
George, on the other hand was an elite two-way player that could both guard the opposing team’s best wing players while also being trusted to taking and making big shots. He averaged 28 points, 8.2 rebounds and 4.1 assists in 77 regular season games in the 2018-19 campaign.
Steve Ballmer, who bought the Clippers for a cool $2 billion in 2014, is a team owner who cared more about basketball success than the amount of money he spent on the team, was the perfect owner for the Leonard-George era.
Unfortunately, things have simply not panned out for a Clippers franchise that was hoping to become the dominant team in Los Angeles. Since their two superstars came to town, here’s how things have ended for them in the postseason:
- 2019-20: Defeated the Dallas Mavericks 4-3 in the first round, and then blew a 3-1 lead to the Denver Nuggets in the second round.
- 2020-21: Defeated the Mavericks 4-2 in the first round, came back from an 0-2 deficit to beat the Utah Jazz 4-2 in the second round, and then lost to the Phoenix Suns 4-2 in the Western Conference Finals. Leonard suffered a partially torn ACL in the second round and was unavailable for the Conference Finals.
- 2021-22: Lost two play-in games to the Minnesota Timberwolves and the New Orleans Pelicans. George missed the second play-in game. Leonard missed most the entire season recovering from the ACL injury suffered the previous year.
- 2022-23: Lost in the first round 4-1 to the Phoenix Suns. Leonard averaged 34.5 points, 6.5 rebounds, 6.0 assists and 2.0 steals per games over the first two games before bowing out with a torn meniscus in his right knee. George was unavailable due to a sprained knee suffered near the end of the regular season.
While the Clippers have been hoping that load management would keep their stars, especially Leonard, fresh for deep playoff runs, reality has to sink in at some point. Four season is an eternity in basketball time, especially for two stars who are now in their 30s. As far as medical technology has advanced, the Clippers now have a large enough sample size to realize that things are unlikely to get better in future seasons.
Reality bites. While I may not agree often with Stephen A. Smith, his recent rant about whether or not Leonard needs to retire is the truth.
Leonard and George both made $42 million this year, and the Clippers got a grand total of two games out of the former in the playoffs and none from the latter. George has at least had more consistent appearances in the postseason since coming to LA, but Leonard is almost always gone. I’m not blaming Leonard for his body breaking down but everyone knew that he had knee problems even before he came to town in 2019. It’s clear that no load management is going to be enough to keep his problems from coming back.
There might be a little more hope for George, because his injuries have been to different parts of his body, but with one star already on the sidelines most of the time, a freak injury like the one he suffered in May derailed the Clippers’ season.
The question now becomes: how can the Clippers salvage the situation? As much as a win-now owner in Ballmer may hate to hear it, the time may have come to blow it all up and rebuild. They barely have any draft picks in the coming years, so they need to figure something out.
- 2023: One first round pick from Milwaukee and one of their own.
- 2024: One second round pick from Indiana, Utah or Cleveland and one second round pick from Toronto.
- 2027: One first round pick of their own, one second round pick from Memphis.
- 2028: One first round pick of their own.
- 2029: One first round pick of their own.
- 2029: One first round pick of their own and one second round pick of their own.
The 2023 pick from Milwaukee is not going to yield a good player considering that the Bucks finished with the best record in the NBA. They have an astounding four seasons coming up without a first round pick after that, which was meant to coincide with Leonard and George’s primes ending. With it now clear that the pair of stars can’t stay healthy enough together to produce the NBA Finals runs that were initially envisioned when they were signed, the Clippers are stuck in no man’s land.
What makes things even tougher is how little trade value Leonard has because of his injury history. While Leonard was signed as a free agent, George came as a part of a trade that saw Shai Gilgeous-Alexander head to the Oklahoma City Thunder along with unprotected picks in 2022, 2024, 2026. The 2025 pick can be swapped. As everyone has seen this season, Gilgeous-Alexander has blossomed into a future MVP candidate, which hurts even more.
Russell Westbrook, who was acquired after he was waived by the Utah Jazz, was one bright spot as he stepped up his game in the postseason, but will likely have a number of suitors in the offseason now that he’s no longer on an albatross of a contract. The rest of the squad isn’t exactly high trade value, because they were brought in to fit around Leonard and George.
This offseason is going to be an interesting one for the Clippers. The missing draft picks mean that they can’t rebuild the normal way even if they decided to tank. Leonard is basically untradeable and it remains to be seen whether or not anyone else would be willing to put together a big trade package for George.
As great as things looked in 2019, 2023 is as far from that once-hopeful situation as it could possibly be. As an NBA fan, I’d be happy to see Leonard and George finally be healthy enough to make it to the NBA Finals at least once. However, this simply isn’t a realistic expectation anymore.
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