The Los Angeles Clippers are leaving the NBA’s free-agency period with the best haul. Collecting Kawhi Leonard and Paul George, the latter via trade with the Oklahoma City Thunder, is in itself a title of sorts, but the Clippers and fans have a different trophy in mind come 2020.
That being said, the Clippers still have a regular season to play out, and the loaded Western Conference will have a few words with the stacked LA team.
Here are three questions we have as free agency disappears in the rearview mirror.
How many games will Kawhi Leonard and Paul George play?
Kawhi Leonard is coming off perhaps his most accomplished NBA season. The 28-year-old won his second championship and second Finals MVP along with cementing his legacy for the Toronto Raptors in winning the Canadian franchise’s first title.
He also only appeared in 60 regular-season games. Even with the premier talent of George, it’s difficult to predict only 60 games as “safe” for Leonard and the Clips should they desire to fiercely compete in the West. Although it’s unlikely Leonard plays in 82 games, something like 60 won’t be enough for the level of competition the Clippers are going to face in their conference—along with intra-division against the Lakers.
It went downhill for Kawhi when Golden State Warriors center Zaza Pachulia interfered with the All-Star forward’s landing space in the playoffs in 2017, injuring his ankle. The next season Leonard only appeared in nine games for the Spurs before taking himself out of the equation to recover in his own time. Then, we all know what happened, San Antonio sent Kawhi to the Raptors in the summer of 2018.
While that worked out very well with a championship, it doesn’t bode well for the future and “load management” of the two-way player in Kawhi. It’s going to be a balancing act for head coach Doc Rivers, as Leonard needs to play more than 60 games, but taxing the superstar too much and they’re unlikely to see the kind of dividends in the postseason.
George, meanwhile, played 77 games last season. He’s nearly five years removed from the gruesome lower leg injury suffered in the USA Basketball exhibition game and appears, arguably, better than ever.
However, George did just undergo surgeries on both shoulders, and he may miss the start of training camp. The Clippers have to hope his absence doesn’t linger.
Are the Clippers willing to get deeper via in-season trades?
Besides George and Leonard, the Clippers have a solid team even after trading 2018 lottery pick Shai Gilgeous-Alexander and veteran forward Danilo Gallinari. The team features defensive stalwart Patrick Beverley, who re-signed in the offseason, three-time Sixth Man of the Year winner Lou Williams, and emerging big-man talents in Montrezl Harrell and Ivica Zubac. The roster is rounded out by Landry Shamet, the rising sophomore and deadly accurate 3-point shooter, Maurice Harkless, acquired from Portland, and JaMychal Green.
It’s a very good team with top-shelf talent in front, but the Clippers still have work to do. LA doesn’t have too much to work with, but it does have incoming second-round picks from the Detroit Pistons and its own first-round pick in 2020 (unlikely to be valued incredibly high due to expected standings placement).
Should team president Lawrence Frank feel the team is inadequate with the current level of talent, he’ll have to make some magic happen although risk giving up more of the future.
Will they regret giving up Shai Gilgeous-Alexander and the picks in the future?
The short answer to this is, no, the Clippers will not regret giving up multiple first-round picks and their lottery pick in Gilgeous-Alexander to get George and in essence Leonard, completing the trade in order to team up the two All-Star-level forwards.
However, looking into the details of the future picks going out, the Clippers have massively hampered their flexibility down the road beyond George and Leonard’s stay. And, as we’ve seen this offseason, the All-NBA-type players could decide where they want to play with a drop of a hat, and practically speaking become free agents even under contract (as PG was even though he signed an extension with OKC last summer).
Between the future first-rounders outright sent to the Thunder or working as pick swaps, the Clippers are pretty much chained to the idea that Kawhi and George are the present and future of the franchise. PG’s contract ends in 2020-21, and he can exercise his player option for the 2021-22 season. Kawhi’s negotiated contract with the Clips falls in line with George’ deal, as he can also be a free agent the same summer or opt into a player option.
That means these two better be happy in the long run, because in their absence—especially if one or both leave in free agency—Los Angeles will be handicapped in terms of assets.