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4 major decisions Clippers must make this offseason after losing to Suns in Western Conference Finals

Kawhi Leonard, Paul George, Nicolas Batum, Reggie Jackson, Patrick Beverley, Clippers

The LA Clippers had their most successful season in franchise history. It was, by all accounts, their best year, but they still fell short of their ultimate goal of winning an NBA Championship. Paul George did all he could, Reggie Jackson played his way into a lot of money, and Tyronn Lue coached his ass off, but the injuries to Kawhi Leonard, Serge Ibaka, and Ivica Zubac were too much to overcome.

Now, the Clippers enter their second most important offseason to date. The first was a resounding success, landing Kawhi Leonard in free agency and trading for Paul George. The second will come down to re-signing Leonard, if he indeed opts out of his player option to become an unrestricted free agent this summer.

Here’s a look at some of the biggest things the Clippers have to decide on in order to make a return to the Conference Finals and finish the job next season.

1. Kawhi Leonard’s Free Agency

This is obvious, but the Clippers need Kawhi Leonard back this summer. He’s hinted in prior press conferences at declining his player option in order to secure a long-term deal.

“Just for my situation right now, I’m just focused on this season,” Kawhi Leonard told members of the media back in December 2020. “Not saying I’m going anywhere else or staying here, but I’m just focused on the season. Obviously, if I’m healthy, the best decision is to decline the player option, but that doesn’t mean I’m leaving or staying. I’m focused on the season, like I said. We’ll talk about that when the time is right.”

Leonard just played in his 10th season in the NBA and is now eligible for a supermax contract this summer, a deal worth 35 percent of the team’s salary cap. Per ESPN’s Bobby Marks, that means Kawhi Leonard could be looking at a four-year, $176.2 million contract. He could also opt into the final year of his deal and sign a four-year extension from there, meaning he’ll be signed for the next five years, through the 2025-26 season.

Leonard, 30, is coming off a sprained ACL, which puts some doubt into his durability and health, especially as he gets another year older. Between his quad injury and this ACL injury, Leonard’s best option might be to take the money, but he has a number of options and the Clippers will back up the Brinks truck for him either way.

At this point, there isn’t a strong belief that Leonard will leave the Clippers in free agency. He’s purchased multiple properties in Southern California over the last few years and has become deeply invested in the LA and Moreno Valley communities.

Paul George showed Leonard the ultimate commitment when he signed the four-year, $190 million extension last summer.

“I spoke to Paul, he felt comfortable here,” Leonard said of his conversations with George after his extension. “He loves the city, he’s obviously from here, so I think from his standpoint, he did a great job of coming to me and telling me how he feels before signing the contract.”

When asked about his plans for recruiting Kawhi Leonard in free agency, Paul George planned to do whatever necessary to bring him back with no hard feelings towards any free agents.

“Well, one of the commitments I made signing my contract was to show I’m here for the long run and I’m committed to this team,” George said after the Clippers’ Game 6 loss. “Hopefully that weighs on anybody’s decision. But it’s no hard feelings. You know, these guys, they got decisions to make on their own. I will definitely try to, I don’t know, I haven’t talked to any of them. But hopefully this is where they want to continue to play and grow and be something and do something special in the long run.

“I’m definitely going to try my hardest to recruit. That’s all I could do.”

We’ll see how hard George recruits and how it affects, if at all, Kawhi’s decision.

2. Reggie Jackson’s Free Agency

Reggie Jackson was signed late last offseason as a backup guard behind Patrick Beverley and an additional ball-handler to have alongside Lou Williams. He played well during the season, 26-17 record across 43 games, averaging 12.6 points, 3.4 rebounds, and 3.7 assists per game.

While Jackson had a love-hate relationship with Clippers fans during the regular season, it quickly turned into a love-love relationship during the postseason.

Jackson was inserted into the starting lineup for Game 3 of the Clippers’ first round series against the Dallas Mavericks and remained the starter the rest of the way. His pace, playmaking, and shot-making ability is something Ty Lue valued. After going down 0-2 in the series, it was a move Ty Lue was sure he wanted to make but a move that was heavily criticized.

Those criticisms didn’t last long, as Jackson proved himself to be an incredible piece of the Clippers’ first Conference Finals run, averaging 18.9 points and 3.5 assists on 49.6 percent shooting from the field and 42 percent from beyond the arc. He made at least three three-pointers in 15 of the Clippers’ 19 postseason games, delivering big shot after big shot and bailing the Clippers out of tough situations. That, of course, earned him the nickname ‘Big Government,’ by Justin Russo, and rightfully so.

Jackson has earned himself a major payday with his play, with some believing he could nab another $80 million deal in free agency this summer. The 31-year old guard will have a plethora of teams with interest in him, but there’s also a belief that his relationship with Paul George, as well as the relationships he’s built with Clippers players and the organization, could lead to his return to the Clippers to run back their title chase that fell short this year.

“This year was my best year,” Reggie Jackson said in his post-Game 6 press conference. “The most challenging year. The most fun year. Not sure I was going to play. Ups and downs. Guys were injured. Still found my way into this locker room. First thing I told these guys was, ‘thank you for saving me.’ I appreciate every guy in that locker room.

“I think that group, they found ways to push me every way and every day to challenge me, to ask me to be better, to encourage me to be better. Became family and it’s been a great day in the brotherhood here. It’s been an extremely special year under these extreme, difficult circumstances that everybody’s been under with the pandemic, COVID, this core group is the one thing that allowed me to be myself and I’m forever thankful.”

3. Nicolas Batum’s Free Agency

The biggest surprise of the Clippers season may have been the resurgence of Nicolas Batum. Heck, even Batum himself admitted at the end of the season that he surprised himself with his own play.

Coming off a 2019-20 campaign with the Charlotte Hornets where he played just 22 games and averaged 3.6 points, 4.5 rebounds, and 3.0 assists on 34.6 percent shooting, Nicolas Batum looked washed. He’d suffered a number of injuries, quickly turning into a highly-paid reserve on a team that was prioritizing youth and development.

At just 8.1 points, 4.7 rebounds, 2.2 assists, and 1.0 steal per game, Batum’s overall numbers on a stat sheet may not look impressive, but the Clippers don’t reach their first ever Conference Finals without him. He shot 40.4 percent from three on the season and was utilized as a small-ball center throughout the playoffs for Ty Lue’s team.

Batum played 34 minutes per game between Game 2 of the Mavs series and Game 6 of the Jazz series, primarily as the starting center, pulling the likes of Kristaps Porzingis, Boban Marjanovic, and Rudy Gobert away from the paint to open up driving lanes for Kawhi Leonard and Paul George

The Utah Jazz and Golden State Warriors both strongly pursued Batum last offseason, and while he is expected to have even more suitors interested in him this offseason, there’s strong mutual interest between Batum and the Clippers to bring the leader of the Batum Battalion back to LA.

4. Depth Surrounding Kawhi, PG

In the first year of Kawhi Leonard and Paul George, the Clippers front office did a good job of surrounding their stars with pieces to make a title run, despite there being some obvious holes in the roster.

In Year 2 of Kawhi and PG, the Clippers front office upgraded at almost every position, with the lone questionable move being the Lou Williams-Rajon Rondo trade. As he showed in the postseason, Williams is a guy the Clippers could’ve relied on for points during some of their rough scoring droughts in the Conference Finals.

Entering the 2021 offseason, Nicolas Batum, Reggie Jackson, DeMarcus Cousins, and Patrick Patterson are all unrestricted free agents. The Clippers can speak with their own players and try to negotiate deals even before free agency officially begins.

Kawhi Leonard and Serge Ibaka have player options to decide on by August 1st.

Patrick Beverley and Rajon Rondo are now players on expiring contracts and could possibly be included in trades to improve the roster. Luke Kennard becomes trade eligible August 3rd.

All this to say that while the Clippers could very well just bring this entire team into the 2021-22 season to run it back, the door is also there to make roster changes. The only thing that held the Clippers back this postseason was health, plain and simple. If they stay healthy, they’re likely in the NBA Finals now competing for a championship. The front office is interested in bringing this team’s core back, but it also won’t rule out improving the roster in any way, shape, or form.

Kyle Lowry is a player who was linked to the Clippers during the trade deadline and has a prior history with Leonard as well as Ibaka. A player of his caliber would be hard to afford, but not completely out of the question. After bringing a title to Toronto and being called the greatest Raptors player ever, there’s no question the front office would try to do right by Lowry if he decides he wants to play elsewhere via free agency or sign-and-trade.

There are other players out there who would make a lot of sense for the Clippers in a trade, depending on what they do with their current free agents, like a Malcolm Brogdon. He hasn’t been linked to the Clippers, but the team brought him in for a pre-draft workout back in 2016 and has thought highly of him despite not drafting him.

Additionally, the Clippers own their first round pick this year. With picks sent to the Oklahoma City Thunder, as well as pick swaps, this 2021 NBA Draft will be the last pick they’ll have full control of.

The Clippers could just choose to run it back, bring back the same team, and try to make another run at it. Whatever they decide to do, the formula for winning under head coach Tyronn Lue is there.