'Frustrating and disappointing': Insider notes on Clippers' 2024 offseason plans, Paul George, James Harden and more

The Clippers
The Clippers' biggest question mark is around the Paul George extension

After experiencing what he called a “frustrating and disappointing” 2023-24 season that ended with the LA Clippers suffering a first-round playoff exit to the Dallas Mavericks, Clippers executive Lawrence Frank shared his thoughts on the team’s off-season direction with unprompted candor.

“We’re not naive to think, ‘Hey, we can just run it back and that we’ll be all good,” said Frank, the Clippers’ president of basketball operations. “That’s not how we look at team building.”

The Clippers already signed Kawhi Leonard to a three-year, $150 million extension. Paul George has a player option worth $48.8 million that he can exercise or opt out of in hopes to secure an extension before June 30. And James Harden will become an unrestricted free agent beginning on July 1.

After failing to win an NBA championship so far since Leonard and George teamed up five years ago, have the Clippers decided to end this era?

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Not necessarily.

“We’d like to be able to bring back and retain Paul and James,” Frank said. “We want to retain those guys. We’re hopeful we can. But also respect and understand the fact that they’re free agents.”

Below are some takeaways from Frank’s press conference on Monday in Los Angeles.

What’s the latest on the Paul George extension?

The Clippers have not soured on Paul, despite averaging 19.5 points on 41.1% shooting in the first round against Dallas and playing inconsistently without Leonard. Frank still called George “an elite player” after averaging 22.6 points on 47.1% shooting along with 5.2 rebounds and 3.5 assists in 74 regular-season games, his highest during his five years with the Clippers.

“We want Paul. We value Paul,” Frank said. “Paul has done some tremendous things here. He’s an elite player. Our biggest thing is we always want to be able to treat players well and treat them fairly. But we also have to build out a team. This is a new CBA.”

Frank confirmed that both sides tabled discussions shortly around the All-Star break after failing to agree on an extension. Frank declined to share specifics, but that suggests the Clippers didn’t offer a max four-year, $221 million extension. Other teams could express interest in George albeit around $9 million less than what the Clippers can offer. But the Clippers are also trying to manage their finances in hopes to retain Harden, center Ivica Zubac and forward Terance Mann.

“We’ve had really, really good conversations over the course of the year,” Frank said. “We’re hopeful that we’ll get him to remain a Clipper.”

What about coach Ty Lue?

Assuming George declines his player option, the Clippers have until June 30 to sign him extension before he becomes a free agent. It appears likely the Clippers will prioritize retaining coach Tyronn Lue first.

Lue has one year left on his contract, but the Clippers are mindful of the Lakers’ strong interest in him after recently firing head coach Darvin Ham following the team’s first-round exit to Denver.

“I think Ty had a terrific year. Our hope is that Ty coaches the LA Clippers for a long time,” Frank said. “ He’s an unbelievable partner. I love him as a person and as a coach. I think he’s one of the elite coaches in today’s game.”

The Lakers would love to hire Lue for his in-game adjustments, how he manages personalities and his partnership with LeBron James. Lue coached James for most of his second stint in Cleveland that entailed winning the 2016 NBA title and appearing in three NBA Finals together (2016-18).

Lue could find it enticing to reunite with James in hopes to help him win his fifth NBA title and second overall with the Lakers. It appears more likely that Lue stays put, though. The Clippers have question marks with their roster, but they have more synergy and stability among their ownership, front office and coaching staffs. Lue also declined the Lakers’ head-coaching job in 2019 after they couldn’t agree on the contract’s length and that the front office would have input on his coaching staff.

“He has a great way of connecting while still holding guys accountable,” Frank said. “He’s a truth teller without leaving scars or wounds. He’s an unbelievable strategist who makes terrific in-game adjustments. And he has a growth mindset in that he’s always looking to get better. So our hope is that Ty is here for a long time. We love Ty.”

Will Kawhi Leonard ever stay healthy in a playoff run?

The Clippers have not wavered with their commitment toward Leonard, but should they? Consider Frank’s assessment on Leonard’s health after playing only limited minutes in Games 2 and 3 of the Clippers’ first-round series against Dallas because of right knee inflammation.

“If we had a game today, Kawhi would not be able to play,” Frank said. “He’d be out.”

That sounds familiar.

Leonard missed the 2021 Western Conference Finals and the entire 2021-22 season after tearing the ACL in his right knee during Game 5 of their second-round series against Utah. Last season, Leonard then tore a meniscus in the same surgically repaired knee following Game 2 of their first-round series against Phoenix. Frank cautioned that Leonard won’t need surgery again, however, and that his latest injury “is not a structural thing.”

“I don’t think any of us are naive or are trying to hide in what’s not reality. The reality is he’s had two surgeries on his knee and he has inflammation now,” Frank said. “Well, other players deal with that, too. They are still high-level, productive players. We have an unbelievable medical group. We’ll do our best to figure out what is our right mix.”

Frank then mentioned other post-season injuries, including in Milwaukee (Giannis Antetokounmpo, Damian Lillard), Miami (Jimmy Butler) and New Orleans (Zion Williamson), as proof that it is not inevitable that Leonard will get injured every season. Leonard averaged 23.7 points on 52.5% shooting and 6.1 rebounds in 68 games, the most games he has played in with the Clippers in five seasons.

“Last year, he was kind of put on blast as the poster child for player participation, both him and Paul,” Frank said. “As we said and he’s always said, ‘When I’m healthy, I’ll play.’ Well, he did. He played until he was hurt. As an organization, we have to look and say, ‘Okay, how can we manage this the best to increase our odds?’ There are no guarantees. I can’t promise you something that we can’t deliver.”

And yet, the Clippers hardly hesitated with granting Leonard an extension for a simple reason. Said Frank: “He’s a top-five player when he’s healthy.”

Will Russell Westbrook return?

It seemed telling that Frank initially listed only Leonard, Paul and James as the players the Clippers definitely want to retain. It seemed more telling that Frank then said “we were short a couple of guys with good complementary and reliable players that fit.”

Is Westbrook one of those players?

“No. This isn’t about any individual,” Frank said. “I think it’s more so about how we can we add to the group and get better complementary fits.”

The Clippers have praised Westbrook for adjusting his role and even coming off the bench this season, a stark difference from Westbrook’s 1 ½ years with the Lakers. Frank also called Westbrook a “first ballot Hall-of-Famer and one of the most unique players that have played this game.” Frank argued that Westbrook “impacted a lot of games and a lot of wins,” but that didn’t happen in the postseason. Westbrook became ineffective during the playoffs amid early foul trouble (ejected in Game 3 after only 19 minutes) and ineffective shooting (6.3 points on 26% shooting in the series).

The Clippers can’t and won’t spend significantly on Westbrook. But they left the door open in case Westbrook has interest in staying on a discounted deal should he fail to find more lucrative offers elsewhere.

“Guys in the locker room love Russ,” Frank said. “Got a lot of respect for Russ, what he’s done for his career and what he’s done for the Clippers. He’s one of the game’s great players”.

Where do the Clippers go from here?

Frank didn’t say this part out loud. But it appears the Clippers want to retain their core players for pragmatic reasons.

The Clippers secured Leonard to an extension to ensure they still had a franchise pillar that could help them retain their other stars. The Clippers have stayed interested in retaining George and Harden in case they can secure them as relative discounts. And the Clippers don’t want to have a rebuilding project entering their first season at Intuit Dome, which Frank predicted “will be a showcase arena around the world.”

The Clippers seem smart to take this route. Consider that the Clippers did the same thing with how they ended “the Lob City era. After trading Chris Paul to Houston in the 2017 off-season to Houston, the Clippers signed Blake Griffin to an extension. The Clippers dealt Griffin to Detroit leading into the 2018 trade deadline. Ironically, the Clippers acquired enough players and draft picks that led to the Leonard and George acquisitions.

The Clippers seem better off arming themselves with more assets. That way, the Clippers can either improve from within or dangle their core players in future trades.

“Sometimes we’ve made good decisions. Sometimes we’ve made bad decisions,” Frank said. “But it’s always with the intent of maximizing the window. We are still big believers that the window is still open.”

Mark Medina is an NBA insider with Sportskeeda. Follow him on X, Instagram, Facebook and Threads.

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