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Clippers

Clippers’ window to win NBA title is smaller than you might think

Paul George, Kawhi Leonard during a Nov. 22 game against the Rockets at Staples Center.
When the Clippers acquired all-star forwards Paul George and Kawhi Leonard last summer, the team became an instant NBA title contender.
(Sean M. Haffey / Getty Images)

The Clippers hired Jerry West as a consultant three years ago because the Hall of Fame player and celebrated executive had seen nearly every situation the league could present.

Seven weeks after the NBA suspended its season because of the spread of the novel coronavirus, West, now in his 60th year in the league, is unsure of what comes next, just like everyone else. Instead of spending Wednesday at a Clippers playoff game, West spent Wednesday at his home, interviewed live on Twitter by Turner Sports’ Ernie Johnson.

“We were ascending, OK, and now when are we going to get back?” West said. “No one knows.”

The Clippers have much to gain should the NBA find a way to safely resume its season and, if not, just as much to lose.

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This was designed to be the season the Clippers broke through after failing to advance past the postseason’s second round in 49 previous years. After acquiring top free agent Kawhi Leonard and trading for forward Paul George last summer, the Clippers surrounded those stars with the league’s highest-scoring bench, returning starters such as Patrick Beverley and Ivica Zubac, while forward Marcus Morris and point guard Reggie Jackson were added in February to fill key needs.

Trading for George and subsequently signing Leonard immediately opened a championship window but with no guarantee for how long — and at a high price: Oklahoma City received five draft picks, two pick swaps and two starters in exchange for George. A cancellation would wipe out a prime opportunity to chase a title, with no guarantee the roster’s core will return in full next season.

Since arriving in 2017, assistant GM Mark Hughes has risen in the Clippers’ ranks, filling many roles suited to his personality and skills.

The contracts of backup center Montrezl Harrell, a leading candidate to be chosen the NBA’s top reserve, reserve forward Patrick Patterson, Morris and Jackson expire following this season. Joakim Noah, who signed a 10-day contract in March and was expected to stick with the team through its postseason, also could be elsewhere next season. JaMychal Green holds a player option worth $5 million.

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Green could exercise that option, as a more lucrative offer could be difficult to find at a time when the league’s salary cap, which is tied to revenue that has dried up, might decrease. The Clippers can offer Morris up to $18 million.

As one of the top free agents in a weak class, Harrell was in line for a significant raise this summer from the $6 million he earned each of the last two seasons. Though still expected to command a sizable payday, the market for Harrell appears to have shrunk. One potential suitor, Atlanta, used cap space at February’s trade deadline to add a center. Any potential salary cap drop could leave others skittish of investing heavily in a 6-foot-7 center.

That could work in the Clippers’ favor, said Eric Pincus, a salary cap expert for Basketball Insiders and NBA TV.

“There’s not a lot of teams that have money to go after someone like Montrezl or Morris,” Pincus said. “If the cap drops, which is conceivable, then those destinations dry up even further. As far as the Clippers paying tax, I don’t think money is an issue for the team as much as it is other teams. They may not want to pay tax because who wants to pay tax — it limits your flexibility a little bit. But they have deep enough pockets to handle it.”

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The Clippers still could stand to benefit from the hiatus, should the season eventually resume. From the moment the Clippers acquired Leonard and George, their status as a championship contender has hinged on the health of the all-star forwards, who have not been fully available this season because of injuries. The downtime has allowed both to recharge without the workload of a game or the stress of travel. Coach Doc Rivers said April 8 that he expected both to return in “phenomenal” shape.

But when Leonard and George became Clippers, something else happened: A countdown began. Though both are under contract through the 2021-22 season, both hold player options for that final year.

By establishing trust with the stars they hope to eventually re-sign to long-term deals, the Clippers’ last 10 months have already proven valuable. They’d like to have something else to show for this season as well: a trophy.

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“When this thing gets back going, we want to be the team that’s in the best shape,” George said in a video message posted on social media earlier this month. “Ready to go.”


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