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Clippers offseason roster moves? It all depends on Kawhi Leonard

Kawhi Leonard stands alone in darkened arena with a spotlight behind him
Kawhi Leonard has a big decision to make this offseason: exercise his player option for a third season with the Clippers or decline it and seek a maximum contract as a free agent.
(Robert Gauthier/Los Angeles Times)

To reach the conference finals this season for the first time in their history, the Clippers relied heavily on familiar faces, with holdovers from the 2020 roster playing more than 75% of postseason minutes.

Yet one of coach Tyronn Lue’s most effective postseason adjustments — the small-ball starting lineup — was enabled by inserting forward Nicolas Batum. When center Ivica Zubac hurt his right knee and missed Game 5 of the conference finals against Phoenix, DeMarcus Cousins filled in with 15 points off the bench. While Luke Kennard was used sparingly, it was often effective: He made 41% of his three-pointers in the playoffs.

All played elsewhere last season. Batum was waived by Charlotte and signed a one-year deal. Kennard was acquired in a trade from Detroit in November. Cousins began the year in Houston, before initially signing on a 10-day deal with the Clippers.

The combination of holdovers and new blood resulted in the most successful roster in Clippers history, but in the world of NBA roster building, the only constant is change. Who will be around in 2021-22?

Here’s a look at the roster entering the 2021 offseason.

The player options (2021-22 salaries via Spotrac)

Kawhi Leonard — $36 million

Serge Ibaka — $9.7 million

The offseason hinges around the first-team All-NBA forward, who said in December that “if I’m healthy, the best decision is to decline the player option” and become a free agent. Leonard is not healthy after missing the last eight games because of a strained right knee, and if he is seeking long-term stability and cash given his injury history, he could exercise his option and sign an extension with a total payout north of $216 million over five years. He could also decline the player option and sign a contract for the maximum 35% of the salary cap allowed under the collective bargaining agreement because of his 10 years of experience. The maximum value of such a contract would be more than $176 million over four years. He could also sign shorter deals with player options, but having left money on the table by declining past sizable contracts in San Antonio and Toronto, this is Leonard’s chance to cash in for long-term money.

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The injury bug created “what if” scenarios for not only the Clippers and Lakers with Kawhi Leonard and Anthony Davis, but all the top contenders.

Drawing more attention for his sideline fashion than his play in the postseason was not what the Clippers, or Ibaka, expected upon his free-agent signing last November. After the center averaged 12.0 points, 6.7 rebounds, 1.3 blocks and 38% three-point shooting while scoring in double figures 19 times through 27 games, Ibaka only appeared in 16 more games the rest of the season for what he said was first a pinched nerve in his back. Back spasms sidelined him for all but two games during the playoffs and the team said he eventually underwent surgery. Based on that incomplete season and the fact that he’ll be 32 in September, could he reasonably expect to draw an offer as an unrestricted free agent larger than his $9.7-million option?

The All-Star

Paul George — $39.3 million

The four-year, $190-million extension George signed before the season kicks in for 2021-22.

Locked up

Marcus Morris — $15.6 million

Patrick Beverley — $14.3 million

Luke Kennard — $12.7 million

Rajon Rondo — $8.2 million

Ivica Zubac — $7.5 million

Daniel Oturu — $1.5 million

Jay Scrubb (two-way) — $449,000

Along with George, Morris and Kennard are currently on the Clippers’ books the longest. Morris’ deal ends with the 2023-24 season and the Clippers hold a team option for the final season of Kennard’s deal in 2024-25. Kennard’s fit within the rotation was in doubt early in the season, but he appeared to gain the trust of coaches to the point that Lue inserted him in critical situations throughout the playoffs.

While the Clippers had their greatest playoff run fall short of a title, the future is uncertain with Kawhi Leonard’s health and possible free agency.

Should the Clippers pursue trades to retool their roster — given their dearth of draft picks through 2027 — this group of players, minus Oturu, have the kind of contracts that makes it easier to match salaries. Beverley missed 35 games during the regular season and after being benched against Dallas in the first round showed against Utah and Phoenix why he has long been considered the team’s heartbeat. But how much trust does the front office have in his durability entering a season in which he will be 33? His contract expires after next season, as does Rondo’s. He didn’t influence the Clippers’ postseason like they expected upon trading for him in March; will the Clippers choose to run it back with Rondo at point? He’ll be one year older, but would have a full season under the tutelage of Lue.

Nonguaranteed

Terance Mann — $1.7 million

Yogi Ferrell — $1.9 million

Mann’s contract becomes guaranteed Aug. 1. After a rookie seasonin which he went back and forth between the G League and NBA to try a new position, the second-round pick established himself as a building block of the future during his second season with a much-improved jump shot and infectious energy. His 39 points against Utah in Game 6 to clinch the Clippers’ second-round victory instantly became one of the franchise’s all-time playoff performances. His salary will not soar next season, but his value already has.

Unrestricted free agents (and their cap holds)

Patrick Patterson — $4 million

Nicolas Batum — $1.6 million

Reggie Jackson — $1.6 million

DeMarcus Cousins — $1.6 million

Jackson, 31, and Batum, 32, will become eye-of-the-beholder signings in free agency. After nearly deciding not to return for a 10th NBA season, Jackson produced a reputation-altering bounce-back season that saw him make 41% of his playoff three-pointers and become one of the most dependable scorers of the entire postseason. Is that the rock-solid shooter his future employer can expect, or will nagging injuries return and his shooting numbers dip? The Clippers can offer him around $10 million per season, but if he can get more elsewhere, would he necessarily want to leave? Jackson has found a comfort zone with the Clippers playing alongside best friend George and for Lue, whom Jackson has credited with empowering him throughout the last eight months.

Fans react to a three-pointer by Clippers forward Nicolas Batum.
Fans react as Clippers forward Nicolas Batum makes a three-pointer against Utah during Game 6 of their playoff series.
(Gina Ferazzi/Los Angeles Times)

Likewise, can Batum produce another season like his last? That’s what suitors will be asking leading up to free agency. Coming off a career-worst season in Charlotte, where he shot 28% from deep and 34% overall, Batum made 40% of his regular-season three-pointers, including 43% of his corner threes, and shot 46% overall before coming close to matching or exceeding those numbers in the postseason. He, too, expressed his happiness at finding a home with the Clippers, but his attitude is so low-maintenance, and his skillset so malleable that he could fit in just about anywhere. Numerous contending teams wanted to sign him last November, and his production this season will only attract more.

Qualifying offer

Amir Coffey — $1.6 million

The 6-7 Coffey averaged 3.2 points in each of his first two seasons with the Clippers while playing on a two-way contract that is now over. He can become a restricted free agent if the Clippers make a qualifying offer before free agency begins. Coffey wasn’t a consistent presence in the rotation but his versatility makes it possible that he could be if given the opportunity. It seems unlikely he’d accept another two-way deal elsewhere. After the development of Mann, could the Clippers have another capable young wing player waiting on their bench?


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