Clippers eliminated: What’s next for Paul George, Kawhi Leonard, James Harden, Ty Lue

DALLAS — Reggie Jackson wasn’t trying to do a victory lap.

But the floor plan in the back hallways of Arena has a way of forcing interactions among opposing sides. It was there Denver’s reserve point guard ran into his old LA Clippers boss, president of basketball operations Lawrence Frank, after the Nuggets’ 113-104 win on Nov. 27. Jackson had caused a great deal of stress that night, with his 35-point, 13-assist outburst not only carrying Denver to victory without Nikola Jokić, Jamal Murray and Aaron Gordon, but also sparking an existential crisis of sorts for his former team.

The Clippers were less than a month into the James Harden experience, having made that blockbuster move to land him from the Philadelphia 76ers in late October. Yet with their big three of Harden, Kawhi Leonard and Paul George all available, and with a fourth future Hall of Famer in Russell Westbrook coming off the bench, they’d somehow managed to get outplayed by Denver’s B-Team while falling for the seventh time in 11 tries since Harden debuted.

Jackson, who was a beloved member of the Clippers from 2019 to 2023, enjoyed this reunion far more than Frank.

“I love you Reggie, but f— you,” Jackson, who is close with Frank, said with a laugh while remembering the playful greeting he received from the Clippers’ executive.

But Jackson hadn’t been the only former Clipper who made this new super team look so silly. DeAndre Jordan, the little-used 35-year-old whose best basketball came a decade ago, finished with a 21-point, 13-rebound, five-assist line that he’d only reached one other time in his 16-year career. And when he took a read of that familiar Clippers’ room, glancing toward the hallway area where coaches, executives, players and owner Steve Ballmer make a habit of discussing that night’s affair afterward, the level of discontent was evident. According to several team sources, the mood among management that night was the worst it would be for the entire regular season.

“Yeah, it was dark over there,” Jordan remembered.

The darkness returned on Friday night, when the Leonard-less Clippers were eliminated by Dallas in Game 6 of their first-round series, 114-101. The same question that loomed so large back in November returned from the shadows and will be at the center of the Clippers’ decision-making process this summer: Does Ballmer, the uber-competitive former Microsoft CEO who is far and away the wealthiest owner in all the NBA, still see enough light at the end of the tunnel with this group that he’s willing to re-invest enough to keep it all together? The answer, team sources tell The Athletic, is a resounding yes.

Even with the Clippers’ latest disappointing finish — a second consecutive first-round flop that followed their playoff absence back in 2022 — they are expected to make strong efforts to re-sign both Paul George and James Harden. The thinking, team sources say, is that a team built around the oft-injured Leonard simply must have as much elite talent as possible as a way of mitigating the seemingly inevitable injuries that have come to define this Clippers era.

The optimism that is driving this strategy, it seems, was born out of the midseason stretch in which the Clippers looked like the best team in the NBA. They won 26 of 31 games from Dec. 2 to Feb. 5, all while boasting the league’s third-best net rating and top offense.

After all these years in which a lack of health had hampered them, with Leonard and George widely seen as the unofficial faces of the league’s load management era, it was a two-month long showcase of how special they could be as a group. The X-factor in it all? Leonard, George, Harden and Westbrook all played at least 27 games in that span.

Come playoff time, though, things changed for the worse on the health front. Again.

Leonard, who signed a three-year, $152.4 million extension in January and played more regular-season games than he had since his 2016-17 campaign (68), fell victim to inflammation in the right knee that he had surgically repaired after tearing his ACL in the 2021 playoffs (and missing the entire 2021-22 campaign). He missed the last eight games of the regular season, four of six playoff games, and re-sparked all the familiar doubts about his viability as a franchise centerpiece player.

But with the Clippers set to start a new era inside the $2 billion Intuit Dome next season, and Leonard’s latest postseason absence offering a sober reminder that they still need all the elite help they can get around him for these years to come, these next few months will set the course on a pricey path that is full of both potential and peril.

It starts with George, the 34-year-old, nine-time All-Star whose forthcoming free agency was never part of this plan. But the complications won’t end there, with Harden, coach Ty Lue and Westbrook all facing nuanced negotiations of their own as they all decide whether the desire to recommit to the Clippers is mutual. This is a deeper look at all four of the Clippers’ most important situations this offseason.

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Tyronn Lue and Paul George react to game action from the sideline against the Nets in January. (Harry How / Getty Images)

Will Paul George be back?

When Leonard explained his decision to sign an extension at a Jan. 11 news conference, the questions quickly shifted to what it might mean for George and Harden.

“I think for the most part, everybody is coming back,” he told reporters.

George, in turn, gave the Clippers reason to believe that Leonard’s assessment was on point.

“You secure and lock in Kawhi, that definitely leaves the door open for myself,” George told reporters. “Very optimistic that something will get done on my behalf as well.”

The only trouble, it seems, is that George has yet to walk through that door.

While Harden’s free-agency discussions with the Clippers must wait until the day after the NBA Finals come to an end, George has been extension-eligible all season long. Team sources say there have been extensive discussions between the two sides, most notably heading into the February trade deadline, but the absence of a deal as free agency nears has now opened the Clippers to outside risk. Teams such as the 76ers and Orlando Magic (that are flush with salary cap space) are known to have interest in George, who pushed his way out of Oklahoma City and to the Clippers in the summer of 2019 so that he could return to his home region and join forces with Leonard. While George has a player option for next season worth $48.7 million, he is widely expected to decline it to pursue a new deal and could become a free agent on June 30.

From the Clippers’ standpoint, the league’s installation of the (extremely punitive) second tax apron last offseason has made this forthcoming math equation virtually impossible to solve. By proxy, the George negotiation has become infinitely more difficult. Teams that are above the second apron (currently projected at $180.4 million) face severe roster restrictions, as they’re prohibited from making trades unless the salaries swapped are a 100 percent match (as opposed to 125 percent on deals above $29 million for teams below the first apron) or signing players using the midlevel exception. Second-apron teams also can’t combine multiple players’ salaries in trades, can’t use trade exceptions from previous years or send cash to another team to finalize a deal. It is, in essence, the equivalent of a hard cap.

As such, the Clippers’ hope has been that George would be willing to accept a similar deal to the one they landed on with Leonard as a way of relieving as much pressure as possible on this front. According to The Athletic’s salary-cap expert, Danny Leroux, Leonard’s deal saved the Clippers a combined $9.9 million below his maximum salary possible in the second and third years of the contract.

Even without George, Harden, Westbrook or any of the Clippers’ other free agents (Mason Plumlee, Daniel Theis and Brandon Boston Jr.), the Clippers have $113.9 million committed in salaries for next season (including P.J. Tucker, who has a player option worth $11.5 million for next season). If the Clippers re-sign George and Harden, it’s highly likely that they’d have to operate above the second apron next season. The goal from there, team sources said, would be to find a way to get back under that brutal threshold for the 2025-26 campaign to avoid the roster restrictions that only get worse with each subsequent season in which a team stays in second apron territory.

Only George knows how he truly sees his situation, but it’s worth remembering that the Clippers are known to have shown a willingness to discuss him in a select few trade scenarios heading into the February deadline. The internal calculus was different back then, of course, with the absence of a new deal with George leaving the Clippers concerned that they might ultimately lose him for nothing in return in free agency.

Still, does George harbor any hard feelings from that revelation, and might that affect his willingness to accept anything less than a max-salary deal? These next few weeks and months will tell that tale.

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P.J. Washington knocks the ball away from James Harden during Game 6 of the Mavericks-Clippers first-round series. (Jerome Miron / USA Today)

How … hard … will this James Harden negotiation be?

When Harden decided to force his way out of Philadelphia last summer, his unfulfilled desires of a max-salary deal with the Sixers – along with his fractured relationship with Sixers president of basketball operations Daryl Morey – served as the driving forces behind his exit. But the allure of playing in his hometown was a pivotal part in his strategy too, with Harden hoping to become yet another Clippers star who returned to his roots for a late-career NBA chapter.

Yet while team and league sources say that both sides want this partnership to continue, the aforementioned numbers crunch means there is a tricky conversation about the team’s finances to have here as well.

Will Harden be pushing for a max deal from the Clippers now that his long-awaited free agency has finally arrived, or is he willing to sacrifice in much the same way he did early on during his Sixers experience? That part remains unclear. By all accounts, their first season together has been positive for all involved. Both sides, team and league sources say, want this relationship to continue.

Harden repeatedly said during the losing streak that accompanied his arrival to the Clippers that he needed about 10 games to get in rhythm after not having a full training camp. That time period changed the make-up of the team after the Clippers spent their training camp playing to the strengths of Westbrook in terms of ball movement, cutting, pace and pressure defense.

Once Harden was handed the keys to the offense and Westbrook went to the second unit, the Clippers were able to establish one of the most powerful offenses in the league. Harden established pick-and-roll sessions with the centers, and it bolstered starter Ivica Zubac to the highest-scoring season of his career. While Harden was upset last season about not being an All-Star, he didn’t make nearly as much a fuss about it this year, focusing on the bigger goal the team had. When asked if Harden was happy with the Clippers, one of Harden’s representatives responded to The Athletic: “Does he look happy? He’s very happy.”

It appeared that Harden hit a wall after the All-Star break. He played 59 consecutive games to begin his Clippers tenure, although his effectiveness started to wane sharply by March. But Harden has also found himself in another situation where he is playing without a star in the playoffs, after previous postseasons in Philadelphia (Joel Embiid) and Brooklyn (Kyrie Irving) ended on teams that didn’t have their stars available in all the games.

Is it time for Tyronn Lue to get paid?

When the 2022-23 NBA season ended, Tyronn Lue’s emotion could be seen on his face in the media room in Phoenix. A season that started with championship expectations turned sour almost immediately, as an imperfect roster was exposed early, often and late by the unavailability of Leonard and George.

Lue did have something notable to look forward to: an opportunity to be on USA Basketball’s coaching staff. Lue’s experience with head coach Steve Kerr and assistants Erik Spoelstra and Mark Few re-energized him. With two years left on his contract at the time, and the omnipresent question of whether this group would ever be healthy enough for him to truly lead, he vowed to have a more patient approach going into the 2023-24 season.

That reservoir for extra patience and energy was necessary when the Clippers lost six games in a row upon trading for Harden in November. Lue remained positive throughout the losing streak, stabilizing the Clippers in the last two weeks of November, then leading the Clippers on that powerful 26-5 stretch and nabbing back-to-back Western Conference Coach of the Month Awards for December and January in the process.

Lue’s value has been in the light this entire season, and he has taken notice of the other coaches signing extensions or big contracts. He has been happy for all of them: Michael Malone, Monty Williams, Gregg Popovich, Spoelstra and Kerr. Spoelstra’s new deal was announced the same day that Leonard’s extension was signed. After beating the Toronto Raptors that night, Lue came into the postgame interview room and was asked if he was good. Lue jokingly responded: “Spo’s doing good!”


Yet while Clippers’ officials have nothing but high praise to share about Lue, and multiple team sources indicated that he’s expected to be the head coach next season when he’s in the final guaranteed year of his deal, it’s fair to wonder what might come next. According to a league source with knowledge of Lue’s situation, there have been no discussions about an extension.

Considering the Clippers’ in-season efforts to secure Leonard’s future with the franchise, and their attempt to do a new deal with George as well, the choice to leave Lue’s long-term status uncertain was seen by some involved parties as questionable. As ESPN first reported on Friday,  and as a team source confirmed to The Athletic, the Clippers plan to pursue an extension with Lue.

The Clippers know they can’t upgrade on Lue. They didn’t extend him last offseason, though they guaranteed the last year of the five-year contract he signed in 2020 to succeed Doc Rivers as head coach. Other teams were blocked from talking to Lue. According to team sources, that would be the case again if teams attempt to pry him away this offseason. Lue has already been tied to the Lakers’ vacancy, and his stellar reputation as a title-winning coach means he’d likely be in the running for any job that becomes open.

Lue’s focus, meanwhile, is his forthcoming return to the Team USA stage and the prospect of running Kerr’s defense for Team USA while joining Leonard in Paris (Lille, France, to be more exact). But it remains a question whether Lue can stomach another year of questionable star availability during the season, just to play short-handed in the playoffs.

This was not a year for Lue without some consternation even after the 26-5 stretch. The team had to send 13-year NBA veteran Tucker and third-year guard Bones Hyland home for the last game before the All-Star break in February, two third-string players who hoped to get traded even while the team was playing among the best basketball in the league. In March, the Clippers had a stretch where they lost six of nine games and had the second-worst defensive efficiency in the league in that span. One week after George suggested that the Clippers didn’t have an identity following a particularly feckless home loss to the Atlanta Hawks, Lue snapped back.

“Do we have an identity?” Lue asked rhetorically. “I think, yeah, we’re soft. That can be an identity, if you want to call it that. We got to be tougher, mentally and physically, but we do have an identity. When we were 26-5, we had a great identity. So you can’t pick and choose when you want to lead. You can’t pick and choose when you want to have identity. You can’t pick and choose when you want to do things the right way.”

For Lue, it’s not a matter of whether the Clippers value him. It’s what he has to look forward to if it’s the same group. This was another year where star-player availability reared its ugly head. Despite getting the most games from George (74) and Leonard (68) in their Clippers’ tenures, both still had instances where they had to miss games. Harden also played his most games in five years (72), but he will be a 35-year-old guard who wore down in March, bringing the team’s offensive efficiency down with him. For the fourth year in a row, Leonard wasn’t able to complete the postseason. Lue has said he just wants to win, and his lamentations of not ever having a full deck at the most important time of the year has taken him out of his “happy place” coaching in the playoffs.

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Russell Westbrook was moved to the bench to make room for James Harden in the Clippers’ backcourt earlier this season. (Jayne Kamin-Oncea / USA Today)

The Russell Westbrook dilemma

When it comes to forecasting uncertainty among some of the Clippers’ highest-profile figures, Westbrook appears to top the list. The 35-year-old who lost his starting point guard job to Harden in mid-November, and who team and league sources say had to be convinced by Frank to take on the sixth-man role when the organization’s power brokers deemed it a requirement, has a player option worth $4 million for next season.

Westbrook’s role took on a different spotlight when he was lost to a fractured hand in March, a period that saw the Clippers go 6-6 and lose five straight games at home. But upon Westbrook’s return, the Clippers went on a stretch where they won seven of eight games, culminating in the future Hall of Famer’s lone triple-double of the season while starting in place of Harden at Phoenix. Even when Westbrook saw success after his return, he often mentioned how he felt he could play more, and he did not speak to reporters at any point after the regular season ended.

Does the nine-time All-Star and former MVP want to continue in this kind of limited role while playing on a veteran’s minimum deal, or might he have played his way into a better opportunity elsewhere? Considering the challenges that came with him being relegated to a reserve role, with team and league sources indicating that the process was far more challenging behind the scenes than team officials had made it appear publicly, the answer may very well be the latter.

While Westbrook had no shortage of meaningful moments and impact this season, he averaged career lows in minutes (22.5 per game), points (11.1), and assists (4.5). He struggled mightily against Dallas, averaging just 6.3 points, 4.2 rebounds and 1.7 assists while shooting 26 percent from the field. Then again, he was hardly alone.

When the Mavericks finished the job against the Clippers in Game 6, the postgame reaction was nothing like that late-November game against Denver that had left them all so incensed. It’s one thing to lose to journeymen like Jackson and Jordan, and quite another to get outplayed by all-time greats like Luka Dončić and Kyrie Irving. Add in the fact that the severe contrast on the injury front, with the Mavericks fully loaded and the Clippers devastated yet again by Leonard’s absence, and the final outcome came as no surprise to most.

If only these cursed Clippers could catch a break one day, with all of their stars aligning in times of health and prosperity, then perhaps the all-too-familiar ending might be different.

(Top photo of Paul George, James Harden and Kawhi Leonard: Harry How / Getty Images)

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