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What’s The Plan For Life With or Without Paul George?

(Jeff McWhorter/ AP Photo)

As the official NBA calendar turns the page on the 2023-2024 season, the Finals hangover has passed as teams scramble to start constructing their teams. Usually, this time is exciting. With the draft, free agency, and trades, generally, every GM is eager to dive straight into the fray. However, this offseason is forcing front offices’ to barely dip their toes in, as there is a level of uncertainty with not only the draft process but also an offseason full of new rules and structures to navigate.

Squarely in the middle of this circus is the Los Angeles Clippers. The Clipper’s primary task this offseason, aside from christening a new stadium and ushering in a new brand (an undertaking of its own), is to answer their Paul George question. The superstar wing has a $48 million player option for the 2024-2025 season. Even if George accepts his option, the Clippers aren’t done finishing the equation. For the Clippers, keeping George could extend a run with Kawhi Leonard and the recently added James Harden for another year. After playing in just six playoff series in five seasons, the history of George’s Clippers tenure has had its ups and its fair share of downs.

Not all of LA’s shortcomings are due to George. Plenty has been out of his control. However, the track record hasn’t born the necessary belief to run things back with Harden, George, and Leonard. Considering that George also has the highest trade value of the three forces, the Clippers’ front office needs to probe what they could get in return for George. Letting him walk next year for nothing would be disastrous, especially if they fail again. 

 

The State of the Clippers

In today’s pop culture world, many people look at negotiations through the lens of film and TV shows that portray one person getting the better of another with their words. The art of persuasion depicted by the Don Drapers of the world narrows our thinking. When thinking about George’s situation, one must see where both sides are at, specifically how they are acting. 

As mentioned before, the Los Angeles Clippers are undergoing a brand transformation. In an effort to distinguish (and distance!) themselves from their in-town rival, the Los Angeles Lakers, owner Steve Ballmer is ushering in a new era of Clipper basketball. Count a new stadium, uniforms, logo, and aura to the list of changes. However, that revitalization effort is happening at the same time as the team’s on-court identity remains the same. This begs the question, why would the front office create a “brand new Clippers” while bringing back “the same old Clippers.” Similarly, if the future is what Ballmer and the brass are selling, investing in the team’s future by getting young (through current players and draft capital) is an avenue to explore. George’s value is still high enough to warrant a sizable haul from teams. 

Then again, the Clippers are in the precarious situation of being tied to three other aging stars. While Russell Westbrook‘s future in LA seems the most uncertain, Leonard and Harden seem to be squarely in the Clippers’ plans for next season. Moving off of George (depending on trade and the return) would leave the team in the hands of 35-year-old Harden and Leonard, who has played in 229 of 410 games since joining LA. Jettisoning George could negatively impact the team’s performance as he returned to All-Star form this past season.

 

A Superstars Ticking Clock

That leads us to George’s side of things. The nine-time All-Star is nearing his mid-thirties and seeking to sign the third max salary contract of his career. He also hopes to capture his first championship. Although, those two objectives might run counter to each other this offseason. The Clippers’ landscape was laid out above, but as vital as George is to the Clippers’ impending decision, he is equally important to other organizations as well. Plenty of teams would jump at the opportunity to acquire George through a trade or free agency. 

Paul George’s Career Earnings
Salaries Table
Season Team Lg Salary
2010-11 Indiana Pacers NBA $2,238,360
2011-12 Indiana Pacers NBA $2,406,240
2012-13 Indiana Pacers NBA $2,574,120
2013-14 Indiana Pacers NBA $3,282,003
2014-15 Indiana Pacers NBA $15,925,680
2015-16 Indiana Pacers NBA $17,120,106
2016-17 Indiana Pacers NBA $18,314,532
2017-18 Oklahoma City Thunder NBA $19,508,958
2018-19 Oklahoma City Thunder NBA $30,560,700
2019-20 Los Angeles Clippers NBA $33,005,556
2020-21 Los Angeles Clippers NBA $35,450,412
2021-22 Los Angeles Clippers NBA $39,344,970
2022-23 Los Angeles Clippers NBA $42,492,492
Career (may be incomplete) $262,224,129

Most wouldn’t blame George for wanting to leave the Clippers. The formula put in place so far hasn’t produced the results that were hoped for when he came to LA five years ago. In that same time, teams around the Clippers in their own conference have surpassed them in terms of talent and success. George undoubtedly knows this. Additionally, his offseason exploits as a TV analyst indicate that he is keenly aware of which teams are suited to win a title. 

Picking the right destination for George is a whole separate exercise. Many land mines are scattered in front of him, and stepping on one could land him right back into a familiar situation. Rumors of interest from the Philadelphia 76ers spurn many similarities to George’s relationship with Leonard in LA. Is George sure that Joel Embiid can make it through enough games? History would say no. Then there’s the specter of the New York Knicks. Ever present in the destination game, the Knicks have been the most recent suitor to be linked to George. While not a terrible basketball fit, one would have to ask what the Knicks would have to get up to get him. And is the team left over good enough?

 

How The Domino Will Fall

In looking at everything, it’s hard not to find Paul George’s decision analogous to Damian Lillard’s last year. While not entirely the same, George and Lillard share the same sort of crisis. As the clock ticks on their careers, one only has so many chances at capturing an NBA title. Lillard’s public push to be traded to a contender first hit the contract obstacle a year before. After signing an extension with the Portland Trail Blazers, happiness eroded, and Lillard applied as much pressure as he could to get out. 

George and the Clippers can avoid that type of saga by parting ways now. A bonus for George is that he has a clearer picture of the possible outcomes. Because he can control where he goes through free agency, George can find the best money and fit scenario for him. On top of that, he has a good idea of the potential outcome if he returns to the Clippers. 

There was more of an unknown to returning to the Trail Blazers when Lillard decided to sign his extension. Lillard put more faith in the front office to figure it out around him. Obviously, Lillard was dissatisfied with that process in the end. George can see the future a bit better when looking at his decision with the Clippers. First, the team is handcuffed to Leonard and Harden. Second, the rest of the team is solid but has its limitations. Finally, the path to a title is considerably more challenging in a packed Western Conference. Therefore, it should be expected that Paul George will leave the Clippers and sign elsewhere.

 

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Matt Strout is an Editor for Back Sports Page. Matt studied Journalism and Sociology at Temple University for four years and graduated in May of 2022. While there, Matt wrote for multiple student and professional publications covering sports and the City of Philadelphia. Matt is originally from Maine and now resides in California. He has written content primarily for the NBA and PGA Tour. You can catch Matt frequently as a guest on the “Cut The Nets” podcast featured on the Back Sports Page network. When Matt is not writing, he enjoys cooking and playing golf. Follow Matt’s social media on Twitter @TheRealStrout or Instagram @matt_str.out96

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