PLAYA VISTA, Calif. — Ever since joining the LA Clippers four years ago, Kawhi Leonard and Paul George have never stayed healthy consistently. Regardless of that extensive injury history, the Clippers reaffirmed their long-term commitment to their two stars.
“We have two of the best players in the world,” Lawrence Frank, the Clippers’ president of basketball operations said on Thursday at the team’s practice facility. “When healthy, they give us a chance each and every year.”
The Clippers haven’t had a chance every year, however, because they haven’t stayed healthy.
The Clippers squandered a 3-1 second-round series lead to Denver in the NBA bubble in 2020 amid overlapping injuries and limited practice time. The Clippers made the Western Conference Finals in 2021, but that coincided with Leonard injuring the ACL in his right knee in Game 4 of the team’s second-round series against Utah. The Clippers failed to make the playoffs in 2022 while Leonard recovered from off-season surgery and George missed the team’s second play-in game following a positive COVID-19 test.
As for this season, the Clippers lost to the Phoenix Suns in five games in the first round with neither player appearing in the final three contests. Leonard missed Games 3, 4 and 5 after tearing a meniscus in his right knee in Game 1 and aggravating it in Game 2. George missed the final nine regular-season games and the entire first round while nursing sprained right knee after Oklahoma City forward Lu Dort collided into him on March 21.
Frank expressed uncertainty on Leonard’s recovery timeline since he is evaluating both surgical and non-surgical procedures. But Frank stressed that “regardless of the treatment, Kawhi will be ready for next year.” As for George, Frank said the Clippers planned to clear him to return in early May had the Clippers advanced past the first round.
“Every year you have those guys, they give you a chance,” Frank said. “It’s about surrounding those guys to continue improving your chances. Kawhi is a ceiling raiser. You study past NBA champions, and they have a top-five guy on their team. Kawhi has shown, when healthy, he can be the best player in the world. Paul is an eight-time All-Star now. We’re going to continue to build around those guys.”
The Clippers’ devotion to Leonard and George might be limited, though. Both have two years left on their contract with player options on their final year for the 2024-25 season. Both are eligible for extensions this summer, but Frank stayed noncommittal on whether the franchise will make those offers to Leonard and George.
“We’ll sit down. Those guys are great players, and they’re great partners, and we want to keep them as Clippers for a long time,” Frank said. “So we’ll look forward to those conversations. The number-one goal is, ‘How can we build a sustainable championship team?’ Those guys have been great partners. So at the appropriate time, we look forward to sitting down with them.”
Frank suggests franchise needs to change how it approaches regular season
Just like in recent years, Frank lamented the team’s injuries and highlighted the team’s resiliency. This time, though, Frank refused to accept that the Clippers had players miss a combined 171 games due to injuries. Frank also declined to praise the team too much for finishing as a fifth seed and challenging the No. 4 Suns to five games in the first round of the playoffs.
“We have to look in the mirror. That starts with me. We have to get back to honoring and respecting the regular season,” Frank said. “We have to compete harder more consistently, and we have to earn it.”
The Clippers have fielded criticism for valuing long-term health at the expense of on-court chemistry and continuity. Clippers coach Tyronn Lue and his players occasionally expressed frustration with the team’s fluctuating lineups, workload restrictions and fluid planning. Frank said the medical staff “will continue to evaluate everything that we do” to improve the team’s player availability. But he stressed that these issues have nothing to do with how Leonard and George train and manage their injuries.
“They’re maniacal in terms of the work they put in their bodies,” Frank said. “They do everything they can to make sure they’re ready for the postseason.”
Leonard missed significant time this season for management on his right knee (22 games) and to treat a right ankle sprain (six). Frank said Leonard “exceeded my expectations” in his first season since missing all of the 2021-22 campaign to recover from off-season surgery to treat the ACL in his right knee. Beyond his latest injury, George also missed 17 other games to treat various ailments with his right hamstring, left and right knee and a non-covid illness.
“There is a difference between being injured and what people term ‘load management,’” Frank said. “Kawhi had to deal with three different injuries coming off ACL reconstruction. That’s not load management. Everyone is an expert about someone else’s body. But he was dealing with injuries. Same thing with PG. The load management comes back to when you’re coming from an injury. How do you load manage it to prevent further injury? We’ll explore everything. But sometimes the narrative of the load management is erroneous because when a guy is injured, he’s injured. Sometimes it’s unlucky.”
Clippers expect Lue to stay as head coach.
Frank not only emphasized the Clippers’ commitment to Leonard and George. Frank had a similar message to Lue and on if the Clippers expect him to coach the team in the 2023-24 season.
“Why wouldn’t he back?” Frank said. “Of course he’s back. Ty is a terrific coach. We’re excited to have him as our coach.”
Following the Clippers’ Game 5 loss to Phoenix, Lue also said he expected to return. But Lue has appeared more visibly frustrated this season than compared to his first two seasons as the Clippers’ head coach.
Though the Clippers have stayed riddled with injuries during his entire coaching tenure here, there are a few distinguishable differences. In 2021, the Clippers advanced to the Western Conference Finals shortly after Leonard’s ACL injury. Though Leonard stayed sidelined for all of the 2021-22 season, Lue found that season easier to manage because he knew ahead of time that Leonard would not be available each game. This season, Lue juggled 30 different starting lineups. Lue also experienced a toll with his personal life with seven different family members dying this past season.
“T Lue is a great coach. For all of us – and no one feels it like the head coach, — there’s frustration. It’s hard. It’s a hard, hard job. I got unbelievable love and respect for Ty,” Frank said. “I’ve known him for a long, long time. He’s extremely bright. He sees the game in real time like few others. He’s a terrific communicator. He has an unbelievable ability with players and staff. He’s a magnet to them … When you’re the head coach, it’s a lonely job. It’s a hard job. It’s frustrating for all the different reasons. I think Ty has got a ton of strengths and he’s one of the best coaches in the league.”
Frank expressed interest in retaining Westbrook and most of core group
If the Clippers have it their way, they will retain Russell Westbrook, Eric Gordon and Mason Plumlee. Westbrook and Plumlee will become free agents on June 30. Gordon’s non-guaranteed contract becomes guaranteed on June 28. But the Clippers view retaining Westbrook as their top priority.
“T Lue loved coaching him. Our guys loved having him as a teammate,” Frank said. “So we’d love to bring Russ back. But he’s a free agent, and obviously that’s a choice that he’s earned.”
The Clippers signed Westbrook on the buyout market shortly after the Lakers dealt him to Utah in a three-team trade. This season, Westbrook posted similar numbers with the Clippers (15.8 points, 7.6 assists) as he did with the Lakers (15.9, 7.5). But consider the vast difference Westbrook showed with his efficiency with the Lakers (41.7%, 29.6% from 3) compared to the Clippers (48.9%, 35.6% from 3). The Clippers believe they put Westbrook in better positions to succeed because of their direct communication and roster depth around him. The Lakers lacked roster depth partly because they devoted over $47 million in salary to him this season.
The Clippers are mindful, however, that other teams might offer Westbrook something out of their price range.
The Clippers have limited spending power to keep Westbrook, including veteran’s minimum contracts and possibly a mid-level exception.
“You love when guys get second chances and knock it out of the park,” Frank said. “It’s great to see talented people have a track record of high quality play. Russ is one of the top 75 first ballot Hall-of-Famers, but he adapted.”
Clippers owner’s message to the organization
From his courtside seat behind the baseline, Clippers owner Steve Ballmer has displayed giddiness over highlight reels and frustration over bad performances. Not surprising then that Frank reported Ballmer having “a wide range of emotions” over the Clippers’ first-round playoff exit.
“Steve believes deeply in all the people here,” Frank said. “He pushes us and challenges us and asks really, really good questions. But yeah, Steve is fully supportive of everyone here.”
After the Clippers lost to Denver in the second round of the 2020 NBA playoffs, Ballmer and head coach Doc Rivers parted ways before replacing him with Lue. Ballmer has stated he hopes to win an NBA title at Crypto.com arena before the Clippers move to Intuit Dome, a privately financed arena scheduled to open for the 2024-25 season. But even if that means the Clippers will play one more season at Crypto.com Arena, Frank suggested Ballmer remains supportive and patient with the organization’s direction.
“He appreciates and respects all the hard work that Kawhi and PG put into their bodies,” Frank said of Ballmer. “He thinks very highly of T Lue and the staff that he has around him and the group we have. Steve is the best chairman in sports because our organizational ethos drives from him. There’s competitiveness. There’s honesty. There’s caring. And there’s the open-mindedness and that hunger to get better.”
There’s also an expensive pocketbook. Ballmer, a former Microsoft executive, has shown a willingness to commit an expensive payroll and absorb luxury taxes as long as the moves help the Clippers win an NBA championship.
“We’re blessed to have a chairman who’s all in to try to capitalize on the window we’re in,” Frank said. “At the same time, it’s our job to be responsible and make responsible decisions.”