The Los Angeles Clippers are at the forefront of the NBA Championship race and in many ways, this season could be boom or bust for the team.
As we head into March there are three teams that appear to have a legitimate shot at winning the NBA Championship — the Milwaukee Bucks, Los Angeles Lakers and Los Angeles Clippers. The Bucks and Lakers lead their respective conferences, the Clippers are third in the West.
While it is obvious that every team is gunning for the NBA Championship and that it is extremely important to every single player in the league, there is no team that needs it more than the Clippers.
Even with LeBron James‘ coming years numbered in the league and Giannis Antetokounmpo wanting a first title to cement his ongoing legacy, the Los Angeles Clippers are the team that so desperately needs to win the title this year.
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Because, if they do not win it this year, there is a decent chance that they won’t win in for a long time.
This year’s Clippers team is the best in franchise history. With respect to the recent Lob City days, the Clippers boast a deep roster that is headlined by last year’s Finals MVP, Kawhi Leonard, and an MVP runner-up last season, Paul George.
Defensively the Clippers are stacked and the team’s second unit is one of the most talented in the league. There have been some kinks here in there with the team learning how to play with each other, but overall, the Clippers would take their roster against any other team in the league.
That roster is not long-term, however, and could crumble fairly quickly. Montrezl Harrell, who is an intricate part to the team’s identity and size, is a free agent after this season and will get some pretty big offers from other teams. The two buyout guys, Marcus Morris and Reggie Jackson, are also free agents.
The Clippers do have Bird Rights on Harrell but will only have $1 million in cap space once they renounce the rights to other free agents and just under $25 million in luxury tax space. I am sure Steve Ballmer has no problem paying the fine for going over the luxury tax, but it is worth noting.
So even if the team wants to keep Morris around, without having Bird Rights, chances are they will not be able to unless they convince him to take a mid-level exception, which I doubt would happen unless he falls in love with LA and does not care about the money.
Even if they bring Harrell back there are still some concerns. For one, the roster will get smaller without the buyout guys and the Clippers, with no draft picks, would have to resort to veteran minimum guys, which depending on the market, could go either way.
If they lose Harrell then they are losing their best frontcourt player and would have to deal with significant size problems. With that in mind, could they win a title next season? Absolutely, but this season is much more likely.
And then there is the big issue: Kawhi Leonard and Paul George could both opt-out after the 2020-2021 season. With today’s NBA, it seems like a near-guarantee that Kawhi will opt-out for another max contract and if things are looking well with the Clippers then it there is no question in my mind that Kawhi will leave.
If Paul George is back to MVP form and the front office finds a way to maximize the resources they have then Kawhi should stay. Either way, he is going to opt-out and there is just as good of a chance of him leaving as there is of him staying.
George can also opt-out and he is going to be an interesting player come 2021 and either way the Clippers are kind of screwed. Let’s say George can never get healthy and decides against opting out, well then Kawhi would probably bounce and the Clippers would be left with one year of overpaying for a 32-year-old Paul George.
But if he is playing great then he is going to opt-out and want to sign another max contract. The hope is that the Los Angeles Clippers will be able to re-sign both guys, but as we have seen in the NBA, that is not easy to do.
The team has a pick swap with the New York Knicks in 2021, so either way, they will get the lesser of the two. They also have a pick swap in 2023 with the Oklahoma City Thunder, but if Kawhi and George both leave then the Clippers could swap a high pick in the draft with the Thunder.
The Thunder outright get their pick in 2024, get another pick swap in 2025 and another outright pick in 2026. The Los Angeles Clippers’ next first-round pick that does not have anything attached to it is 2027, six years after Kawhi Leonard and Paul George could leave.
Granted, the Los Angeles Clippers will free up money if those two leave and could pivot and sign the next two superstars, that is absolutely a possibility and the way the team pivoted from the Lob City days to now was fantastic.
But the fact of the matter is that this season presents the Los Angeles Clippers its best guaranteed chance of winning the NBA Championship.
With so many question marks around the corner and the potential for a quick collapse, the Los Angeles Clippers desperately need to win the franchise’s first title in 2020. If so, the rest is just gravy.