With expiring contracts and soon-to-be free agents, the Orlando bubble might be the LA Clippers’ best shot at an NBA championship.
It was over a year ago when the LA Clippers sent shockwaves through the rest of the NBA, acquiring Kawhi Leonard and Paul George in one swoop. Suddenly, the scrappy underdog coming off a spirited playoff appearance was now in a position to seriously challenge for an NBA title.
Yet buried underneath the excitement of a perennial laughing stock finally having its time in the sun lied the uncomfortable truth about how long they had to bask. An amount shorter than most would care to acknowledge.
The Clippers are no dynasty in the making. No dreams of not five, not six, not seven. Truthfully, their window began to close as soon as it opened.
George’s contract, which he signed by re-upping with the Oklahoma City Thunder in the summer of 2018, has a player option for the 2021-22 season. The same opt-out clause is available for Kawhi after he signed with LA for just two guaranteed years, three total.
You’d think two players who moved heaven and earth to play near their hometowns wouldn’t hesitate to commit to the future. In the era of leverage and flexibility, nothing is known for sure.
Aiding the financial aspect of fitting so much talent onto a single roster was the incredible team-friendly deals signed by Montrezl Harrell and Lou Williams. LA wound up with two perennial Sixth Man of the Year candidates for just $36 million total — Williams for three years, $24 million and Harrel at two years, $12 million.
Harrell is set to hit the market this summer with a value much higher than what the Clippers can likely afford. Marcus Morris, a deadline acquisition that cost a first and second-round pick, will do the same with no guarantees of a return.
Williams will follow in the summer of 2021. Although he was happy to take a discount in the name of assurance he wouldn’t be traded, he might not feel the same way this time around. JaMychal Green, a rotation piece averaging 20.6 minutes a night, will likely opt out of his current contract in pursuit of the first long-term deal of his career.
All this is to say a lot of luck was involved in getting the Clippers to where they stand now, legitimate contenders with one of the deepest rosters in the NBA. That’s likely to change as early as next season and could shift dramatically the following offseason.
There’s no denying the stark difference in the two potential free-agent classes LA would have to deal with — Harrell and Morris compared to Leonard, George and Williams – but Harrell has bee a staple of the Clippers’ recent rise. His absence would remove part of the supreme advantage afforded to their second unit, and who knows how that could affect LA’s bottom line?
Acquiring both Kawhi and George meant parting ways with an unprecedented amount of draft picks, budding star Shai Gilgeious-Alexander and a sough-after wing in Danilo Gallinari.
The blockbuster deal with OKC would be justified with just a single title, but the worst-case scenario isn’t out of the realm of possibility, where the departure of the two stars leaves the Clippers in a state worse than the Brooklyn Nets following their infamous trade back in 2013. Barren of talent and the draft capital to benefit from it.
The presence of Leonard and PG ensures LA’s rank among the best in the west next season. How legitimate their title chances are will depend on factors beyond their control, including the landscape of both their roster and the rest of the league as well as the health of two players with decorated medical histories.
Championship opportunities never last as long as we assume they will. We thought the Miami Heat would rule the decade. The Golden State Warriors’ addition of Kevin Durant was supposed to send the league to a point of no return.
The Clippers did the improbable in building a contender. Now they come to face the pressures of a ticking clock that grows in step with the stakes. It’s what makes the events in the bubble all the more crucial, to ensure this era of Clippers basketball differs from the previous misfortunes of a hapless franchise.