Last fall, three years into a tenure with the Clippers that had yet to produce a championship, All-Star wing Paul George candidly assessed the pressure on his upcoming seasons when he said his “window is shrinking to be a champion.”
Then another season passed without the title the Clippers have yearned.
Now, two months after their season ended in Phoenix in the postseason’s first round, free agency opens across the NBA on Friday.
The Clippers task? Keep that title window open as long as possible while also remaining relevant with the opening of their new Inglewood arena — funded by team owner Steve Ballmer — just one year away.
Given how openly the Clippers have discussed their ambitions to claim the franchise’s first championship, many are watching to see how they will retool for the fifth season of the Kawhi Leonard-George era to make good on those title goals.
Here are story lines to watch as free agency opens:
Where will the Clippers get their next point guard? A Clippers tradition continues this summer: The pursuit of the right point guard to play alongside George and Leonard. The search has, since 2020, led the team to play Reggie Jackson and Rajon Rondo, John Wall and Terance Mann, but only Mann remains under contract. The team’s starting guard since February, Russell Westbrook, is an unrestricted free agent. Though he found appreciation within the Clippers’ locker room after a rocky Lakers tenure, and the Clippers are open to a reunion, Westbrook can be offered only about $3.8 million to return.
On Wednesday, the Clippers were linked to a pursuit of Philadelphia’s James Harden, after he opted into his $35.6 million salary for next season with the intent of being traded elsewhere. Harden could be the playmaker the Clippers have sought after he created, scored or assisted on a combined 50.5 points per game last season, per Synergy’s tracking data.
At 33, without breakthrough playoff success on his resumé, he also could not push the Clippers’ postseason potential as high as hoped. The variables many league sources said they were watching carefully Wednesday was how patient the 76ers will be in listening to offers, and what the 76ers would want from the Clippers should such a pursuit advance. Mann might have the most upside — but it’s also why the team considers him a big part of their future.
Harden isn’t eligible for a contract extension and would be an unrestricted free agent in one year. Given his Southern California roots, starring at Artesia High, Harden might not represent as much of a risk of leaving if he were in Los Angeles. Yet, his track record of asking out of Houston, Brooklyn and now, apparently, Philadelphia suggests to expect the unexpected regarding how long his honeymoon with any team might last.
What do the Clippers do with power forward? Perhaps no position, not even point guard, led to as much puzzlement last season as power forward, where Nicolas Batum and Marcus Morris Sr., and to a lesser extent Robert Covington — well-regarded in the locker room and for his defensive anticipation yet rarely used — formed an uneven rotation.
All are at least 32 and on contracts that expire after next season. The Clippers already have shown a willingness to part with Morris by engaging in discussions last week with Boston and Washington in a trade that, in one form, would have dealt Morris.
Will youth truly get opportunities to break through? When the Clippers declined to guarantee Eric Gordon’s contract late Wednesday and waived the veteran guard, it was done in part to create more opportunities for the team’s young guards and wings, according to a person with knowledge of the team’s thinking. That group includes Mann, Bones Hyland, Brandon Boston Jr., Jason Preston — whose contract isn’t guaranteed until next week — and new second-round draft pick Jordan Miller.
The NBA’s new collective bargaining agreement will impose punitive penalties on top-spending teams and thus incentivize even more the ability to identify rotation-worthy prospects on inexpensive rookie deals. But teams also need to let those youngsters play to understand if they’re ready. It’s why a trade for Harden would raise their present-day potential while making their future harder to read.
The question becomes how willing the Clippers are to endure the necessary growing pains while chasing a championship while their title window, as George said in 2023, is perhaps slowly closing.