With Clippers at an Inflection Point, It May Be Time for Paul George to Say Goodbye

Five seasons after teaming up with Kawhi Leonard and no NBA title to show for it, there likely will be changes in Los Angeles this offseason.
George has a big decision to make this summer.
George has a big decision to make this summer. / Mark J. Rebilas-USA TODAY Sports
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After a disappointing first-round NBA playoffs exit, the Los Angeles Clippers entered the offseason with more questions than answers.

An expensive roster filled with aging and oft-injured stars fell well short of expectations in a loaded Western Conference.

Again.

In reality, it’s been five years of this. Kawhi Leonard and Paul George teamed up in 2019 and have taken this roster—in its various shapes and forms—to the playoffs in four of their five seasons since arriving. But this duo wasn’t assembled to simply make the postseason consistently. The goal is, and always has been with this core, to compete for championships.

And it hasn’t happened.

The only time it came close was in the 2020–21 season with a loss in six games to the Phoenix Suns in the Western Conference finals.

The team is at an inflection point, and the recently turned 34-year-old George holds all of the cards.

George is extension eligible and has been all season. He has had plenty of opportunities to come to an agreement with the franchise to remain in Los Angeles long term. But unlike the three-year, $152.4 million pact Leonard signed with the Clippers in January, George has instead played out the season and is now primed to hit free agency this summer unless a last-minute extension comes to fruition. At this point, it’s far more likely George declines his $48.7 million player option for next season and tests the open market.

George is seeking a max contract extension as he attempts to take one more big bite at the apple before he fully exits his prime. But the Clippers have not been willing to meet his asking price, according to NBA insider Shams Charania.

Given the implications of the second tax apron associated with the new collective bargaining agreement, George’s injury history and Leonard taking a slightly discounted extension that will pay him only the league max of around $52 million next season, it makes sense that the Clippers would be unwilling to pay George a full max extension.

This is where things get complicated.

Steve Ballmer, the team’s billionaire owner, wants to run it back with the team’s current core, according to The Athletic’s Sam Amick and Law Murray, and why wouldn’t he? The Clippers are set to begin play in their new 18,000-seat arena, the Intuit Dome, next season. Ballmer is certainly motivated to field another competitive team next season to get early returns on his $2 billion investment in a new arena separate from the Los Angeles Lakers.

Even if the Clippers were willing to keep the current core, does George want to stay?

Think of it from George’s standpoint.

He is entering his age-34 season in the fall—his 15th as a pro. This August, he’ll be a full decade removed from the compound fracture suffered in a 2014 Team USA scrimmage that required emergency surgery and the insertion of a pin to stabilize his tibia and fibula in his right leg. The experiment with Leonard over the past five years with the Clippers has been marred by injury, with each season marking another missed opportunity as the duo continues to age. And given the up-and-down nature of James Harden’s play at this stage of his career, along with Leonard’s injury woes, does George have what it takes to stay healthy enough to carry the Clippers as a true No. 1 scoring option?

George spent the entire early part of his career in Indiana with rumors circulating that he wanted to find a way back to his native L.A. After a two-year sabbatical in Oklahoma City, George got his wish. It’d be hard to imagine him leaving home to go play elsewhere, but his best shot at an elusive NBA title may no longer be with the Clippers. His best fit on the floor may be elsewhere as well.

One potential option for George is Philadelphia. The 76ers have struggled to build a contender around former league MVP Joel Embiid. In Embiid’s 10 years as a pro, the Sixers still have not made an Eastern Conference finals.

Although Embiid was injured in the team’s first-round playoff series against the New York Knicks, he’s proven that he’s still very much in his prime. The Sixers have a good, young guard in Tyrese Maxey who can create his own shot and play off the pick-and-roll with Embiid, but is more than happy to defer to teammates when necessary. Maxey is not ball dominant, but proved this postseason that the offense can run through him as needed. Add in the fact that he is just 23 years old, and all of a sudden Philadelphia becomes a very attractive destination for free agents.

Among the players who could be available this offseason, there may not be a more perfect fit than George in a 76ers uniform. George would be a significant upgrade over Tobias Harris and Nic Batum on the wing—offensively and defensively. For George, it would provide an opportunity to play with a former league MVP who is still in his prime on the low block and a young ascending point guard who can get downhill and provide him with plenty of catch-and-shoot looks. George wouldn’t have to carry the burden of a No. 1 scoring option on a title-contending team, but can be a very good second option or elite third option on a roster that would be open to adding him on a short-term max contract.

The Orlando Magic could be in the mix in free-agent talks with George as well, considering their cap situation and young core. However, if George wants to win a championship, he’ll be much closer to contender status with the 76ers than he would be in Orlando with a young group that is still likely a couple of years away from hitting its peak. The one advantage the Magic may have over the 76ers is giving George the chance to still prove he can be the top option on a contender, even if Paolo Banchero continues to show signs of growth into a future franchise cornerstone.

Any other option for George outside of the 76ers, Magic or re-signing with the Clippers would likely require a sign-and-trade arrangement.

The Clippers are at an inflection point this summer with plenty of decisions to be made about the current core. Sure, there’s the decision with what to do about Harden. There’s also Russell Westbrook’s impending $4 million player option that will indicate—for certain—if he is truly comfortable in his sixth man role on a contender at this stage of his career or if he is seeking something different.

But the Clippers' most important decision involves George.

The Clippers are an aging superteam that hasn't fulfilled its potential. Do they give it another try or hit the reset button? We'll find out soon.


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Mike McDaniel

MIKE MCDANIEL

Mike McDaniel is a writer on the Breaking & Trending News Team at Sports Illustrated, where he has worked since January 2022. His work has been featured at InsideTheACC.com, SB Nation, FanSided, and more. Mike hosts the Hokie Hangover Podcast, covering Virginia Tech athletics, as well as Basketball Conference: The ACC Football Podcast. Outside of his professional life, he is a husband, father, and an avid golfer.