A quick mental exercise here.
Imagine the Los Angeles Clippers are not finally waist-deep in the Western Conference finals for the first time in franchise history, albeit down 2-0 to the Phoenix Suns.
Imagine, instead, they lost either of their previous two series (both of which they also trailed 2-0) and are now sitting at home, like most other teams, watching the Mavericks or Jazz battle the Suns for a ticket to The Finals.
Imagine, therefore, tonight’s massively important Game 3 in Los Angeles does not exist, and that the only thing of interest or concern to Clipper Nation right now is next season.
What would be the most pressing concern?
Ironically, the answer is probably the same for both the hypothetical scenario above and the current reality: Kawhi Leonard.
Follow the Heavy on Clippers Facebook page for the latest breaking news, rumors and content out of Clipper Nation!
Leonard Wants to Be in Los Angeles
Leonard, the 6-foot-8 do-everything forward sidelined from the Phoenix series with a mysterious knee injury, has a player option next season for the fourth and final year of his contract.
If he opts in, Leonard will make $36 million next season, according to Spotrac, and become an unrestricted free agent further down the line, in the summer of 2022.
If, on the other hand, Leonard opts out, he will become an unrestricted free agent immediately, available to sign with the Clippers or any other team that has enough cap space to pay Leonard a starting rate of $39 million.
For a while now, people in the know have speculated that Leonard, twice an NBA Finals MVP, would decline his option for next season and then turn around and re-sign with the Clippers on a max deal. Leonard is an LA native, after all, and has expressed interest in staying close to home, all things being equal.
Proximity to friends and family is, in part, why Leonard left Toronto in 2019 despite the Raptors being defending champions, and location further helped convince Paul George, another LA’er by birth, to leave OKC to join him. That George signed a four-year max extension with the Clippers this past December — thereby guaranteeing a talented running mate for years to come — is another reason Leonard is expected to stick around. (George told reporters that he consulted with Leonard before signing the extension.)
The only real X-factor, it was believed, would be another early exit for the Clippers from the playoffs, perhaps giving Leonard enough reason to try his hand at a third NBA championship elsewhere. But even then, most of the smart money has been on him returning to the Clippers.
Pleasantly, an early exit is no longer possible, but now with this knee injury, the dynamics have changed a bit, according to Bleacher Report’s Eric Pincus.
Surgery Could Throw a Wrench in the Works
Pincus still believes that Leonard will be a Clipper next season, but perhaps not at the max level.
If Leonard is forced to get surgery, Pincus speculates, he could be more inclined to opt-in on his player option, unwilling to risk his worth in an open market that will undoubtedly have questions about the health of his surgically repaired knee.
Back before the start of the season, Leonard himself said that the smart thing to do would be to opt-out, caveating his comments around his health, which has suddenly become very relevant.
“Obviously, if I’m healthy, the best decision is to decline the player option,” said Leonard. “But that doesn’t mean I’m leaving or staying.”
Though the Clippers would surely accept getting Leonard back now, during the playoffs, in exchange for spending more money later, surgery followed by an opt-in would save the Clippers several million dollars for next season, and give them an entire year to evaluate Leonard’s recovery. Assuming it’s a full one, they would then max him out in the summer of 2022.
If, on the other hand, Leonard has surgery and still decides to opt-out, the Clippers would need to make a decision on Leonard’s knee much more quickly — essentially forcing the organization to make a blind bet. Odds are, they would still re-sign him.
Another option that Pincus brings up is Leonard doing what ex-Clipper Chris Paul did in 2017 when his opt-in was conditional on being traded to a specific team (Houston). Leonard choosing this unlikely option, Pincus writes, would mean a “seismic shift.”
Pincus suggests that possible destinations for Leonard outside of L.A. are the Warriors, Mavericks, Heat and Knicks.
Incidentally, in Pincus’s post, which lists the top 20 free agents this coming offseason (Leonard was No. 1), Clippers guard Reggie Jackson is included in the Honorable Mention category. Previously thought of as mostly a role player, Jackson has elevated his game — and free agency stock — this season, particularly in the playoffs where he’s averaging 17.3 points on 50.3% shooting from the field and 42.3% from behind the arc.