Kawhi Leonard and Paul George were injured when the last Clippers season ended in April. When the new one begins next week, the stars — whose arrival four years ago heralded championship aspirations not yet realized because of injuries — will be in uniform and healthy to play.
When the team holds its first practice of training camp Tuesday in Hawaii, both will be “full participants,” Lawrence Frank, the Clippers’ president of basketball operations, said during his annual preseason address.
If one question about their present availability appears settled, another about their futures with the team has not been resolved.
Both Leonard and George, who are beginning their fifth seasons in Los Angeles, can become unrestricted free agents next summer if they choose to not exercise the final year of their contracts, a player option worth $48 million apiece that covers the 2024-25 season. Leonard has been eligible for a contract extension since mid-July, and George since Sept. 1. Both can sign for a maximum of up to four years and $220 million.
Frank said the franchise’s goal is “still trying to maximize Kawhi and PG’s window and take advantage of it,” but deals have not materialized — just as a new contract, with a raise, sought by coach Tyronn Lue this offseason also did not come to fruition, with the team instead guaranteeing the final year of Lue’s contract, for 2024-25.
Asked whether the team was sending a message by not rushing into locking itself into long-term deals with three of its pillars, Frank said “not at all.”
“All of us feel a tremendous responsibility and indebtedness to [team owner Steve Ballmer], to our fans, to the fellow people we work with to make sure that we’re able to perform and give our best,” Frank said. “In terms of T. Lue, I don’t know — he has two years. So we love T. Lue. We want T. Lue to be the coach here for a long time; he’s one of the elite coaches in this league and there’s always a timing for things like that.
“PG and Kawhi, we have very, very candid conversations in terms of the goal is to keep them as Clippers. It’s not a warning shot but I think all of us, me included, you feel a tremendous amount of responsibility and you take ownership for your piece of the pie, so to speak of how we each can do better for each other and ultimately for all our fans.”
Frank added that all players on the roster are expected to be healthy for the start of camp, though who is on that roster remains subject to change. The contract of third-year point guard Jason Preston becomes guaranteed Sunday, so the team must decide whether to waive or keep him.
A three-team trade to send Damian Lillard to the Milwaukee Bucks also could grow larger yet if the Portland Trail Blazers opt to move incoming guard Jrue Holiday, the Los Angeles native who is one of the NBA’s top defenders and has earned Leonard and George’s respect. The Clippers already have discussed their interest in Holiday internally.
Also, the Clippers have been at the top of James Harden’s list of desired destinations since July, as the guard has made his unhappiness staying in Philadelphia clear and demanded a trade. Frank could not comment on speculation, instead repeating the philosophy on team-building he has voiced since he took over six years ago.
“We like our group, we like our team,” Frank said. “You are always looking for ways to get better, both individually and as a team. Typically if you just follow the probability the greatest way to get better is internal improvement, but from our standpoint we’ll always be aggressive trying to find ways to improve the team.”
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