Canceled NBA season would increase pressure on Clippers as Kawhi Leonard, Paul George close in on free agency

After the biggest summer in franchise history, in which they pulled off a stunning coup by landing both Kawhi Leonard and Paul George, all the Clippers needed was time — time to build chemistry, time for their players to get healthy, time for Doc Rivers to figure out the right rotations. It was working, too. Finally healthy, the Clippers had an 11.5 net rating in nine games following the All-Star break, by far the best in the league. A collision course with the Lakers in the Western Conference finals seemed inevitable, and perhaps after that, a trip to the NBA Finals. 

But then the NBA stopped. Sports stopped. The world stopped. Now time, once the Clippers’ best friend, is slowly becoming their worst enemy.

The clock for NBA organizations is constantly ticking rapidly, but this is unheard of. With the increasing possibility that the entire 2019-20 NBA season — regular season, playoffs, everything — could be completely canceled, we would essentially be taking a basketball-shaped time machine from March 11 to whenever the 2020-21 season begins. This would affect every team in some way, but the Clippers would feel it as strongly as any of them.

With the madness that ensued in the free-agent bonanza of last summer, it was easy to overlook a small detail. Rather than signing a four-year max contract with the Clippers, Leonard elected to lock himself into two seasons, with a player option for the third. It makes sense financially, as Leonard will be eligible for a more lucrative contract in the summer of 2021 when he hits 10 years of NBA service. Perhaps not coincidentally, George can also become a free agent after next season, leaving the door slightly ajar for a terrifying outcome for the Clippers.

In a perfect world, Leonard and George sign new deals with the team next offseason, helping to usher in an extended era of Clippers success as they move into a state-of-the-art, billion-dollar arena in Inglewood. In a nightmarish parallel universe, though, Leonard and George seek greener pastures, either separately or in tandem, with one of the several teams hoarding cap room for 2021, leaving the Clippers with few options and a glaringly sparse cabinet of assets moving forward.

That’s why finishing this season is so important. If the NBA ends up canceling the whole thing, leaving the championship vacant, the Clippers lose a crucial postseason to prove to their superstars that this is a place where they can win titles. The 2020-21 season then becomes an absolute make-or-break, when they’d be one major injury, one major chemistry issue, one early playoff exit away from losing Leonard and George — and with it the organization’s membership in the club of NBA elite.

Part of the potential problem stems from the cost of doing business last summer. Let’s say the Clippers fail in their quest next season, for whatever reason. What’s the path for improvement that Steve Ballmer, Jerry West and management can lay out to keep Leonard and George around? They traded their best young player, budding star Shai Gilgeous-Alexander, to the Thunder along with essentially all of their first-round draft picks from 2021-2026.

They also traded their 2020 first-round pick to the New York Knicks in the Marcus Morris deal — a move that was meant to push them over the top in this season’s title race. If the season is canceled, however, Morris becomes a free agent this offseason and the Clippers could have traded a first-rounder, one of their few remaining assets, for 12 regular-season games of Marcus Morris. Obviously there’s no way they could have foreseen a worldwide pandemic shutting down the league, and they’re not the only team that would suffer, but that is one reality they now face.

There’s also the question of Montrezl Harell, an unrestricted free agent this coming offseason (whenever that takes place) who has been on one of the most team-friendly contracts in the league over the past two seasons given his production. The NBA economy in the fallout from the coronavirus may cause teams to be more frugal than usual, but Harrell is one of the best players in an extremely shallow 2020 free-agent class, which could increase his value considerably. The Clippers could really use the 2019-20 playoff run to see how Harrell fits, and whether he’d be worth whatever price he commands this offseason. If the season’s canceled, however, you’d have to imagine Ballmer will have to keep Harrell — maybe Morris, too — no matter the cost, because next season would carry so much weight.

Of course nobody knows what’s going to happen at this point, but there is a real chance that this NBA season never finishes and we have to fast-forward to 2020-21. If that does happen, the Clippers would lose one of their best chances to win the franchise’s first title, and add monumental pressure to win next season in order to keep their two superstars.

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