LOS ANGELES — Following a disappointing, injury-marred first-round exit to finish a season that began with championship expectations, Lawrence Frank said the LA Clippers will continue to build around Kawhi Leonard and Paul George.
In his end of season address, the Clippers’ president of basketball operations said a healthy Leonard and George continue to give them a chance to win a championship. Keeping their two franchise stars healthy has been problematic.
George missed the final nine games of the regular season and the entire first round because of a sprained right knee. And Leonard was dominant in the first two games before a torn meniscus in his right knee forced him to miss the final three games of the Clippers’ five-game series loss to the Phoenix Suns.
“When we traded for Paul and signed Kawhi as a free agent in 2019, it wasn’t for one or two years, wasn’t three or four,” Frank said. “Every year you have those guys, they give you a chance. And so it’s about surrounding those guys to continue to improve your chances.
“Kawhi’s a ceiling raiser. When you study past NBA champions, they have a top-five guy on their team, and Kawhi has shown that when healthy he can be the best player in the world. Paul is an eight-time All-Star now. So we’re going to continue to build around those guys and look for every which way [to improve around them].”
Frank confirmed Leonard’s torn meniscus injury and that the team and Leonard will take the next few weeks to determine the next step toward his recovery. Leonard’s meniscus injury is to the same knee in which suffered a torn ACL in the second round of the playoffs in 2021. That ACL injury kept Leonard out for all of the 2021-22 season. Leonard also had a quadriceps injury in his right leg, an injury that kept him out of all but nine games during the 2017-18 season with San Antonio.
“Regardless of the treatment [for the meniscus], Kawhi will be ready for next year,” Frank said. “The really encouraging thing is the ACL’s firmly intact, which is great. So this is a meniscus tear. And then over the whatever next couple weeks, figure out what’s going to be the best source of treatment.”
Leonard and George are eligible for extensions up to an additional four years and $220 million, according to ESPN’s Bobby Marks. Both stars are entering their fifth season with the Clippers and have $48 million player options for the 2024-25 season.
This past season, the Clippers only had their star duo for a total of 38 games because of injuries. In their four seasons together so far, Leonard and George have played in a total of 142 regular season and postseason games combined with the Clippers going 96-46.
Frank was asked if the Clippers will offer extensions to the two franchise cornerstones. Leonard is eligible for an extension starting July 12 and George on Sept. 1.
“Those guys are great players and they’re great partners and we want to keep them as Clippers for a long time,” Frank said. “And so we’ll look forward to those conversations. And the No. 1 goal is how can we build a sustainable championship team? And those guys have been great partners, so at the appropriate time, we look forward to sitting down with them.”
Frank made it clear that despite the team having the unfortunate luck of losing Leonard to a right knee injury in the middle of a playoff series for the second time in three postseasons, the Clippers must take the regular season more seriously.
The Clippers went 44-38 but had three separate losing streaks of four games or more. There were several times this season when the Clippers lacked urgency and seemed disinterested in the regular season.
“What I don’t want to do is have the injuries or how hard we fought in the postseason to mask a disappointing regular season,” Frank said. “We have to be honest with ourselves and we have to look in the mirror. It starts with me and we have to get back to honoring and respecting the regular season. We have to compete harder, more consistently, and we have to earn it.
“And regardless of who plays, I think we showed in the playoffs, that competing, that’s who we have to be about. I just think we need to compete harder every single night. We owe it to ourselves, we owe it to the fans. We want to be a championship organization and we have to invest deeper into the process. … The regular season matters.”
Frank was effusive with his praise for Ty Lue and said the head coach will be back next season. Lue was emotional after the Clippers’ 136-130 loss in Phoenix in Game 5 and reflected back on his three seasons as Clippers coach, thanking the entire organization, players and assistants following perhaps his most trying season on and off the court.
Lue and the Clippers said they would love to have Russell Westbrook back. The point guard exceeded all expectations that the Clippers had when they signed him at the All-Star break. Westbrook will become a free agent, and the Clippers will only have the $3.8 million non-Bird exception to offer Westbrook, according to Marks.
Frank also said he would like to have Eric Gordon, who has a $20.9 million non-guaranteed contract that becomes guaranteed on June 28, and Mason Plumlee, who is set to become a free agent, back.
Owner Steve Ballmer invested $365 million into the roster this past season, only to see a preseason championship favorite flame out in the first round with an injured Leonard and George watching from the sidelines.
With a new collective bargaining agreement making it harder for tax-paying teams to improve the roster, the Clippers will have to get creative with limited assets to improve around Leonard and George.
“We’re blessed to have a chairman who’s all in to try to capitalize on the window we’re in,” Frank said. “At the same time, it’s our job to be responsible and make responsible decisions. The new CBA will have implications. Not just this, but over the next couple of years, and always hard decisions will have to be made.”