It could be never for these Los Angeles Clippers.
It could be now, too, but smart money seems to lean toward the former over the latter. So much has been said compared to done during these last four years, they’ve almost become an afterthought in terms of the NBA elite.
Seven franchises have reached the NBA Finals in the last four years, the time since Kawhi Leonard and Paul George joined forces in the summer of 2019 to give the Clippers a real identity and true championship expectations.
And the Clippers are not one of them.
In the time of great parity, they still find themselves on the outside looking in, unable to break through and at least qualify for the championship round. It seems clear they can’t depend on the health of the two wing stars long enough to make a viable playoff run, but they have very little choice besides riding this grand experiment out in the near future — with a crossroad soon ahead.
How many times can the Clippers keep running this back on the same hopes and wishes before deciding to pivot in another direction?
Time waits for no man in the NBA, even as primes extend longer than ever. The Oklahoma City Thunder? Coming. The Minnesota Timberwolves would be, too, if they decided to turn their on-floor operation over to Anthony Edwards.
At some point, youth will be served and it could be this season that serves as a changing of the guard, even if the mainstays do their damndest to hold onto the dwindling real estate in the conference.
You don’t have to squint to see why the Clippers continue to place hope in their dynamic wing duo. George showed what he could do as the No. 1 guy when Leonard tore his ACL against the Utah Jazz in the 2021 playoffs, carrying the Clippers to within two games of the Finals.
But they haven’t won a playoff series since then and so much ground has shifted underneath this franchise, holding onto an unexpected run and playing the “what if” card until oblivion won’t do much good if the same story repeats itself.
It’s easy to see why the Clippers are interested in James Harden, considering he will play games and eat up minutes like Pac-Man in the regular season, in ways Leonard and George have been unable to.
Leonard, undoubtedly, is one of the greatest playoff performers of this generation. The only players in NBA playoff history better than Leonard in terms of win shares per 48 minutes are Nikola Jokić, LeBron James, George Mikan and some guy named Michael Jordan.
When he plays, he’s incredible. He gave a glimpse of that in the small sample size against Phoenix in the first round a few months ago, showing he can still rev it up to dominate a game on both ends by efficiency and will.
But the lack of availability, illustrated by a torn meniscus he suffered in Game 2 of that series, only amplifies the frustrations. It’s impossible to forecast internally when you can only count on your best player showing up but so much over a six-month period.
On the flip side, the same could be said for the headliners in Phoenix (Kevin Durant), the Lakers (James and Anthony Davis) and the Golden State Warriors (Stephen Curry). Health will always be the equalizer, especially after watching the Denver Nuggets finally get their main guys on the floor long enough to develop chemistry and then poof!, a championship was won.
Leonard opted for security his first time around, declining a player option in ’21-22 to sign a four-year pact. He’s approaching a similar territory now, with a player option in ’24-25. Leonard was eligible for an extension this summer, but there’s been no indication of any developments there.
Things could be percolating behind closed doors, as is Leonard’s understated style, but if not, why would the Clippers want to engage and lock themselves into another long-term deal with a player who can’t stay healthy long enough to fulfill expectations?
Leonard’s injuries aren’t his fault but they are his responsibility, no different than the much-maligned Davis across the way. Davis and the Lakers didn’t waste any time renewing their basketball vows after Davis finally stayed healthy long enough to help the Lakers get swept in the conference finals by the eventual champion Nuggets.
George has played 189 of a possible 308 games in four seasons since becoming a Clipper, after missing just 15 games total the previous three seasons. When you consider the gruesome injury he suffered with USA Basketball in 2014, it’s remarkable he’s even reached the point where durability is a legit question — it’s so far removed from our collective minds, the resilience he’s showed in getting back to an elite level that having this very conversation seems to be a win, personally.
Like Leonard, George will be extension-eligible soon. And with the new collective bargaining agreement cracking down on the big spenders with the luxury tax aprons, the Clippers will have to think long and hard before committing to players who’ll only get more expensive as they age — and we all know players suddenly get healthier as they enter their mid-30s.
The Clippers, perhaps for the first time since leaving San Diego for Los Angeles before the 1984-85 season, are no longer the desperate “pick me, love me” franchise they’ve long been. They’re competent, with team ownership resources and a front office that, despite a couple missteps, has been far more good than bad.
And Ty Lue is, for this money, the best coach in basketball along with Miami’s Erik Spoelstra. He wasn’t blaming anyone publicly for the health misfortunes of his team last season, only wanting to see what he could do with a full roster long enough to accurately judge its true potential.
But it doesn’t mean he can’t be rightly frustrated, especially as his own contractual situation comes into play. The last year of Lue’s contract (’24-25) was guaranteed this summer, after a couple championship franchises had real interest in him with their coaching vacancies.
So, in theory, Lue could command plenty of attention should he enter his own version of free agency, especially if he sees no light at the end of the Clippers’ tunnel.
Anything is possible, but it’s hard to see if that’s a train at the end of that tunnel, or a ring.