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Kawhi Leonard’s decision headlines Clippers offseason

The superstar forward is dealing with an injury, but will still have a big free agency market.

NBA: JUN 14 Western Conference Playoffs Second Round - Jazz at Clippers
LA Clippers forward Kawhi Leonard ready for defense during the game 4 of the second round of the Western Conference Playoffs between the Utah Jazz and the Los Angeles Clippers on June 14, 2021, at Staples Center in Los Angeles, CA.
Photo by Jevone Moore/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

UPDATE: Kawhi Leonard is expected to re-sign with the Clippers.

All eyes in the Los Angeles Clippers organization and the NBA now turn to Kawhi Leonard.

After a 4-2 exit in the conference finals at the hands of the Phoenix Suns, the Clippers head into the offseason with Leonard’s potential free agency looming over the franchise. Paul George is locked into a long-term deal but could be on the way out if Leonard decides to leave town. The Clippers also have to deal with free agency decisions on DeMarcus Cousins, Nicolas Batum and Reggie Jackson.

Here are the different scenarios Los Angeles encounters depending on Leonard’s decision.

Scenario 1: Leonard opts into his player option

Depending on how severe Leonard’s injury actually is, the superstar forward could opt into his $36 million player option and rest up before returning the court for a bit and entering free agency next summer. Leonard’s value is going to be high no matter when he hits the market, but his health will be worth monitoring.

If Leonard opts in and is on track to return around January or February, the Clippers might find it worth running back this unit for another year. Los Angeles went 4-4 with Leonard sidelined, but played better team basketball and kept things tight in every game. George is capable of leading a team as the top star, but had to take a secondary role when Leonard was on the floor. In this scenario, the Clippers can re-integrate Leonard behind the scenes slowly. Los Angeles would likely be around .500 for much of the season but can get into the playoffs with Leonard’s final push once he returns. That will also help Leonard’s free agency.

Scenario 2: Leonard opts out, signs long-term deal with Clippers

George’s performances after Leonard’s injury is a huge selling point for the star to sign a long-term deal this summer. It’ll reinforce the commitment both players made to each other and the franchise and set the organization up for long-term success. Leonard won’t be sacrificing anything from a financial standpoint and if he wants to stay in Los Angeles, there’s no real reason to wait another year.

The Clippers can over the cap to re-sign Jackson and will likely have to do so given the point guard’s potential market. Batum and Cousins might also come back on team-friendly deals. Ibaka’s player option is an unknown but he can be an important contributor when healthy.

With Leonard and George on long-term deals, the Clippers can finish rounding out the roster. Terance Mann, Cousins, Jackson, Batum, Morris, Ivica Zubac and Luke Kennard are sure to be sticking around. Rajon Rondo and Patrick Beverley could make good trade candidates as expiring contracts and likely will be moved.

Scenario 3: Leonard opts out, signs with new team

This is the doomsday scenario for the Clippers. Fortunately for the team and its fans, this remains highly unlikely. Leonard spoke about his family connections in Los Angeles and moved a lot of pieces around to shape this team and franchise to his liking. He’s probably not going to leave after two underwhelming postseasons.

But superstars can change their thinking in an instant if they believe it’s the right move for their career. Leonard might feel the Clippers don’t need him to be successful or that he was holding the team back. After all, the group did look better with George leading the squad. Los Angeles obviously wants Leonard back but maybe he doesn’t want to come back.

If Leonard leaves, the Clippers will search for a trade partner for George. The Oklahoma City Thunder got a massive haul for George, who is still considered one of the best players in the league at 31. He proved it in eight games with Leonard sidelined, averaging 29.6 points, 11.0 rebounds and 5.6 assists per game. Someone will be ready to give up a big package to add George.

The Clippers would begrudgingly enter another rebuild they are not set up well for. Los Angeles is conveying first-round picks to Oklahoma City for a while with either protections or swaps. Mann and Zubac would be decent rotation players to retain, but the organization wouldn’t have much to bank on going forward in this case.

The Verdict

Scenarios 1 and 2 are largely the same with the only caveat being Leonard pushing his free agency decision another year. If he does do that, the Clippers should be concerned. Scenario 3 is likely off the table.

In both of the first two scenarios, the Clippers run everything back. With George silencing a lot of his critics and showing he can be a superstar when the situation calls for it, Los Angeles has reasons to be optimistic. The NBA has a lot of parity right now, but Leonard and George make the Clippers contenders. Expect the team to run everything back for at least another year regardless of Leonard’s option decision.