Clippers throw money at chemistry problems

Clippers Kawhi Leonard, Serge Ibaka, Paul George and Nicolas Batum
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NBC Sports’ Dan Feldman is grading every team’s offseason based on where the team stands now relative to its position entering the offseason. A ‘C’ means a team is in similar standing, with notches up or down from there.

Kawhi Leonard and Paul George joined a Clippers team that had already built a strong identity of starless grittiness.

It was a chemistry disaster.

Incumbent players chafed at the preferential treatment those new stars received. Coach Doc Rivers never set everyone straight. The situation devolved as the Clippers blew a 3-1 lead to the Nuggets in the second round.

The Clippers are done merging eras now. They’ve made clear: This is Leonard’s and George’s team. Everyone else must get in line.

A team with Leonard and George will be capped out for the foreseeable future – assuming Leonard re-signs. But if he doesn’t re-sign, the Clippers will be screwed, anyway. They might as well proceed as if he will. So, there’s little point angling for salary-cap flexibility, especially with Clippers owner Steve Ballmer greenlighting major long-term spending to fortify the situation.

Ballmer’s willingness to spend gives the Clippers an advantage, allowing them to think outside the production-per-dollar paradigm. It’s more about production, whatever it costs to get.

L.A. signed George to a four-year max extension, which projects to pay $176,265,466. That might be more than he’s worth in his age-31-34 seasons. But it’s good to have him locked in as Leonard approaches 2021 unrestricted free agency. The extension also sends a message in the locker room that George is a franchise cornerstone and deserves to be treated as such.

The Clippers re-signed Marcus Morris (four years, $64 million). Again, the price might be high, but securing the quality player was the priority. L.A. had his Bird Rights and no reasonable way to replace him if he left. Acquired last season, Morris wasn’t part of the old guard.

Signing Serge Ibaka (1+1, non-taxpayer mid-level exception) triggered the hard cap and required letting Montrezl Harrell (Lakers) and JaMychal Green (Nuggets) walk in free agency. That was an easy call. The Clippers lost a good backup who bickered with George to get a good starter who gets along with Leonard. Plus, Harrell has limitations (defense, outside shooting) that can get exposed in the playoffs. Ibaka is a better and more versatile defender and better jump-shooter.

Further shedding old-guard players, the Clippers traded Landry Shamet for Luke Kennard. In a vacuum, Shamet or the No. 19 pick (which went to the Pistons in the three-team trade and clearly could have been gotten for Shamet) might be more valuable than Kennard. Kennard is eligible for a rookie-scale extension. Shamet and the No. 19 pick are on their relatively cheap rookie-scale deals longer. But Kennard is the best player in the deal. He can somewhat duplicate Shamet’s 3-point shooting while adding playmaking and probably better defense. The Clippers even got four Detroit second-rounders and unloaded Rodney McGruder in the trade, nifty work.

Re-signing Patrick Patterson (one year, $3,077,704) made sense, because his Non-Bird Rights (technically a form of Bird Rights) allowed the Clippers to pay him more than they could another outside free agent.

Nicolas Batum was a nice signing for the minimum. His far-too-large contract overshadowed his decent production with the Hornets. That won’t be a problem in L.A.

Reggie Jackson was another signing for the minimum.

The Clippers still have top-end talent. They still have depth. They still versatility.

But did they gain enough chemistry?

The Clippers fired Rivers and promoted Tyronn Lue. The fresh start should help, and Lue looks like he could be the right coach at the right time. He successfully stood up to LeBron James, Kyrie Irving and Kevin Love while coaching the Cavaliers. Leonard and George might sometimes need some tough love. More importantly, their teammates might sometimes need to see Leonard George get some tough love.

Leonard is not a natural leader and can be aloof. George has tendencies that can be grating.

But their talent is undeniable. Chemistry is easier to develop than talent is to acquire – especially on a team willing to pay to churn its roster.

If Leonard re-signs, Kennard gets his desired new deal and Ibaka opts out to re-sign for a raise next summer… the Clippers could get quite expensive.

But that spending is precisely why the Clippers are now better-positioned to win this season and re-sign Leonard.

Offseason grade: B