Clippers throw money at chemistry problems

Clippers Kawhi Leonard, Serge Ibaka, Paul George and Nicolas Batum
Adam Pantozzi/NBAE via Getty Images

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

NBA owners, players union reportedly agree to push back CBA opt-out date


NBA owners and players are both making too much money to risk screwing things up with a labor stoppage, right? RIGHT?

Don’t be so sure.

In a sign the two sides have a lot of work to do to reach terms on a new Collective Bargaining Agreement — primarily because of an internal dispute among the owners — the NBA (representing the owners) and the players union have agreed to push back the opt-out date for the CBA from Dec. 15 (this would end the current CBA on July 1, 2023). Marc Stein reported this earlier in the week (covered here) and ESPN’s Adrian Wojnarowski added details today.

Talks on a new CBA are ongoing, and a formal ratification of an extension — likely into February — is expected to come at a virtual board of governors meeting Wednesday, sources said.

What’s the stumbling block? A group of owners — bothered by the massive spending into the luxury tax of the Warriors, Clippers, and Nets  — is pushing for an “Upper Spending Limit” for teams. Call it whatever they want, that’s a hard cap and there is no chance the players will sign off on any form of a hard cap. 

The NBA has used a punitive and progressively intense luxury tax to rein in the spending of some owners. However, some owners — how many is unclear, but enough that the NBA has put the issue on the table — feel the tax isn’t doing its job in the wake of new, even wealthier owners. 

Unquestionably some owners are unbothered by the tax. To use the example I have used before, Steve Ballmer’s Clippers are on track to pay $191.9 million in payroll this season, which will result in a $144.7 million luxury tax bill (leading to a payroll and tax total of $336.6 million). The Warriors and Nets will be in the same ballpark. The Clippers will pay more in tax alone than 11 teams will spend on total payroll. Two-thirds of NBA teams will pay around $150 million in payroll or less, not much more than the Clippers’ tax bill.

Recently, the same NBA owners approved a rule change that would allow a sovereign wealth fund — the financial arms of generally oil-rich countries such as Qatar or Saudi Arabia — to buy up to 20% of an NBA team as a silent partner. That has not happened yet, but the door is open. It’s part of a pattern of wealthier owners — including hedge fund managers and the like — entering the playing field for the NBA.

All that has some of the more established, older owners feeling squeezed by this new group’s willingness to spend. That has the older owners pushing for a hard cap to stop what they see as an increased willingness to spend.

Again, there is no chance the players approve a hard cap. The owners know this, but some seem willing to play brinksmanship with a lucrative, growing business (particularly internationally) to protect their bottom lines.

If you read all that and thought, “this isn’t about the players really, it’s an owner vs. owner issue,” you’re spot on. The league and players are giving the owners more time to work out their internal issues.

Are struggling Mavericks on the clock with Luka Doncic?


Luka Doncic is in the first year of a five-year, $215.2 million contract. More than that, when asked recently if Mavericks fans should be worried about him wanting out as the team has stumbled at points to start this season, Doncic didn’t sound like a guy looking to bolt:

“I don’t think they’re worried about it right now. I got what, five years left here, so I don’t think they should be worried about it.”

The Mavericks’ front office should be worried about it — teams are always on the clock with a superstar.

The Mavericks let Jalen Brunson get away in the offseason, then brought in Christian Wood (whose defense is an issue and he is coming off the bench). This remains a team a player or two away from contending despite having a potential MVP in Doncic carrying a historic offensive load.

That doesn’t mean Doncic will ask out at the deadline or this summer (he won’t), but if his frustration grows over the next couple of years… who knows. Tim MacMahon of ESPN put it well on the Hoop Collective podcast (hat tip Real GM):

“I think they have a two-year window. This season and next season going into that summer [2024]. I think they have a two-year window where, you know, like Milwaukee did with Giannis [Antetokounmpo], I think in that window they really need to convince Luka that he has a chance to contend year in and year out right here in Dallas. If they can’t get it done in that two-year window, I’m not going to sit here and tell you that he’s going to force a trade or ask for a trade. I’m just saying at that point if he’s not happy, he has all the leverage in the world if he would be looking to leave..

“I don’t think Luka will look for reasons to leave. I think he’d be perfectly happy spending his entire career in Dallas. But if he doesn’t have to look for reasons and they’re slamming him in the face, then that’s a problem. He’s also a guy who is a ruthless competitor, which means he loves winning. He’s used to winning. He won championships with Real Madrid. He won a EuroBasket championship with the Slovenian national team. He also detests losing. Like can’t handle it.”

The Mavericks made the Western Conference Finals last season, knocking off the 64-win Suns in the process — this team is not that far away. Not with Doncic handling the ball. But it feels like a team that has taken a step back from those lofty levels this season. There are many more questions than answers, and it’s impossible to guess how Doncic will feel after this season’s playoffs, let alone the ones ending in the summer of 2024.

But the Mavericks stumbles this season have to put the Dallas front office on notice — this team is not good enough. And if we know it, you can be sure Doncic knows it.

Curry thinking retirement? ‘I don’t see myself slowing down any time soon’

2022 Sports Illustrated Sportsperson of the Year Awards Presented by Chase
Kimberly White/Getty Images for Sports Illustrated

Stephen Curry is playing at an MVP level this season: 30 points a game, hitting 43.2% from 3 with a 66.4 true shooting percentage, plus pitching in seven assists and 6.6 rebounds a game. He remains one of the best-conditioned athletes in the sport.

In the face of that, even though he is 34, asking him a retirement question seemed an odd choice, yet a reporter at the Sports Illustrated Sportsman of the Year award ceremony — Curry won the award, if you didn’t know — asked Curry about it seems he’s not interested.

Curry should not be thinking of retirement, but there is a sense around these Warriors that this era, this run is coming to an end in the next few years. Curry may be defying father time, but Draymond Green and Klay Thompson (especially post injuries) are not. There is a decline in their games (and this season, the role players have not stepped up around them the same way). With that comes a certain pressure to take advantage of the opportunities, there aren’t going to be as many.

Which is why the Warriors are a team to watch at the trade deadline (and will they sell low on James Wiseman to a team that still sees the potential in him?).

As for Curry, he will still be around and producing for a few more years. Nobody is ready to think about his retirement. Including Curry himself.

Block or charge: Alperen Sengun dunks on Zach Collins


To borrow the catchphrase of the great Rex Chapman:

Block or charge?

The Rockets’ Alperen Sengun caught a body and threw one down on the Spurs’ Zach Collins but was called for the offensive foul.

NBA Twitter went nuts.

Rockets coach Stephen Silas challenged the call, but it was upheld (from my perspective, the replay officials are always looking to back the in-game officials if they at all can).

By the time Collins slid over and jumped, Sengun was already in the air — if anything that was a block. What the officials called was Sengun using his off-arm to create space.

I hate the call — that’s a dunk and an and-one. Not because it’s a great dunk — although it is that, too — but because Collins literally jumped into the path of an already airborne Sengun, Collins created all the contact. It’s on him. Under the spirit of the rules, Sengun’s off-arm is moot at that point — Collins illegally jumped in Sengun’s way and caused the collision.

Terrible call by the officials.

It was a good night for the Spurs, overall. San Antonio played its best defense in a while and Keldon Johnson — one of the few bright spots in a dark Spurs season — hit his first nine shots on his way to a 32-point night that sparked a 118-109 San Antonio win over Houston, snapping the Spurs 11-game losing streak.