Clippers get younger in draft, then make final case to retain veteran stars

The LA Clippers had the oldest roster in the NBA in 2023-24, with an average age of 30.4 years. A byproduct of that came in the form of four future Hall of Fame players who were all 32 years of age or older: Kawhi Leonard (33 on Saturday), Paul George (34), James Harden (35 in August) and Russell Westbrook (35).

For one night, the Clippers focused on getting younger — much younger. With the 46th pick in the 2024 NBA Draft, the Clippers selected University of Minnesota small forward Cam Christie. This is a player who won’t turn 19 years old until July 24, when summer league is over.

“It’s the way the board fell,” Clippers president of basketball operations Lawrence Frank said on drafting Christie. “We also wanted to get the average age of our young guys down to like 25 …”

Frank had jokes this afternoon! But more on Christie and the Clippers draft later, because this week’s two-day event was merely a slight distraction from the major task at hand for the franchise.

By Saturday, George will decide on his player option that can pay him $48.8 million next season. A three-year extension, similar to the one Leonard signed in January with the Clippers, has been on the table for about a year. It seems unlikely that George will be signing it and increasingly likely that George will test the open market for the first time since 2018, when he quickly re-signed with the Oklahoma City Thunder.

Just like in early May, when Frank said shortly after the Clippers were eliminated by the eventual Western Conference champion Dallas Mavericks that George “can sign his extension up to July 1 and he can also test free agency and we’re hopeful that we can still bring him back,” Frank acknowledged that George could reach unrestricted free agency. Once again, Frank displayed a desire to have George re-sign, even if the Clippers have to fend off other teams on the open market to do so.

“We love Paul,” Frank said Thursday. “We very much want to retain Paul. But we also very much understand and respect the fact that this is a business, and players have a finite amount of time to be able to not just make the most amount of money but to be able to pursue whatever they want. We hope Paul’s decision is to be here. He’s been awesome, he’s been an All-Star three out of the five years. He’s one of the best two-way players in the league. He’s a terrific person, has a great family. So we hope he’s here. But also, respect the fact that if he chooses to opt out, that that’s his choice. He’s earned it and we will see how things play out.”

The conversations between George and his representative and the team have been ongoing. The negotiations have certainly reached a level of analysis where George has been in situations with his public appearances that leave open-ended questions about the state of how George views the Clippers. George is the keystone to the Clippers’ offseason, so if he questions how the Clippers are approaching the game, it raises eyebrows.

But Frank is not taking the Pat Riley approach in terms of responding. Whereas the Miami Heat godfather/president called out Jimmy Butler for saying the Boston Celtics and New York Knicks would not beat Miami with Butler healthy, Frank was far more diplomatic when responding to George’s hypothetical query regarding his desire to play the right style of basketball along his journey toward a new contract. Frank pointed out that George had his most efficient season ever (a lot of it as an off-ball, catch-shoot threat!), but that George is entitled to speak his mind about how the team could do better.

“I think Paul sharing what’s important to him is terrific,” Frank said. “Yet at the same time, yeah, he did have an extremely efficient year. The most efficient year of his career. He’s the all-time Clipper leader in 3-pointers. We had a terrific stretch where he was at his best too when we went 31-8 in that 39-game stretch. But at the same time, you listen to all your players, and that’s how you learn and grow. There’s areas that we can all get better at. We totally support our guys in terms of expressing how you feel. Let’s be solution-oriented and figure out how we can get better.”

The other free agent the Clippers are prioritizing is Harden, who the team could not have contract talks with until after the NBA Finals ended. It seems likely that Harden will also reach unrestricted free agency. Frank described the negotiations with Harden and his representatives as “very productive,” and all signs point to Harden staying with the Clippers, although Harden might not be resolved until George makes his decision. In the meantime, Frank has been complimentary of Harden, even down to Harden’s local and frequent workouts.

“We hope he decides to continue to be here,” Frank said. “He’s been great even in the offseason: coming in, working out, coming in for two-a-days, getting extra work in. We very much want James to remain a Clipper, and hope he decides to do the same.”

While Harden has been working out with the likes of Kevin Durant and Chet Holmgren and having a healthy offseason, Leonard has been preparing to join the United States men’s basketball team as it gets ready to defend a gold medal in Paris for the Olympic Games. Leonard was able to play only two games after March 31 due to inflammation in his right knee that significantly restricted his performance in the postseason.

Because Leonard has failed to finish any of the last four seasons healthy for the Clippers, his health is a major point of conflict. But Leonard appears to be headed in the right direction not just for this summer, but also to prepare for the 2024-25 season. That is a good sign at a time when the Clippers are attempting to retain Leonard’s primary running mates.

“He’s ramping it up,” Frank said Thursday. “His biggest concern, like all of our concerns, is long-term health. He’s not going to do anything that jeopardizes his long-term health. He wants to not only be ready for the Olympics, he wants to be ready to have a great season this upcoming year and wants to have a long career. His focus and mindset is each day he’s made significant progress, and if he continues to go in that direction, then we’re very hopeful he will be great in the Olympics and excited for having an All-NBA player have another great year this upcoming season.”

Frank and general manager Trent Redden were not asked about Westbrook, who has a player option he must decide on by Saturday as well. The front office has repeatedly said about players such as Westbrook that they want to be transparent about role expectation and that they have earned the right to “make the decisions that make the most sense for them”.

The Clippers did need to get younger, though. Not only did the Clippers add a very similar physical comparison to since-waived Joshua Primo in Christie, but they agreed to add 19-year-old small forward Trentyn Flowers as an undrafted free agent as well.

Christie, the brother of Los Angeles Lakers shooting guard Max Christie, profiles as a shooting guard despite playing small forward in college, one who will need to get stronger to reach his full potential. He shot 39.1 percent from 3, and that’s key for a Clippers team that severely lacks catch-and-shoot threats. Flowers, who played in Australia with the Adelaide 36ers last season, has upside as a scorer, rebounder and 3-point shooter at 6-foot-7, 201 pounds. Both are expected to play heavy minutes with the San Diego Clippers.

Growing the developmental base was important for the Clippers. After all, even if the team retains George, the new era of the collective bargaining agreement impacts teams like the Clippers significantly. They’re going to have to hit on some of these young players at some point. In the meantime, the Clippers hope that they can simply maintain the era they have with their stars in place.

“When your better players are in their 30s and you’re trying to build a sustainable roster, it impacts it,” Frank said. “If there was no CBA, with Steve Ballmer, it would be carte blanche, all of you guys would be getting whatever you wanted. But this is the reality. With the new CBA, it’s not even about the money as it is, how are you going to build a sustainable roster, maintain your tools to have transactional flexibility? And with that comes really, really hard decisions. We totally respect the fact that deals get made when it makes sense for both sides.”

(Photo of Cameron Christie: Jeff Haynes / NBAE via Getty Images)

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