As the Los Angeles Clippers watched their season slip away during the second half of Game 6, Kawhi Leonard watched on the bench with his teammates, with his long-term future uncertain.
The All-Star duo of Leonard and Paul George carried the Clippers to new heights by reaching the Western Conference Finals for the first time in franchise history but left wondering what could’ve been if Leonard didn’t sprain his right knee.
With Leonard’s future and the team’s long-term title chances hanging in the balance, HoopsHype polled five NBA executives for their thoughts on what Kawhi will do in free agency and what to expect from the Clippers this offseason with several key players entering free agency.
Will Kawhi Leonard remain with the Clippers after free agency?
All five of the NBA executives polled believe Leonard will ultimately remain with the Clippers after his free agency concludes and look to run it back with George and compete for another shot at the championship.
“I figure they have to make some changes and run it back with those two guys,” one NBA executive told HoopsHype. “You’ve got to give it another chance, I think. They just hired Ty Lue for this group. It wasn’t a normal season. You’ve got to give it a normal season a chance first, I’d think.”
“They (Leonard and George) have the talent and want to be in LA, so I bet things around them move, but they are solid,” a second NBA executive told HoopsHype.
Many around the league expect Leonard to opt out of his contract, but that doesn’t mean he’ll leave.
As our HoopsHype salary cap expert Yossi Gozlan notes, there are plenty of reasons for Leonard to opt out of his player option. His option is worth $36 million for next season, but he’s eligible for a new max contract starting at $39.3 million. Once in unrestricted free agency, Leonard can receive a four-year, $176.2 million max contract from the Clippers, who have his Early Bird Rights. Should Leonard decide to leave the Clippers, the most another team can offer is a four-year, $169.2 million deal. Another option is he can sign a two-year maximum deal with the Clippers, including a player option, and opt out next summer to sign a five-year deal worth $235 million.
“I highly doubt Leonard would leave,” a third NBA executive told HoopsHype. “It would take another player recruiting him.”
After being limited to 52 games this season, Leonard showed up when it mattered most In 11 playoff games for the Clippers, where he averaged 30.4 points on 57.3 percent shooting, 7.7 rebounds, 4.4 assists, and 2.1 steals per game.
It’s why George believed if Leonard were healthy, the Clippers would’ve advanced and not the Suns.
Reggie Jackson’s free agency future
In Leonard’s absence, Clippers guard Reggie Jackson stepped up in the playoffs averaging 17.8 points on 48.4 percent shooting overall and 40.8 percent shooting from downtown. Jackson earned himself a hefty pay raise in the process, as George noted.
“Obviously, Reggie has played himself into some options, for sure, coming down to his free agency,” George said after Game 6. “Rightfully so. He played his ass off, but of course, I would love Reggie to come back if that is an option. I’ll try my best to play my role and to get him back to being a Clipper.”
The Clippers have Early Bird Rights on Jackson and can give him roughly $46-47 million over four years starting between $10-10.5 million.
“This city’s been special to me,” Jackson said after Game 6. “I can’t predict the future. I have no idea what happens, but this city, this organization, this fanbase is special. They hold a special place in my heart. I’ll forever be a Clipper. I’m thankful for this opportunity.”
Following the game, Jackson noted this was one of his favorite locker rooms to be a part of after the organization took him in at a low point after leaving Detroit last season. At that time, George, his close friend, called and recruited him to sign with the Clippers.
“First thing I told those guys was, ‘Thank you for saving me,’” Jackson said.
After being saved by the Clippers, the 31-year-old guard will have to decide whether cashing in for one last major payday or possibly giving the Clippers a slight discount is his preference when free agency starts in August.
How can the Clippers improve the team around Leonard and George?
The Clippers have little flexibility this summer outside of the $5.9 million taxpayer mid-level exception. They also have a lack of draft picks to dangle following the acquisition of George from Oklahoma City.
“I’d suggest more of a rim-protecting presence at center,” an NBA scout told HoopsHype. “They wasted money on Luke Kennard, who was in and out of the playoff rotation. Patrick Beverley is overpaid as well. The main rotation guys other than Marcus Morris are all making the minimum, like Terance Mann, Nicolas Batum, and Jackson. If they hit on the players they’re paying money to, it’d be over.”
Beverley, who is owed $14.3 million in the final year of his contract next season, is a tradable asset. Kennard is owed another guaranteed three years with a fourth-year team option on his contract, which may make him tougher to trade.
Serge Ibaka, the team’s starting center when healthy, underwent season-ending back surgery and has a $9.74 million player option for next season.
Batum is due for a raise after shooting 46.4 percent from the field and 40.4 percent from beyond the arc while splitting time starting and coming off the bench.
Mann is eligible for an extension, and it couldn’t come at a better time for him after dropping 39 points against Utah in Game 6 of the Western Conference Semifinals.
DeMarcus Cousins averaged 13 points per game in his final three playoff games for the Clippers and will enter free agency.
After hitting on Mann, Batum, and Jackson on bargain deals, the Clippers may have to do so again this offseason.
You can follow Michael Scotto on Twitter: @MikeAScotto