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Clippers keep key players, keep path to contention open... once Kawhi Leonard gets healthy

Kawhi Leonard and Nicolas Batum with Clippers

Jan 15, 2021; Sacramento, California, USA; Los Angeles Clippers forward Kawhi Leonard (2) high fives guard-forward Nicolas Batum (33) after a play against the Sacramento Kings during the third quarter at Golden 1 Center. Mandatory Credit: Kelley L Cox-USA TODAY Sports

Kelley L Cox-USA TODAY Sports

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.

The Clippers made their first conference finals in franchise history.

But their impressive postseason made their offseason only more precarious.

The NBA’s top 2021 free agent, Kawhi Leonard got hurt in the playoffs. Questions swirled about his satisfaction with the team’s medical staff, an issue that drove him from the Spurs.

Reggie Jackson and Nicolas Batum thrived – driving up their potential price tags in free agency. However, L.A. held full Bird Rights on neither.

Serge Ibaka struggled amid lingering injury then ultimately underwent surgery. That was a frustrating way to send Ibaka into his player-option decision.

Yet, the Clippers put out every fire.

Leonard, Jackson and Batum re-signed. Jackson took just two years of the Early Bird Exception ($21,599,760), not the full four he could have pushed for. Batum settled for just the Non Bird Exception (1+1, $6,498,559) rather than demanding the mid-level exception. Ibaka opted in. Though it’s questionable whether Ibaka be worth a $9,720,900 salary given his health concerns, the free-spending Clippers are better off with him on the roster.

Of course, Leonard’s health looms largest. He somewhat surprisingly signed a 3+1 contract rather than the 1+1 deal that would have offered a higher financial upside. Glass half full: He and Paul George are now under team control through 2024. Glass half empty: Leonard went this route because he believes his knee injury comprises his ability to contribute long-term.

But that’s a risk the Clippers had to take. They’ve built their entire franchise around Leonard, who could have had his pick of teams in free agency.

L.A. traded Patrick Beverley, the most vocal remaining member of the upstarts who sometimes clashed with the star treatment granted to Leonard and George. That leaves Ivica Zubac as the only member of the 2018-19 Clippers still with the franchise.

The Beverley trade with the Grizzlies brought in Eric Bledsoe, unloaded Rajon Rondo’s negative contract, significantly trimmed L.A.'s luxury-tax liability (though added salary for 2022-23) and generated an $8.25 million trade exception.

More durable and well-rounded, Bledsoe might even help more than Beverley. However, Bledsoe is coming off a down year with the Pelicans and had a history of playoff disappointments with the Bucks.

On the flip side of durable, the Clippers gave Justise Winslow a two-year, $8 million contract. Winslow missed 108 games the last two years and played terribly after returning with Memphis late last season. He didn’t even have an established productive role before getting injured. But the 25-year-old is an athletic, high-motor, versatile defender who previously found ways to contribute positively. There was no obvious better use of L.A.'s mid-level exception.

The rest of the mid-level exception went to signing No. 33 pick Jason Preston and No. 51 pick B.J. Boston Jr. to three-year contracts. No. 21 pick Keon Johnson rates as a steal – though that’s based on his upside, not surefire production.

If one of Winslow, Johnson, Preston or Boston turns into a productive postseason contributor by the time Leonard gets healthy, that’d be a success. Two would be a home run, especially with Jackson, Batum and Ibaka still on board.

Of course, they key is Leonard getting healthy.

The Clippers did well to afford themselves the opportunity of that happening with them.

Offseason grade: B