Tyronn Lue wants to return to Clippers, wants Westbrook with him; Leonard has torn meniscus
Tyronn Lue was frustrated at points this season. Understandably. With Kawhi Leonard and Paul George in and out of the lineup — not to mention role players missing a normal amount of time — it felt like he was as much circus juggler as coach. It led to whispers around the league he could walk away from Los Angeles after this season.
After the Clippers were eliminated from the playoffs Tuesday, Lue was asked point-blank, “Do you expect to be this team’s coach next year?”
Lue talked a lot about next season in his postgame remarks. One part of the future he did not discuss was Kawhi Leonard, who was the best player on the court for the first two games of the first-round series against the Suns — outplaying Kevin Durant and Devin Booker — before missing the rest of the series what was described as knee soreness (without him, and with Paul George out as well, the Clippers losing three straight). Wednesday morning Shams Charania reported Leonard has a torn meniscus.
Clippers star Kawhi Leonard has been diagnosed with a torn meniscus in his right knee, sources tell @TheAthletic @Stadium. Leonard averaged 35 points in first two games of this postseason vs. Suns before the meniscus injury was revealed and he was shut down by medical staff.— Shams Charania (@ShamsCharania) April 26, 2023
Leonard and George both have fully guaranteed contracts for next season at $45.6 million per man, plus player options for the 2024-25 season. Both are extension eligible this summer, which leads to some interesting choices for the Clippers.
Also under contract for next season are Norman Powell, Nicolas Batum, Ivica Zubac, Terance Mann, Marcus Morris Sr. and Robert Covington — all making at least $10 million. Eric Gordon has a non-guaranteed $20 million for next season (June 28 guarantee date). Expect some shakeups in that group.
One name not on that list was a guy Lue was clear he hopes to see return — Russell Westbrook. Cast off by the Lakers, he fit in with the other team in Los Angeles and showed he could still contribute to winning basketball.
“Bringing Russ here really, really saved our season as far as making the playoffs, having this run we had in the Playoffs,” Lue said. “He really saved us. Hats off to Russ for bringing it every single night...
“Hopefully guys can see that Russ still has a lot left in the tank. Hopefully he’s back with us next year. Then again, this has opened eyes for a lot of the teams, give him an opportunity if he can go out there and really get paid. But I want him back for sure.”
Westbrook sounded like a guy who wants to return.
“This will be probably my first time actually in my career being able to make situations, make a decision,” Westbrook said. “One thing I do tell you is that I love it here. I love the people, just the fans overall embracing not just me but my family and close friends. I know, end of the year, a lot of things have happened, but I’m grateful. I definitely love being here.”
While things on the court didn’t work with the Lakers, Westbrook never waivered saying how happy he was to be playing in his home city and how much being with his family here meant to him. That continued with the Clippers.
But it always comes down to money — and that’s where the Clippers will feel the pinch under the new CBA.
The Clippers have a $201.8 million projected payroll for next season, which would be the highest in league history, and that does not include Westbrook at more than the minimum — the Clippers would be $39.9 million over the luxury cap line. While the new tax rules are being phased in over a couple of years, teams over the new second tax apron ($17.5 million over the tax line) do not have a midlevel exception contract (not even the taxpayer MLE), cannot aggregate contracts in trades, cannot access the buyout market, and can only trade draft picks six years out (not seven, as non-tax teams can). That is just the start of the restrictions, there are others.
The bottom line: The Clippers can’t go on spending and watching Steve Ballmer shrug at the bills, not and sustain what they have. Also, bringing back Westbrook could be ridiculously expensive.
The sense around the league is the Clippers will largely run it back, make one more run at it with this often-injured core, then make the hard choices. They might even offer Leonard and George a short-term contract extension to stabilize things.
It appears Tyronn Lue will be around for all of that.