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It would be easy to write a story painting the Los Angeles Clippers in the same light as the Phoenix Suns or Milwaukee Bucks. The broad strokes certainly apply. All three teams are largely out of draft picks after trading for aging guards. All three teams are bound for the second luxury tax apron. All three teams were knocked out in the first round despite championship expectations. There are both practical and cosmetic similarities at play here.

But there's a meaningful difference as well. 

The Bucks and Suns were theoretical contenders. The Clippers were a real one. Their 26-5 stretch in December and January was proof of concept. There is a version of this roster, under the right circumstances, that is capable of competing with anyone. They handed Boston its only double-digit home loss of the regular season. They had the NBA's third-best net rating between Dec. 1 and Feb. 5. For a moment, they were the only Western Conference team considered to be Denver's equal.

A moment isn't nothing. It's more than the Suns and the Bucks ever had. That doesn't mean it was worth the price it took to get it. Ignore the sunk cost of the long-lost Paul George-for-Shai Gilgeous-Alexander trade. As ugly as that trade turned out to be, the Clippers at least had a fairly reasonable path towards asset neutrality. 

Their draft obligations to Oklahoma City expire in 2026, just two seasons from now. They could have ridden out the storm for two more years and rebuilt in earnest at that point. They could have taken things a step further by moving off of George and Kawhi Leonard at the peak of their value like certain people suggested. The pain of losing Gilgeous-Alexander was never going away, but the Clippers could have washed their hands of this era and started preparing for the next one pretty easily.

Instead, they doubled down. Their draft obligations now extend to 2029. They will not control their own first-round pick again until the 2030's. For James Harden to justify that price, he'd have lead the Clippers to a championship or come awfully close. A moment, so far, is all he's given them, and that moment is obviously not enough.

But it represents a glimmer of hope some of those other all-in franchises lack. The Clippers tripled down on that hope with a three-year, $153 million extension for Leonard earlier in the season. They could not legally extend Harden yet, but the expectation all along, even despite his postseason shortcomings, was that he, too, would get a multi-year deal in the offseason. That glimmer of hope is something that the Clippers can theoretically build upon.

Which is what makes how they've handled the George situation so perplexing. George has openly lobbied for a contract extension. He presumably would have signed a max deal by now if the Clippers had presented him with one. Thus far, they seemingly have not. It's a bizarre line in the sand for a team that has no leverage whatsoever. 

Oh, George is an injury risk? He's getting older? Ok... how on Earth would the Clippers replace him with no picks and no cap space? How could they pivot into a rebuild under these conditions? We saw how limited Harden's trade value was less than a year ago, when the Clippers were his only serious suitor. Leonard has now failed to finish the last four postseasons healthy. He has value. Not enough to offset what has already been given up.

There's no alternative path here. There's no pivot that makes losing Paul George fine in the long run. They have to re-sign him because if they don't, even that faint glimmer of hope that the 26-5 moment gave them fades away. They go from an aging contender to a non-contender. The Clippers would go from "if we could only stay healthy" to "we're not even that good healthy." The longer this drags out, the more precarious things get.

It's no secret that Philadelphia lusts after George. The fit is obvious: any team with a star guard and a star big would choose to use its max cap space on a star wing to stick between them if given the chance. The promising young Orlando Magic are reportedly ready to pursue him as well, and while they filled their forward need with Pascal Siakam, the Indiana Pacers could easily switch gears and reunite with their former star if he was interested. They were reportedly believed to be interested at one time.

George's market will be robust. Teams will offer him a max contract, and frankly, those teams might offer him a clearer path to winning. Leonard and Joel Embiid are both injury-prone MVP candidates. Leonard is almost three years older, though. Harden has 11 years on Tyrese Maxey. Orlando's entire roster is young and seemingly healthy. If George's goal is to win a championship before the end of his prime, he might have better choices than Los Angeles.

The longer the Clippers drag this out, the likelier he is to realize that. They are playing with fire here, and it's not clear what exactly they have to gain by doing it. Would they rather negotiate an extra year off of his deal, or perhaps include some non-guarantees? Sure. George's next deal is going to be risky. Any max-level contract for a 34-year-old would be.

But the Clippers have no other choice. They made their bed when they traded for Harden. Now they have to lie in it. That isn't the worst thing. Steve Ballmer isn't paying gargantuan tax bills for a hopeless roster like the Suns' Mat Ishbia is. Getting the Clippers to the "Promised Land" might be as simple as "this is the year Leonard stays healthy." If you have to wrap him in bubble wrap until March, so be it. But there are paths, however unlikely, to a Clippers championship in the next few years.

Every single one of them involves George in their starting lineup. There's little to be gained through cold feet now. The Clippers are already all-in. What's one more dangerous contract to the NBA's wealthiest owner?