If already was plenty apparent, but the Clippers issued a resounding reminder on Thursday: They’re banking big-time on the Kawhi-and-PG pairing.

The team already mortgaged its future last offseason to bring in the Southern California-raised stars. They sent a massive package of players and draft picks to Oklahoma City in a trade to acquire Paul George – which served to land Kawhi Leonard, a blockbuster sequence that turned the formerly forlorn Clippers into bonafide title contenders.

“Sending the house” for him, George said, was enough to prove to him that the Clippers are serious about winning. Secure in that knowledge, on Thursday he signed a maximum contract extension with the team for an additional four years at a reported $190 million on top of the $35.4 million he’s guaranteed this season. He’s signed through at least 2024, when the Clippers anticipate opening their $1.2 billion, state-of-the-art basketball arena in Inglewood.

Now that that’s done, attention turns to Leonard, the two-time NBA champion and two-time Finals MVP who can opt out of his current contract after the season.

The Clippers are hopeful that George’s extension will help compel Leonard, 29, to commit long term, too, when the time is right. He isn’t currently extension-eligible in the same fashion George was because he would have to pick up his 2021-22 player option to be eligible for an extension.

If the Moreno Valley native wishes to stay put, ESPN’s Kevin Pelton points out that Leonard’s best financial play would be to finish this season, decline his player option and re-sign a new deal using his Early Bird rights: With 10 years of experience, Leonard will reach the larger 35 percent max category, worth as much as $39.3 million according to the current 2021-22 salary-cap projection – a raise on his $36 million player option.

In their comments to the media on Thursday, George and Lawrence Frank, the Clippers’ president of basketball operations, were careful to avoid suggesting that George’s extension signaled anything about Leonard’s plans.

“They obviously enjoy playing together, but they’re also their own men,” Frank said. “Kawhi’s not eligible like Paul was for an extension, so we’ll never make any assumptions about anyone’s decisions, but we’re super excited about the kinship and the brotherhood that both those guys have formed.”

Said George: “I won’t put words in another man’s mouth, but I’m hopeful. He’s one of the guys that I talked to and kind of wanted to inform, ‘Hey, this is a decision I wanted to make, I want to be here long-term.’ It’s not putting a gun to Kawhi and telling him, he’s gotta do this or do that. Hopefully, it’s a mutual bond and we both enjoy playing with one another.”

For his part, George – the silky-smooth 30-year-old forward who grew up in Palmdale – says he’s healthier than he’s been in a long time. That includes at the start of last season when he began his Clippers tenure fresh off of offseason surgery on both shoulders.

After finishing third in Most Valuable Player voting two seasons ago, George could prove a dynamic championship-caliber No. 2 alongside Leonard. But he was hot and cold in last season’s playoffs – including shooting 4 for 16 in the Clippers’ season-ending Game 7 loss to the Denver Nuggets, who clawed back from a 3-1 series deficit to upset the Clippers in the bubble.

Hoping for a more palatable result this season, the Clippers tweaked the recipe some. They parted ways with longtime coach Doc Rivers and hired Tyronn Lue and let center Montrezl Harrell leave to join the Lakers before signing veteran center Serge Ibaka in his place. In addition to being a rim protector and a shooting threat, Ibaka is a friend and former teammate of Leonard’s in Toronto.

And the Clippers made sure George knew they envision him as one of the main ingredients to their potential long-term success.

“The responsibility is to make (Leonard) feel like the way I felt when I came into my extension,” George said when asked to consider what sway he might have over Leonard in their second season playing together.

“I knew where I wanted to be. I knew who I wanted to play with. That’s my responsibility to go into the season. Again, it’s Kawhi’s decision. I’m a grown man. If he decides to go elsewhere, that’s a decision that I’ll be happy for him. But my hoping and my responsibility – what I would love is to play with him for the rest of my contract or the rest of his contract. I guess I have to work on that when it comes to his time.”

For now, Leonard and the team will count on George – the committed Clipper – as they strive to move past last season’s disappointment, starting for real on Dec. 22, with the regular-season opener against the Lakers (and, before that, with a dress rehearsal Friday, when the teams meet for the first of two consecutive preseason games).

George indicated he’s eager to prove himself – not to his doubters, he said, but to his teammates and the organization that has invested so significantly in him, signing him to an extension that could pay him close to $49 million in 2024-25, when he’ll turn 35.

“You know, it’s not even about proving people wrong or answering questions to people that don’t really have much value to my life,” George said. “It’s more so about me going out there and being reliable for my teammates, being reliable for this organization. That’s where my focus is. That’s where my mindset is. If I keep it to that, if that is my mindset on a nightly basis, every other question will be answered.

“I’m in tune with myself, I’m in tune with my mind, and it’s just about me exploding into the season. And, for myself, I’m looking forward to the start of the season.”


By Richard Moran

Richard Moran loves to write about sports with the Golden State Online. Before that, he worked as a senior writer at ESPN. Richard grew up in San Diego and graduated from the University of San Diego in 2004, after which he worked as an editor for five years.

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