Kawhi Leonard, Clippers agree to contract extension. ‘We knew this union was going to happen’

Even though Kawhi Leonard had been eligible for a contract extension since July, talks between his representatives and the Clippers had not yielded a deal for months.

Yet Lawrence Frank, the team’s president of basketball operations, considered a deal an inevitability — one that happened at last Wednesday, when the two-time NBA Finals most valuable player signed a three-year contract worth $152.3 million, according to a person with knowledge of the terms not authorized to speak publicly. There are no player or team options. Leonard will earn $52.3 million in the first year of the contract, in 2024-25, and $50 million in each of the following two seasons.

“We knew this union was going to happen,” Frank said before Wednesday‘s win against Toronto at Crypto.com Arena. “We both wanted it to happen and we came to an agreement.”

Because of concerns about Leonard’s durability, after knee injuries ended his second and fourth seasons with the Clippers, league observers last summer questioned how long-term the team would tether itself to Leonard, but his availability and productivity this season quieted those concerns. Leonard played the first 27 games, his most consecutive games to start a season since 2016-17, and has appeared in 33 of the team’s 37 despite suffering a hip injury in December.

Since Dec. 1, the Clippers are 14-1 with Leonard in the lineup as he has reasserted himself as an all-league player. Entering Wednesday he was averaging 26.4 points, 6.3 rebounds, 3.6 assists and 1.9 steals while making 57% of his shots, including 48% of his three-pointers, in that stretch.

Frank said there was “no hesitation” in committing to Leonard. “Anybody can get injured, but not anybody can be a top-five player,” Frank said. “And Kawhi is.”

The agreement is less than the maximum of four years and $220 million Leonard was eligible to earn, suggesting the 32-year-old star and team met in the middle.

“I think at that point I’m going to be 35, so I mean you’ll see, you’re going to see how I’m playing at that age,” Leonard said.

Leonard’s willingness to take less could set the stage for how the team approaches its ongoing negotiations with co-stars Paul George, who has been eligible for his own extension since September and holds a $48-million player option next season, and James Harden, who will be a free agent in July; the team cannot begin talking with Harden about a new deal until after June’s NBA Finals.

“With the conversation that I have with them about [their futures], I think for the most part everybody is coming back,” Leonard said. “So with me signing an extension, I think it gives us a chance to sign both of those players.”

Like Leonard, George and Harden are Southern California natives who have called playing in Los Angeles part of their attraction to the franchise. Like Leonard, both are players the Clippers “believe strongly in” as part of the team’s future, Frank said.

“In order to win, you need to be able to have flexibility to have really good teammates,” Frank said. “And in order to do that, there’s sacrifices that need to be made. And what I love, what I’ve heard from our guys, what Kawhi has shown is … we want everyone to be compensated fairly and yet also preserve flexibility to both in the short and long term have contending rosters.”

Paying all three would not be a hurdle given owner Steve Ballmer’s financial resources, but building a contender around three players making close to maximum money would be tricky because of the onerous penalties the NBA’s year-old collective bargaining agreement charges against the league’s highest-spending teams.

With that in mind, how much financial flexibility the Clippers can keep to afford their core in future seasons, while retaining as much talent as possible for their championship pursuit, could become a subplot with the NBA’s Feb. 8 trade deadline less than one month away. Frank said the Clippers “made our big trade” in October by acquiring Harden, but they’re nonetheless expected to hold true to their reputation as one of the most active teams at the deadline.

“We’re really, really encouraged by what this group is and we’ll always lean in on our guys getting better,” Frank said. “Yet at the same time, it is our job to continue to look for ways to improve the group if that’s possible.”

In October, George, the Palmdale-raised All-Star, said he still desired to end his career with the Clippers, adding that extension discussions were “active, but both sides have to be on the same page and that’s just what we’re trying to figure it out.”

“We’ll see my situation when we get there,” George said Wednesday. “But again just happy they got the deal done on his end. I know he wants to stay here, myself as well. When my time comes we’ll be ready for those conversations as well.”

The contract is the third Leonard has signed with the Clippers, after becoming a free agent in 2019 and 2021. Leonard could have signed an extension at any point until June 30, just as he could have become a free agent after this season by opting out of his $48-million option for 2024-25. Instead, he will remain and headline the roster that opens the team’s new arena next season in Inglewood, Intuit Dome. The team wasted no time Wednesday reminding fans that season tickets for next season would go on sale the following day.

“It just shows when you can get a top-10 player to sign back, it says a lot about your organization,” coach Tyronn Lue said.

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