May 25, 2024

Lawrence Frank expresses cautious optimism about Clippers’ future: ‘The window is still open’

LOS ANGELES — In the recent past, Lawrence Frank’s end-of-season addresses have been rather emotional.

The LA Clippers’ president of basketball operations expressed a combination of pride and lament in 2021 when the Clippers’ season ended with a Western Conference finals berth despite Kawhi Leonard being unable to finish the playoffs healthy. In 2022, after the Leonard-less Clippers finished 42-40 and were eliminated after losing two games in the Play-In Tournament, Frank conveyed pain, but optimism remained because of the team’s health issues. Last season, Frank was quite stern and pointed, declaring the Clippers needed to get back to “honoring and respecting the regular season.”

Compared to those years, Frank’s demeanor this time was relaxed, even peaceful. He joked that he went to get coffee Sunday to talk to discouraged fans and accepted that they had a lot of criticism for him. While he expressed frustration and disappointment with the “lost opportunity” of the Clippers’ season, which ended with another Leonard injury and a 4-2 first-round playoff defeat to the Dallas Mavericks, Frank was satisfied with one thing.

“We sat here last year at this time, we talked about honoring and respecting the regular season,” Frank said. “We did that.”

Still, Frank knows there is much work ahead for his front office this offseason, one in which the Clippers face challenges in retaining their core of Leonard, George and James Harden. Frank spoke for 36 minutes, hitting on a number of items on the Clippers’ long offseason to-do list.

Are the Clippers still championship contenders?

I wrote over the weekend that the team’s realistic window to win a championship has closed. That commentary is both a reflection of the NBA’s oldest roster appearing to max out this past season, as well as an honest look at the state of the Western Conference.

LA’s top personnel executive does not share that opinion.

“We are still big believers that the window is still open,” Frank said. “But also acknowledge the fact that we can understand the skepticism with it, and there are no guarantees either way.”

The latest on George and Harden’s futures

Frank said multiple time that the Clippers would like to retain George (player option) and Harden (unrestricted free agent) this summer.

Harden’s situation is simple. He’s not extension eligible, so he is guaranteed to hit free agency. However, there is mutual interest in getting a deal done. Frank called Harden “one of the elite orchestrators in this league.”

George’s is more complex. He can sign an extension between now and July 1, but he can also opt out and become an unrestricted free agent this summer. It sounds like the Clippers expect George to weigh all of his options:

  • Pick up his player option and stay.
  • Pick up player option and request a trade elsewhere.
  • Extend for the maximum amount possible.
  • Extend for less than the maximum amount possible, which Leonard accepted and the Clippers are seeking to replicate with George.
  • Opt out and re-sign using Bird Rights.
  • Opt out and leave as an unrestricted free agent.

Frank said he is “hopeful that we can still bring him back.” He said George tabled conversations about his contract once the All-Star break concluded, choosing to wait until after the season ended. Those negotiations are set to resume now.

How to improve team while keeping core together

While acknowledging the team’s goal of keeping Harden and George, Frank also said, “We’re not naive to think that, ‘Hey, we just run it back and we’ll be all good.’ That’s not how we look at team building.”

His most revealing insight was his repeated tidbit that the Clippers tried and failed to make a deal before the trade deadline to improve the roster. The target? What Frank calls a wing — and what I would call a power forward.

“We were short a couple of guys, of good complementary, reliable players that fit,” Frank said, acknowledging that the team sent Philadelphia four such options in Marcus Morris Sr., Nicolas Batum, Robert Covington and Kenyon Martin Jr. in the Harden deal. “I think we probably were at least another wing short. Obviously, size, length, athleticism are important things, and you’d love to be able to add some youth to the group.”

Kawhi Leonard’s health

Frank said Leonard’s right knee inflammation would not have been healed in time to start the Western Conference semifinals if the Clippers had advanced. But Frank expressed optimism on two fronts when it came to the soon-to-be 33-year-old Leonard’s long-term health.

First, Frank continues to allay concerns about Leonard’s twice-surgically repaired knee, though it does sound like the team may need to manage Leonard’s regular-season minutes in the future.

“The encouraging thing is this seems, big picture, minor in nature in that it’s not a structural thing,” Frank said.

Additionally, Frank pushed back on the idea of Leonard and George being the faces of load management. The two stars suited up in 68 and 74 games this season, respectively, the most each has played in their five-year Clippers tenures.

“I get the skepticism and I’m not here to over promise something we can’t deliver. … Sometimes there’s fans I talk to like, ‘Oh, like things just fall off a cliff.’ There’s not a lot of evidence of that,” Frank said. “Paul, Kawhi and James, they played at a pretty high level this year. I fully expect them to be able to, for the next couple of years, to maintain a high level.”

Frank often grouped Leonard, George and Harden together during Monday morning’s address. The team’s fourth future Hall of Famer, Russell Westbrook, is a lesser priority.

He, too, has a player option and, as Frank put it, “a decision to make.” While Frank said that the process for determining Westbrook’s role with the team is “very similar” to last year, there is one big difference: Westbrook was the starter last summer, and Harden is the team’s offseason point guard priority this summer.

Westbrook posted the following on Instagram Saturday, addressing his role over the course of the season and his desire to return. In the wake of the Clippers’ first-round exit, The Athletic reported that Westbrook had to be convinced to take on his sixth man role this season.

Frank took the opportunity Monday to praise Westbrook as “our most athletic player at 35” while calling him a fan favorite who commands love in the locker room.

Tyronn Lue extension talks

When Mavericks head coach Jason Kidd became the eighth head coach to sign a contract extension over the past calendar year, it put a spotlight on Clippers head coach Tyronn Lue’s situation. Lue, who has been in charge since the 2020-21 season, is set to enter the final year of his current contract. But Frank praised Lue effusively for a “terrific” year, and said that “our hope is that Tyronn is here for a long time.”

The Los Angeles Lakers were reportedly interested in Lue for their head coaching vacancy, but the 47-year-old coach has made it clear he wants to remain with the Clippers.

“I didn’t come here to bounce around and go all over the place,” Lue said after the team’s Game 6 loss. “This is where I want to be … I would love to be here long term.”

The relationship between Lue and the front office is solid and appears to only need a new contract for Lue to be fully solidified.

Ivica Zubac and Terance Mann, the fourth and fifth starters alongside the big three of Harden, Leonard and George, are entering the final year of their contracts in 2024-25. Frank praised Zubac for have a “career year” that Harden helped to unlock and said a contract extension for the 27-year-old center “makes sense.”

While Frank did not explicitly say that a new contract was coming for Mann, he said the 27-year-old wing “is part of the fabric of the group.” Frank praised Mann’s strong shooting after the turn of the new year and his defense against Luka Dončić.

As for the rest of the defense …

When asked about the Clippers going from 26-5 to 17-16 on either side of Feb. 6, he cited the team falling off defensively. Over the regular season’s last 33 games, the Clippers ranked just 15th in points scored per 100 possessions while slipping to 23rd in points allowed per 100 possessions. The team particularly struggled to get back in transition and rebound well. Considering the team’s goal was to be a top-10 defense at worst, that drop-off was a major disappointment. Frank attributed it to players needing to be better, rather than point the finger at the front office or coaching staff.

“The benchmarks that all teams use to be a legit champion is you want to be a top-10 offense, top-10 defense and top-five hopefully in one of them,” Frank said. “We checked one box, we didn’t check the other. … You first look at personnel from a front office standpoint, then from coaches you look at different schemes. But ultimately, I think it comes down to the effort and energy put put into the game.”

Clippers culture?

I asked Frank about maintaining a positive team culture going into next season in light of reserves P.J. Tucker and Bones Hyland needing to be sent home right before the All-Star break due to frustrations about their playing time. Frank said the Clippers were a “very good group” and that there is no “perfect environment.” He also suggested that ideally, the Clippers would have been able to complete a trade to better optimize the roster.

Drafting and developing young talent

The Clippers have only one draft pick this season, and it is not until the middle of the second round. But Frank believes that the 2024 draft “has a very, very healthy middle class” and that it’s on the Clippers to find “the right player.”

Frank specifically mentioned four holdover young players who will need to “put pressure on the coaching staff to get in the rotation.” Those players: 2024 draft picks Kobe Brown and Jordan Miller, expiring two-way contract center Moussa Diabaté and 2021 first round pick Kai Jones. Frank did not mention Hyland or Brandon Boston Jr.

(Top photo:  Jayne Kamin-Oncea / USA Today)