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Clippers face questions after another season ends early

Clippers face questions after another season ends early

The idea was to build a contender and titles will come. Bring in stars and high-level talent and meld them into a seasoned lineup and championships would follow.

But in the years since the 213 Era began, championships haven’t materialized – only injuries and heartache. The Clippers experienced more of the same Friday night when they were pushed out of the NBA playoffs by the Dallas Mavericks, who completed a 4-2 series victory with a 114-101 romp in Game 6 of the first round.

In the end, one star was missing, another didn’t show up and Paul George struggled to carry the load when it mattered.

In the end, the Clippers couldn’t do it without Kawhi Leonard, who, after his healthiest season in nearly a decade, sat out four of the six games because of a nagging swollen knee, missing largely his fourth consecutive postseason.

In the end, it was Dallas’ attack, led by Luka Doncic and Kyrie Irving, that destroyed the Clippers, who couldn’t stop the onslaught and reduced James Harden’s effectiveness in the second halves of the final two playoff games.

And in the end, the Clippers, who finished the regular season 51-31 and fourth in the tough Western Conference, went home empty-handed.

Again.

But now what? Will owner Steve Ballmer settle for more of the same? Can the richest owner in the league afford to rely on Leonard, 32, George, 34, and Harden, 34, for another season?

Leonard secured a three-year, $153 million contract extension in January, which keeps him in a Clippers uniform through 2025-26.

George can decline his $48.8 million player option for next season and become a free agent this summer, a situation being watched closely by the Philadelphia 76ers. The Sixers have made it known they are interested in acquiring the nine-time All-Star.

George said he hasn’t focused on anything besides the playoffs at this point.

“I got a lot to kind of digest myself, so I haven’t even got to that yet,” he told reporters in Dallas. “Look forward to kind of going back, just letting everything kind of decompress, talk to my family, be around family support and then address the next step.”

Harden will be a free agent this summer and could seek a max contract, something that he sought – and didn’t get – with the 76ers. He has indicated he prefers to stay in L.A.

“I don’t even know,” he said after Game 6. “You are asking a lot of questions that I don’t have the answer to or haven’t even thought about.”

Then there is coach Tyronn Lue, who hopes to sign a contract extension instead of seeking jobs elsewhere. His name surfaced as a possible candidate to replace Darvin Ham, who was fired Friday as the Lakers coach.

“I didn’t come here to bounce around and go all over the place,” Lue said. “This is where I want to be. Hopefully, [the Clippers] feel the same way.”

The Clippers are likely to exceed $200 million in payroll next season, which would restrict their offseason spending because of the second apron. And will it all be for another season that ends in a whimper?

Bad playoff losses have defined the Clippers since Leonard and George joined the team and Game 6 punctuated that notion, ending what started out as their most promising season to date.

This season was supposed to be different. Leonard and George, who ended the previous season on the bench with injuries, were healthy. Leonard played in 68 games, his most in seven years since his days as a San Antonio Spur.

They traded for Harden, costing them role players Nicolas Batum, Robert Covington, Marcus Morris and KJ Martin and multiple first-round draft picks yet giving the team another dimension. The transition wasn’t seamless, the Clippers losing their first six games with him. After that rough start, though, the three-time scoring champion found his place alongside Leonard and George and the Clippers got rolling.

They won 26 of 31 games during one stretch, creating a championship buzz around one of the highest-paid – and oldest – teams in the NBA. Then came the All-Star break and the talk turned into online chatter of “what happened?”

Losses began to creep in. The Clippers struggled to figure out how to fix things, finally turning the corner shortly before the postseason. But then Leonard’s knee flared up and he missed the final eight regular-season games.

It would be a harbinger of the postseason as the team, without its scoring leader, went belly-up against the younger, more aggressive Mavericks.

Now, with their new Intuit Arena in Inglewood debuting later this year, will it be the same story for the Clippers, one of big promises and small returns?

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