Clippers' painful decision to end Paul George era in L.A. is a sign of the times in the NBA

The Los Angeles Clippers had to take the risk of acquiring Paul George because of what it meant for their standing in their city, in their league — and ultimately, making the painful yet pragmatic decision to hold firm against George’s salary wishes, ending the gambit.

George leaves home and heads East, to Philadelphia, to a franchise that has just as many playoff disappointments as the Clippers, if not more. The Clippers leave the table, not completely empty-handed, but no longer with the exuberance they arrived with.

George benefits, one supposes, because Joel Embiid is a bit more reliable in a playoff setting than Kawhi Leonard, even though Embiid’s playoff credit score isn’t exactly stellar. Every year, it’s something different with Embiid, most recently Bell’s Palsy in the first round. But he trucked it out there, gamely putting up a 50-ball against the Knicks in the first round, while Leonard has totaled two playoff games in the last two years because his body has failed him.

Leonard is a two-time champion and has just as many Finals MVPs, but he’s far removed from even his last individual triumph, when he dragged the Toronto Raptors to an improbable win over Golden State in the 2019 Finals.

That was the year George was a finalist for Most Valuable Player in Oklahoma City, and it looked on paper as if the Clippers were finally putting real stakes in the ground in acquiring both as a pseudo-package deal that summer.

LOS ANGELES, CALIFORNIA - DECEMBER 02: Paul George #13 of the LA Clippers reacts to his shot in the end of the fourth quarter against the Golden State Warriors with Kawhi Leonard #2 at Arena on December 02, 2023 in Los Angeles, California. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading and or using this photograph, User is consenting to the terms and conditions of the Getty Images License Agreement. (Photo by Meg Oliphant/Getty Images)
Paul George and Kawhi Leonard joining the Clippers in 2019 changed the course of the franchise. (Photo by Meg Oliphant/Getty Images)

Giving up Shai Gilgeous-Alexander looks and feels painful, and while he was more than an afterthought, they couldn't take the risk of losing Leonard in trying to convince him the young pup was better than a sure thing.

But the league changes faster than ever, quicker than ever, and while the duo’s collective output seemed to disappoint, winning three playoff series in five years, the Clippers are better for it. They are a legit NBA franchise, no longer the clown show in the Lakers’ town — in fact, moving to Inglewood, within eyesight of the legendary Forum, definitely seems intentional.

The Clippers disappointed, but disappointment only comes with expectations. Expectations are applied through merit. That’s where the Clippers reside now, as a franchise with serious people making decisions, and even holding the line with George suggests a lack of desperation, and dare we say, a defined principle?

Sources told Yahoo Sports that Leonard, George and James Harden all knew how much money the Clippers had to spend before approaching the restrictive second luxury tax apron and were on board.

Leonard signed his deal first, and even though his playoff truancy was a concern, he’s still the lead dog and everyone was expected to follow. His three-year deal signified a three-year window for the LA-area natives.

Harden, who’s departure from Philadelphia amid a squabble with 76ers president Daryl Morey opened the door for him to get to L.A. months later, quietly and without drama agreed to a two-year pact to stay aboard.

George wanted more than the Clippers could afford to offer — it probably would’ve looked bad if he got a longer deal than Leonard as well as max numbers with Leonard taking less than he could’ve.

It doesn’t mean George had to do what Leonard did, he’s his own man and thus let it be known to the NBA marketplace what he was looking for — all the while knowing of Morey’s interest in him all the way back through the regular season, sources told Yahoo Sports.

Of course, that can be tricky, given Morey’s history with Harden and Harden going on the “Daryl’s a liar” world tour from stateside to China and everywhere in between, but George certainly had knowledge in his back pocket, and thus, leverage if the Clippers didn’t want to budge on their own.

The Clippers didn’t, and couldn’t, in their view, hamstring themselves to hope. It just feels weird considering George is closest to his peak form of the three and reliable enough to play 74 games this past season after playing just 87 total in the previous two years.

The second apron will become more en vogue as time moves on, but it’s been created to legislate parity among teams and keep the big spenders from using every mechanism available to go over the top and add on the fringes along the way.

Decisions, painful ones, will happen along the way, and at some point, the players' association will come into more scrutiny for taking such a deal that feels restrictive to players maximizing their earnings and doing it in a location of their desire.

It’s a chief reason why Klay Thompson and his boat will sail away from the Bay Area and to Dallas, presumably for less money than Golden State was offering, because teams have to walk the line between continuity and reality.

And now, it’s the 76ers, and subsequently, the Eastern Conference, who stand to benefit. The Knicks have gone all-in with their Villanova crew, and the Milwaukee Bucks should be heard from this offseason as they retrofit their roster next to a soon-to-be 30-year-old Giannis Antetokounmpo and nearly 34-year-old Damian Lillard.

But with the Philadelphia 76ers, they're looking at the Celtics — in practicality and in storyline. The Celtics have spent years battling outside forces who’ve said they would never get over the hump with Jayson Tatum and Jaylen Brown as headliners, numerous playoff disappointments and letdowns but kept cajoling, kept tweaking and finally, had their storybook ending.

The 76ers have been equally snakebitten as much as undermined by their own team-building inadequacies and playoff meltdowns. As much as the Celtics' run to June must have angered them, there had to be some cells within that 76ers organization that was inspired to see perpetual failures succeed.

On the floor, it’s clear the Celtics are the standard and teams will be built with the Celtics in mind. Meaning, Embiid and all of his regular-season greatness isn’t enough, and this season has shown Tyrese Maxey, revelation as he was, can’t do it alone, especially at his size.

You need versatile wings to combat Tatum and Brown, players who can not only defend them but make them work on the other end. A healthy George would give them a headache, and in moments potentially slow them down defensively — assuming George can still rev it up.

Kelly Oubre proved to be reliable in the 76ers' system after questions surrounded his ability to play winning, impactful basketball, and he’ll be George’s wing running mate.

Perhaps this is the best chance the 76ers have since starting the disrespectful “Process” over a decade ago, the genius strategy of losing as much as possible year over year in the effort of obtaining better draft picks.

And it’s also a moment for the Clippers to stay respectable in the meantime without sacrificing everything they’ve built and staying with a losing hand.