Paul George’s stints with his first two NBA teams ended in trade requests.
He envisions a different finish for his time with his third.
“I want to retire a Clipper,” George said Friday, months before the 6-foot-8 forward can become an unrestricted free agent. “I'll say that, every year. This is where my heart is and I'm happy. I'm happy, regardless of whatever happens, I’m happy being here.”
George’s potential free agency has been one of the central tensions facing the Clippers entering this upcoming season. When the team traded five draft picks, two pick swaps and two starters to Oklahoma City in exchange for George in 2019 — a move followed by Kawhi Leonard signing as a free agent — it vaulted a fringe playoff roster into championship contention, yet with no guarantee the partnership would continue past 2021, when both stars can leave as free agents.
George currently has two seasons left on a contract that will pay him $35.4 million this season and $37.8 million next — but the 2021-22 season is a player option he can decline to hit the free-agency market. He still may decide to enter free agency next summer but signaled his intent to stay with the Clippers long-term.
George is eligible now for an extension. Team president Lawrence Frank wouldn’t offer details about where the sides stand Tuesday but said he considered George a “long-term Clipper.”
The six-time All-Star, who averaged 21.5 points, 5.7 rebounds and 3.9 assists last season and scored 30 or more points nine times, feels the same.
“Usually I'm in a position where I kind of just want to think about all scenarios but in this situation I'm happy, I'm home,” George said. “It's one of the teams I grew up loving and wanting to be a part of for a long time. I'm committed, I'm here. I want to be here.”
Unlike his first two teams, Indiana and Oklahoma City, the Clippers have the benefit of location in retaining George, who grew up in Palmdale. The city that honored George last year after his foundation helped refurbish basketball courts at local parks. His parents were regular spectators at Clippers home games last season.
But if coming home to Southern California brought George comfort, his first season as a Clipper often produced little. He missed the season’s first six weeks while rehabilitating from surgeries on both shoulders and felt disconnected from the team once back, he told the “All The Smoke” podcast this week. At midseason, he battled hamstring injuries. His 35% shooting during a first-round series against Dallas drew online ridicule that George said left him feeling depressed and anxious.
Though more effective against Denver in the second round, when he averaged 21.7 points and made 38% of his three-pointers, George's 10-point effort in Game 7 — and his statement afterward that, to him, the season had not been championship-or-bust — drew more criticism. He and other teammates cited poor chemistry as a factor in their exit but some teammates had grown frustrated by the leeway the team afforded Leonard and George, multiple people with knowledge of the situation said.
The Clippers’ defeat after leading the series 3-1 “haunts me” George said.
“I'm my toughest critic at the end of the day,” he said. “I know what's not good and what's not acceptable. Last year was an unacceptable year for me and I know that.”
During his podcast appearance George criticized his usage within former coach Doc Rivers' offense while adding that the team failed to make necessary changes and wasn’t adequately prepared because of little practice time. George said Friday that if he didn’t always agree with Rivers’ coaching, he respects the man now coaching the Philadelphia 76ers.
“I said what I said,” George said Friday, “but I did want to clear it up because the notion out there is that I don’t respect Doc and putting the blame on Doc, which is not the case. I am to blame in that situation just as much as anyone so let’s clear that up.”
The Clippers’ first group practice of training camp is Sunday, and both Leonard and George will participate after offseason procedures sidelined them a year ago.
“Last year was a rough year for me,” George said. “It was a down year for me, but the good thing about that, the beauty in that is that I’m only 30, I’ve still got time, I’ve still got a lot of years in the tank, and I’m motivated. It gave me a big motivator coming into this season and I’m ready.”
This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.