Kawhi Leonard has changed the NBA landscape once again.
The two-time NBA Finals MVP is heading to the Clippers on a reportedly four-year maximum contract, giving the franchise a legitimate chance to capture an NBA title. Leonard eventually agreed to a three-year, $103 million deal. The third year is a player option. Leonard, who rested throughout the regular season in an attempt to manage his workload, dominated in the playoffs last year and will now attempt to bring an elusive championship to Los Angeles’ lesser franchise.
He labored through nicks and bruises, but consistently demonstrated why he’s one of the NBA’s best players. He out-dueled the eventual league MVP Giannis Antetokounmpo in the Eastern Conference Finals and ended the Warriors’ dynasty in the NBA Finals. Sure, there were some injuries that aided Toronto’s climb, but Leonard was the best player in the playoffs by a wide margin.
After securing the Larry O’Brien Trophy, he entered free agency as the Association’s most coveted player.
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Leonard narrowed his list of potential teams down quickly. He was either going to return to his home state of California and sign with the Lakers or Clippers, or stay in Toronto.
According to Stadium NBA Insider Shams Charania, Leonard was recruiting other stars to join him with the Clippers. Kevin Durant and Jimmy Butler, considered options according to multiple media reports, spurned Leonard for other opportunities. The Lakers had LeBron James and Anthony Davis, but Leonard has reportedly favored the Clippers over the Lakers since early last season. He also may not have wanted to aid James’ legacy by helping him capture a title.
There is a certain irony in Leonard’s decision to join the Clippers. He clearly wanted to live in Los Angeles over Toronto, but wasn’t going to go into a situation where he was the lone star. The Lakers had the stars, but Leonard wanted to shape his own path. And that’s where Paul George entered the fray.
According to Charania, Leonard spent a few days in LA recruiting Paul George. This partially led to the delay with Leonard’s free agency decision. George, a LA native who re-signed with Oklahoma City last summer, agreed to make the move. After spurning James and the Lakers a summer ago, the two-way forward is now headed back home.
There was reportedly discontent between George and Russell Westbrook, according to Charania. The Thunder were willing to keep the tandem together, but George’s trade request came out of nowhere according to multiple media reports. George was an MVP candidate last season, averaging 28.0 points and 8.2 rebounds per game while shooting 38.6 percent from 3-point range. He’ll be a great fit next to Leonard in Los Angeles.
The Clippers gave up a massive trade package for George. According to Marc Stein of the New York Times, they surrendered four unprotected first-round picks, two additional first-round swaps and a lottery protected first-round pick. Promising PG Shai Gilgeous-Alexander and swingman Danilo Gallinari are also headed to the Thunder. If you thought the Lakers paid a premium for Davis, the Clippers almost doubled that with George.
The Thunder will now be faced with a decision whether to make a trade to acquire another piece and remain competitive or hit a full reset. According to Charania, Oklahoma City didn’t want to go into the season with a disgruntled star and decided to trade George. One year after wanting to “bring it home” with Westbrook, George changed course. He has seen two first-round playoff exits next to the star guard. Leonard is a two-time Finals MVP. Toronto’s championship likely made George’s decision easier.
Leonard’s move creates an open league for arguably the first time since the 2015-16 season. That was the year that the Cavaliers battled back to upset Golden State in the Finals, only to see the Warriors land Kevin Durant less than a month later. With Leonard and George in LA, the Clippers will join a suddenly long list of contenders.
The Bucks reloaded to maintain their standing among the class of the East. Philadelphia lost Jimmy Butler, but brought back Tobias Harris and added Al Horford. James and the Lakers swung a big deal for Anthony Davis to become contenders. The Jazz spent big money in free agency and pulled the trigger on a trade for Mike Conley. Houston remains a threat with Chris Paul and James Harden. And don’t forget about those Nuggets and Trail Blazers. Toronto, despite losing Leonard, should still be a factor in the East.
This rare parity and uncertainty should be incredibly beneficial for the league. As ratings declined, partly due to James’ West Coast move, it seemed the NBA regular season had ceased to capture fans like the playoffs. Leonard and George teaming up with the Clippers opens the pathway for several teams to jockey for playoff position throughout the season. The NBA should see ratings increase despite another superstar heading West.
Parity across the league could also lead to bolder moves at the trade deadline. Mediocre teams with intriguing assets might deal their best players to bottom out. Contending franchises might be willing to sacrifice their future for a better shot at the title. Look out for Westbrook and Kevin Love as potential trade targets. Even Gallinari and Nic Batum will draw interest from contenders next year.
And after a recent four-year stretch of NBA Finals matchups featuring the Warriors and Cavaliers, the NBA will have the opportunity to embrace the spontaneity and excitement that comes with balanced rosters. Leonard’s decision cements that competitive balance.
Leonard delivered a title to Toronto, but he didn’t choose that situation. With the Clippers, Leonard has opted to spend the prime of his career attempting to lift the organization to new heights. He’s already helped one franchise win its first championship. Can he do it again?