LAS VEGAS — In his own anonymous, inconspicuous, and fiercely private way, Kawhi Leonard controlled the NBA narrative and newscycle for nearly a week and then chose his free agent destination completely on his own terms.
Late Friday night, two hours after an earthquake rocked Las Vegas, scaring the heck out of those summer leaguers who had never experienced that force of nature, news leaked that Leonard had chosen to sign with the Los Angeles Clippers and that not only had one of the NBA’s premier players committed to an organization that was once a laughingstock, but he brought a friend along with him.
Leonard was able to convince Paul George to request a trade to the Clippers to pair with him. And for about two days, Oklahoma City general manager Sam Presti, a Concord native, dangled George to the Toronto Raptors and the Clippers.
The Clippers jumped at the opportunity, sending a Brooklyn Nets-like draft pick package to the Thunder along with promising point guard Shai Gilgeous-Alexander and swingman Danilo Gallinari.
So the Clippers are now favorites to win the NBA title — if you’re into those betting lines — and Leonard executed the ultimate power play to go to his chosen team with a teammate he longed to play with.
The league’s power balance has now shifted out West, with the Lakers, despite being spurned by Leonard, having LeBron James and Anthony Davis along with complementary players Rajon Rondo, Kyle Kuzma, and DeMarcus Cousins.
With Patrick Beverley, Leonard, George, Montrezl Harrell, and Ivica Zubac, the Clippers have the potential to be the best defensive team since those mid-2000s Pistons squads. And of course, it gives Doc Rivers yet another chance to make a title run after faltering with the trio of Chris Paul, Blake Griffin, and DeAndre Jordan.
Leonard’s desire to play in Los Angeles was well-known around the league, but the fact he passed on the Lakers for the Clippers is quite noteworthy. Prior to the Lakers-Clippers summer league matchup Saturday, Rivers strutted into the arena dressed in all black, face tanned from golfing and a bright smile because his franchise and his perception has been resurrected over the past two years.
He couldn’t push the bickering Paul-Griffin-Jordan trio to the pinnacle, but he was able to keep the franchise respectable after they departed and develop younger players while management secured enough salary cap space to pursue Leonard.
As for Toronto, the organization did everything possible to keep Leonard but couldn’t compete with the geographic advantage the Clippers offered. The Raptors realized in the final hours before Leonard’s decision that he was recruiting George, who also hails from Southern California.
Both Leonard and George grew up in Los Angeles suburbs around the same time, each desired to play for their hometown team, and they perceive the Clippers as a more successful franchise than do most NBA fans over 40.
If the Clippers were going to provide the chance to play in Los Angeles and owner Steve Ballmer was going to make that experience first-class, then why not avoid the shadow of LeBron James?
Toronto coach Nick Nurse was as upbeat as he could be under the circumstances. He won’t have a chance to defend his NBA title with the team that won it last month. Danny Green also bolted for Los Angeles — the Lakers.
“It’s certainly disappointing. He was unbelievably fun to coach,” Nurse said. “You can’t blame a guy for wanting to go home. That’s what he texted me today, ‘I’m going home.’ He’s going home and that’s a hard draw (to compete with).”
The Raptors will slip in the Eastern Conference, perhaps behind the Celtics, who are likely a fourth or fifth seed with their current roster. Boston also lost two major free agents in Kyrie Irving and Al Horford and countered that by adding Kemba Walker and Enes Kanter. So like the Raptors, the Celtics will be considerably different than last season, and that’s a good thing.
Don’t sleep on the Raptors, especially with Nurse as the coach and players such as Pascal Siakam and Fred VanVleet returning. Leonard’s absence will also give emerging forward OG Anunoby a bigger role in the offense, while the Raptors will base their success (as usual) on defense.
There is an advantage for the Celtics that two of the league’s top five players — James and Leonard — are no longer in the Eastern Conference. The East, however, has improved because Milwaukee and Philadelphia have taken major strides, and the 76ers added to the Celtics’ offseason turmoil by luring Horford away.
The Eastern Conference will be treacherous, with the Celtics right in the middle of the fracas; not a favorite, but with the chance to soar to the top if they receive some good fortune.
Yet the attention will shift back to Hollywood, where two of the league’s best teams will play in the same arena. For the first time since the Clippers moved to Los Angeles in 1983, both teams will be equally excited and equally desperate for success.
Leonard wants to help bring the Clippers unprecedented success for a team that’s never reached the NBA Finals in any of its three cities (Buffalo, San Diego, and Los Angeles). While the Lakers, who haven’t reached the playoffs in six years, want a return to glory.
The Lakers wanted Leonard to join that quest but he had other visions in his mind, quietly as it was kept.