Is it safe to breathe now? The NBA just had one of the wildest days in its history. It was hard to keep up. I don’t know how many trades and signings happened because the number is constantly changing. Who does Goran Dragic play for? Does Pat Riley even know? The league transformed during what felt like a game of musical chairs soundtracked by speed metal. Kevin Durant left Golden State to join Kyrie Irving in Brooklyn, yet somehow the Warriors ended up with D’Angelo Russell. Boston replaced Irving with Kemba Walker, but lost Al Horford to the Sixers. And Philly lost Jimmy Butler and JJ Redick but kept Tobias Harris. The Bucks dealt Malcolm Brogdon to the Pacers, while Indiana lost Bojan Bogdanovic to the Jazz. There were many, many other moves, but one big domino has yet to fall: Kawhi Leonard.
Kawhi Leonard is many things. To Canada, he’s a champion. To fans of the Heat and Warriors, he’s a dynasty slayer. To the Spurs, he’s the one who got away. To Woj, Shams, Stein, and all the news breakers, he’s elusive. But over the last few months, he has emerged as the most important player in the league. He has shown he can win a championship almost by himself, and where he chooses to play next will change the league for years to come.
After all the madness on Sunday, there is no obvious favorite to win it all. There is no Heatles. There is no Hamptons Five Warriors. There is no stacked team for fans, media, and rival executives to complain about. There is no inevitability. It’s the first time since the 2014-15 season—LeBron’s first back with the Cavaliers—that the league has seemed wide open, full of possibilities, with a long list of teams with real hope of hoisting the Larry O’Brien Trophy next June.
Kawhi could change all that with his decision.
If Kawhi stays with the Raptors, they’ll likely be favorites to represent the Eastern Conference in the Finals. But that’s no guarantee. It took a four-bounce buzzer-beater in Game 7 for the Raps to beat the Sixers. Luck may not be on their side next year. Next season, the Bucks will run back a 60-win team, minus Brogdon; the Sixers have reinvented themselves as a long-limbed defensive juggernaut, essentially swapping Butler for Horford and Josh Richardson; and the Pacers and Celtics loom in a strong midtier of the conference. Toronto will have challengers.
If Kawhi chooses the Los Angeles Clippers—the team he was most heavily linked with during the 2018-19 season—they could be the favorites in the Western Conference. But they aren’t immediately better than, say, a reloaded Jazz, who added Mike Conley and Bogdanovic to a core already featuring Donovan Mitchell, Rudy Gobert, and Joe Ingles. Teams that were just a notch worse than the Warriors in recent years, including the Nuggets, Blazers, Rockets, and Thunder, will be in the conversation too. And don’t forget the Warriors: Stephen Curry and Draymond Green still exist, D’Angelo Russell was just added, and Klay Thompson could return before the end of the season.
With Kawhi on either Toronto or the Clips, a serious case could be made for any one of a dozen teams to win the Finals. But if Kawhi chooses the Los Angeles Lakers, all bets are off.
The Lakers would have Anthony Davis, the NBA’s best big man, and two of the league’s best players, LeBron and Kawhi. Only the Heat and Warriors have been loaded with that much star power this decade, and we saw what those teams did with that talent. The Lakers would be prohibitive favorites to win the title.
On the surface, a Lakers superteam would be great for the league. The playoffs felt a little empty without LeBron, and the TV ratings reflected that. Should the most popular NBA franchise in the world retake its place on the top of the NBA mountain and mint a new generation of fans like these guys, it would be a cool return to the glory days of Showtime and the Shaq-Kobe dynasty. But there’s a downside to the dominance. This is a League Pass league; fans want to be engaged by more than just one team. Back in the ’80s, ’90s, and early ’00s, when the Lakers, Celtics, and Bulls took turns collecting rings, most fans had little access to the NBA as a 30-team league. They watched their local team, and a national game here and there—maybe once a week. Now, we expect entertainment on a nightly basis, from a Wednesday-night double-header in November to first-round playoff clashes. It’s hard to deliver that entertainment when the regular season is just a preamble and everyone knows in September where the championship parade will be held in June.
Adam Silver and the league office have thrown around ideas to increase fan interest during the long regular season, including a midseason tournament. The league knows it needs to change with the times. A loaded Lakers team would almost be a throwback.
Yes, having LeBron, the best player of his generation, joined by Davis and Leonard would drive a lot of interest. The Lakers would be the greatest show on hardwood, a traveling attraction in every city they visit. And, yes, dynasties are the backbone of NBA history. The Celtics-Lakers rivalry led by Larry Bird and Magic Johnson revived the game in the 1980s, then Michael Jordan and the Chicago Bulls took the sport worldwide in the 1990s. Maybe it wouldn’t be such a bad thing for the NBA if the Lakers were either loved or loathed. But that brings me back to the Kawhi question: If Leonard goes to the Lakers, the entire conversation will be about one team; if he stays in Toronto or goes to the Clippers, the conversation becomes wide open.
How wild is it that the Lakers are gambling another year of LeBron’s prime for the chance to sign Kawhi? While they’ve waited on him, pretty much all the players they could have used to fill the roster around LeBron and AD—still a title contender—have vanished. The other All-Stars, like Irving and Horford, are signed. The high-end role players like Brogdon, JJ Redick, and Bogdanovic have been identified by other teams on the rise. Even the the Al-Farouq Aminu and Trevor Ariza types have caught on elsewhere. The Lakers don’t want to be one of many contenders; they want to be the only contender, the “we are no longer taking bets” favorite that inspires fear in the rest of the league. But if the Lakers don’t get Kawhi, they’d have to fill their roster—which currently has only LeBron, AD, Kyle Kuzma, and rookie second-rounder Talen Horton-Tucker—with mostly scraps. Waiting on Kawhi is a massive risk, and quite an admirable one.
If the Lakers do get Kawhi, Rob Pelinka would have a lot of work to do to build a complete roster using league minimum contracts. The team would need shooting at the wing position, and the best options might be Jared Dudley and Iman Shumpert, or J.R. Smith if he becomes a free agent. They’d need bigs, which means turning to Nerlens Noel, Kosta Koufos, or JaVale McGee. Seth Curry, Rajon Rondo, or Tyus Jones stand out as options at point guard. Depth will matter for the Lakers, with or without Kawhi. Davis and Leonard haven’t been the most durable players. LeBron is getting old, and no one is invincible.
The thing is: It’s not really up to LeBron. It’s up to Kawhi. Everything is.