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Kawhi Leonard Is the Most Powerful Player in the NBA

He has single-handedly altered the directions of at least four franchises in the past two seasons, and his short deal with the Clippers could soon change the league again

Kawhi Leonard isn’t a villain. To be a heel, one must have flair; to have flair, one must have ego. Some players are made of that showy, garish, in-your-face-and-your-mom’s-face stuff. Patrick Beverley, for instance, began his career as an NBA outlaw the first time he ran back on defense. For others, villainy comes later on. One parade and some counting was all it took for LeBron James, seven years into the league, to become universally abhorred (for a while, anyway). He even dressed the part.

Not once has Kawhi promised a championship, let alone seven, despite having delivered two. He’s quiet, but not an ominous, scary, movie-antagonist kind of quiet. When Kawhi does let loose a verbal taunt, it’s with a single noun. Buckets. Layup. If he’s feeling spicy, he adds an adjective: board man. Kawhi is the best two-way player in the world and the gravitational center of this season’s free agency, and he wielded his power. If a player by any other name ravaged the future of multiple franchises like Kawhi did by signing with the Clippers, he’d be the NBA’s newest bad boy. Instead, it was Kawhi, the player best known for how little is known about him. The superstar immune to the villain narrative.

When Kawhi agreed to sign with the Clippers, the team that experienced the most dramatic and instant ramifications was the Raptors, who had risked its best asset in DeMar DeRozan to acquire Leonard the year before. (Obviously, a championship is one hell of a consolation prize to losing the Kawhi sweepstakes.) But Toronto isn’t the only franchise that has been left in Kawhi’s wake this offseason. Oklahoma City also felt the devastating aftermath of Leonard’s decision, as Paul George forced a trade to the Clippers. As did the Lakers, who by missing out on someone who was never theirs, were left filling out a roster with leftovers. Even going back to last offseason, the Spurs are still recovering; without Kawhi playing the last two years, they’ve had their worst win percentages since before Tim Duncan joined the squad.

But it wasn’t until Wednesday, when the details of Kawhi’s contract were announced, that the Clippers revealed he could also leave them left for dead before long. Los Angeles agreed to a three-year, $103 million max contract with Kawhi, including a player option for the third year. It’s a stunningly short deal considering the record-setting number of draft picks the Clippers gave up to pair Leonard and George together, and is a season (maybe even two) shorter than what was initially reported when he agreed to sign.

Leonard might plan on staying with the organization until he retires. Be a lifelong Clipper, if you will. The short-term contract allows Kawhi the opportunity to make more money over more time than signing a full max now would have; if he opts out in 2021, when he’ll be a 10-year veteran, he’ll be eligible to re-sign to a 35 percent maximum contract, which, per Albert Nahmad, would pay him $209 million over five years. In the short term, Clippers fans can rest assured knowing that it took Kawhi only one year in Toronto to secure a title.

If, however, he does not re-sign, there won’t be any reassurances in Los Angeles for some time. In all, the Clippers sent four unprotected first-round picks, one protected first-round pick, two pick swaps, Danilo Gallinari, and Shai Gilgeous-Alexander to Oklahoma City. George, like Kawhi, has a player option in 2021. The best-case scenario is the Clippers will be rich with banners and parades and champagne goggles. The worst-case scenario is the 2021-22 Clippers will become a mirror image of the 2015-16 Nets. (Which, hey, Brooklyn is on a better track than the Knicks, so not all is lost; sorry, Lakers.)

No player has manipulated the player-control era to his benefit like Kawhi. LeBron may be the face of this period, as the man who formed the superteam prototype and signed short-term deal after short-term deal, but last February was a sobering heat check on the power of LeBron’s camp when the Lakers couldn’t bring in Anthony Davis right away. Kawhi’s last couple years check every “player-empowerment era” bingo box: He signed for max money (with the Spurs in 2015), reportedly sat himself, requested a trade (from the Spurs), left the franchise that owned his Bird rights (the Raptors), convinced one team (the Clippers) into giving another (the Thunder) too good a deal to refuse, and signed a deal that gave him an easy exit (with the Clippers).

The decision to come to Los Angeles changed the fate of the Lakers, the timeline of the Thunder (who are now shopping Russell Westbrook), and the direction of the Raptors. It comforted the East by shattering the roster of the reigning champions, and it cramped the West by immediately filling the space the post-Durant Warriors just created. With Kawhi’s three-year deal, the entire league, too, has to prepare for summer 2021: Kawhi, George, LeBron, Davis, Giannis Antetokounmpo, and Bradley Beal can all be free agents.

The path of destruction Kawhi has rendered since leaving the Spurs is a testament to his talent—and power. He ended the Warriors dynasty as we know it, folded the current iteration of the Thunder, and perhaps even set up the Clippers to be the more popular—or at least more successful—team in Los Angeles. Kawhi is the most powerful man in the NBA. The Clippers can only hope he uses his control for good.