That Kawhi Leonard officially returned to the Clippers on Thursday came as no surprise; the lone remaining rainmaker in the NBA’s 2021 free agent class had already signaled his intention to return to L.A. a week earlier. What has provoked some head-scratching, though, is the structure of the contract he decided to ink: a four-year pact that’s left observers wondering what it might say about the 30-year-old’s health after he suffered a season-ending knee injury during the 2021 playoffs, what it augurs about his relationship with the organization that moved heaven and earth to import him and Paul George two summers ago, and what it all means for the state of a Clippers franchise that’s one of several locked into a perpetual all-in pursuit of an NBA championship that has continued to elude its grasp.
How perfectly Kawhi: Even where there’s no mystery, there’s still a little bit of mystery.
First, the figures: Leonard agreed to a four-year deal that will pay him $176.3 million through 2025—which, by the way, is when the Clippers intend to open their brand-new arena in Inglewood. (Leonard holds a player option on the final season of the deal, according to Yahoo’s Chris Haynes.) This middle path surprised many NBA insiders, who had anticipated that Leonard, after declining his player option for next season, would either go short or go long on his next deal.
“Going short” would’ve meant a two-year max, with a player option on the second season—colloquially referred to as a “one-plus-one” deal—that would have put Leonard on the books for just over $81.8 million through 2023. It’s an approach that would’ve kept the pressure on Steve Ballmer, Lawrence Frank, and the rest of the Clippers brain trust to continue exploring every possible avenue to get the team closer to a championship. It also would have ensured him maximum flexibility in determining his next steps; if things were to go south at Staples Center this season, he could have pulled up stakes next summer in search of greener pastures.
On top of that, the one-plus-one structure would’ve positioned Leonard for an exceedingly lucrative long-term deal from the Clips by allowing him to reenter the market in 2022 and sign a full-freight, five-year max worth $235 million, according to ESPN’s Bobby Marks. If Kawhi had wanted his $200 million–plus payday now, there was a pathway to that, too—the “going long” approach. Had he opted into his $36 million salary for next season, he could’ve signed a four-year, $186.6 million extension through 2026—which would’ve netted him just under $223 million over the next five years. (Kawhi couldn’t sign a full five-year max now because he’s played for the Clippers for only two seasons; a player needs to be with a team for three to qualify for the Larry Bird exception, which opens up the largest contract options the collective bargaining agreement allows.)
Declining the option was always the pathway to the biggest payday for Kawhi, starting with the fact that, since the salary cap is going up and maximum salary figures are going up with it, simply tearing up the final year of his current deal and signing a new one right now earns him a raise for next season: a cool $3.3 million, the difference between his $36 million option and the $39.3 million starting max for a player with 10 or more years of service time. It also afforded him the flexibility to structure his next deal however he’d like. My source for this claim: Kawhi Leonard.
“Obviously, if I’m healthy, the best decision is to decline the player option,” Leonard told reporters in December.
But Leonard didn’t end the season healthy. What at first appeared to be a relatively minor knock late in the fourth quarter of the Clippers’ Game 4 win over the Jazz in the second round …
… quickly became a “right knee sprain” that would sideline Leonard for all of L.A.’s six-game Western Conference finals loss to the Suns. Two weeks after the Clippers’ elimination, the team confirmed the full extent of the injury: a partially torn anterior cruciate ligament in Leonard’s right knee, requiring surgical repair that could prevent him from being cleared for basketball-related activities for at least six months.
A quick and uneventful ramp-up to game readiness, then, would likely push Leonard’s return out to at least the 2022 All-Star break. Any sort of speed bump in the process could cast into doubt his availability at any point during the upcoming season.
Given that uncertainty, and how unlikely it is that a Kawhi-less L.A. squad will contend for a championship in a brutal Western Conference, the Clippers entered the offseason at something of a crossroads. They decided to stay the course and continue to compete, though, bringing back key veteran cogs Serge Ibaka, Reggie Jackson, and Nicolas Batum, and taking a smart low-cost flier on Justise Winslow. At the same time, though, L.A. also drafted a trio of young swingmen—Keon Johnson, Jason Preston, and Brandon Boston—who could both help plug the gap on the wing while Leonard rehabs and provide an infusion of youth to help extend the franchise’s competitive window.
As the Clippers balanced now and later, then, so too did Kawhi, landing on a four-year structure with a player option for the final season—a deal that can look like victory or defeat for either side, depending on the lens you’re using.
On one hand, getting Leonard locked down for two guaranteed seasons beyond ’21-22 constitutes a win for the Clips. Now, they no longer have to worry about just paying Kawhi to rehab only to watch him walk next summer; now, by aligning Leonard’s player option with the one they gave George in his four-year extension last offseason, they have firmly wedged their competitive window open through at least 2024. Getting that multiyear commitment could indicate that, after seeing how the front office bounced back from the team’s disastrous elimination in the bubble by elevating Tyronn Lue, reorienting the roster, and rebooting the franchise’s culture, Leonard has fully bought into what the Clippers are selling, willing to commit for the long(ish) haul.
On the other, Kawhi did just get the Clips to hand him an extra $3.3 million for next season, one in which he might not even play, with only the stroke of a pen. He did just get them to provide the job security of $176.3 million, one month removed from significant knee surgery and with a pretty haunted medical history. (Perhaps Leonard, like Anthony Davis last offseason, saw the benefit of getting the bag now rather than trying to go year by year to maximize his potential payoff.) And, in the process, he did just cost them a shot at a $9.5 million disabled player exception—one that a team that’s capped out and already nearly $50 million over the luxury tax line really could’ve used to add some firepower for a playoff push, should Leonard be unable to rejoin the fray come the stretch run.
Maybe that’s just the nature of negotiation, though; as sainted Chief Jim Hopper once explained it, compromise ultimately means “like halfway happy.” While we keep scratching our heads over the whys and wherefores of the deal, the Clips walk away with a commitment from one of the half-dozen or so best players on the planet—one fresh off his third All-NBA First Team nod (and fifth All-NBA selection overall) and averaging 30.4 points, 7.7 rebounds, 4.4 assists, and 2.1 steals on 57/39/88 shooting in the playoffs—to return to the core of a team that, before his injury, finally seemed to have made good on its preposterous promise. Leonard, in turn, gets to rehab with 176 million more bucks in the bank. Sometimes “halfway happy” ain’t half bad.