In Kawhi Leonard’s eight seasons in the NBA, he’s been many things: an up-and-comer, a defensive ace, the best player on two different championship teams, and now, a franchise savior. One thing he’s never been is verbose. Early on in San Antonio, as his star grew, he was positioned as the natural heir to Tim Duncan’s reserved demeanor (including in a 2013 commercial for H-E-B, a local grocery chain). His falling out with the Spurs was marked not by his words, but rather his lack thereof.
At his introductory press conference in Toronto last year, he was perplexed by a question asking what he wanted fans to know about him, saying that people would have to ask more specific questions. Stories from his days at San Diego State revealed more of his stoic behavior, and this offseason, as rumors flew about his motivations and where he would sign, he remained silent. The Athletic reported that Leonard made it known to teams recruiting him that “trust, privacy and respect” (in layman’s terms: keeping their mouths shut) were paramount in landing him.
On Wednesday, though, after being unveiled with new teammate Paul George in front of a sea of reporters and an, erm, enthusiastic owner, Kawhi did something radical: He spoke. A lot. Here are a few takeaways from the All-NBA forward’s first words in Los Angeles.
Escaping the Lakers’ Shadow
As Leonard’s free agency dragged on at the start of July, the momentum seemed to be headed in the direction of the other Los Angeles team. The Lakers, armed with LeBron James, Anthony Davis, and decades of history, seemed poised to add the reigning Finals MVP and usher in a new era of purple-and-gold domination. But it wasn’t to be. George—a lifelong Clippers fan—spurned the Lakers last summer before re-signing with the Thunder, and Leonard, in his own words, never was destined to join Los Angeles’s dominant team.
“Y’all kept saying that me and Paul’s favorite team growing up was the Lakers,” Leonard told Yahoo Sports’s Chris Haynes. “I wasn’t a fan of the Lakers growing up. Not saying that’s why I didn’t choose them, but that’s not what it is. I wasn’t a fan of them, and [George] just told you guys he was a Clippers fan.”
On Thursday, Leonard said that he understood Los Angeles was a Lakers town, but that there was room for the Clippers to carve out their own space as well.
“Who won the first championship with the Lakers? That’s how we’re going to start our movement,” Leonard said. “We’re going to go in and obviously have a goal set of winning a championship, and if we can get one, then that’s going to start the changing process. But you can’t change one championship against 16 or a brand. … The fan base is going to change over if we win, and that’s the goal. We’ve got to win, and everything else is going to take care of itself.”
It’s an honorable pursuit, but not a novel one. The best years in Clippers history happened during one of the worst stretches in their crosstown rival’s, and yet they weren’t able to make their mark. The lasting memory of Lob City isn’t of a team that inspired the masses to join the fold, but of an oft-injured juggernaut that never realized its potential.
“As far as the last few years, the Clippers have been better,” Leonard said. “But it’s the media. They’re going to get the attention. They’re the Los Angeles Lakers. They’ve been winning championships for a long time.”
Clippers owner Steve Ballmer reportedly liked that both Leonard and George had ties to Southern California. A move to a forthcoming stadium in Inglewood could do wonders for a team trying to build its own identity. A championship behind two local stars would, too.
Kawhi Is Charming?
Leonard has always been able to elicit a laugh, though recently, it’s come thanks to him laughing. The self-deprecation showed at the Raptors’ victory parade was its own kind of charming, but this week brought something new. At both his press conference and in his conversation with Haynes, Leonard spoke openly and earnestly about his decision to join the Clippers and his time in Toronto.
“I want to thank the Toronto Raptor fans,” he said to start his press conference. “I don’t have social media so I’m not able to put out a paragraph or whatever.”
He thanked the doctor who delivered his now-almost-4-month-old son (bringing new meaning to “What it do, baby?”), his former teammates (“text, FaceTime me, we’ll talk”), and crucially, the food scene.
“I also just wanna thank the city as far as the restaurants,” he said. “Giving up that Ka’wine & Dine throughout the playoffs. I took advantage of that.”
The decision to leave Toronto, Leonard said, was never about championship aspirations. He said it was his duty to win the Raptors a title, and having done that, he was ready to move on. Staying in Canada and running back the squad that capped the seemingly endless Warriors dynasty may have given him as strong a chance of winning a title this season as he’ll have in Los Angeles. But he said his choice came down to personal history and a desire to return home. Leonard hails from Riverside, California, just an hour east of where he’ll play home games, while George is from Palmdale—nearly the same distance to the north.
“I just wanted to play at home,” Leonard told Yahoo. “Our families are able to come to games. But just from my own thinking, it’s like we’re in the NBA and I played eight years already. Eight years can fly by so fast, and we’re not able to do anything with [our families] eight or nine months of the season.”
Recruiting vs. Demanding
In the days after Leonard and George made the Clippers overnight contenders, it had been reported that Leonard masterminded the deal himself, demanding the Clippers trade for George. Mixed with his stoicism, it created the illusion of a cutthroat assassin—a championship-hunting gun for hire, meandering from town to town with no thought of the damage he’d left behind.
Leonard pushed back on that narrative Thursday, shunting the idea that he forced the Clippers to send a king’s ransom for George, and that he led the Lakers on, saying they didn’t have to wait for him to make a decision.
“Shit, I guess I need a front-office position if that’s what happened,” Leonard said. “I talked to the Clippers, they had certain players they thought they could pair with me before I signed. [George’s] name was on the board, and I said I would love to play with him. They made the opportunity happen in probably two to three days later.”
The difference between recruiting a player and demanding a team acquire them is an issue of semantics, but a notable one, given all of the ire burbling among owners as a result of how this summer’s free agency played out. For what it’s worth, Leonard reportedly also spoke to Kevin Durant and Jimmy Butler to gauge their interest about joining forces.
Earlier this week, The Athletic reported the timeline of the Clippers’ acquisitions, detailing how in the span of a few minutes, the front office secured Kawhi by completing a trade for George, and the George trade by ensuring they’d have Leonard’s signature. Thunder general manager Sam Presti told reporters that while George’s exit from Oklahoma City wasn’t as mutual as the star forward suggested, it wasn’t adversarial. For all the talk of war games, collusion, and chess matches, if Leonard is to be believed, there wasn’t a grand conspiracy that brought a second star to the Clippers. Just good ol’ fashioned ’cruitin.