We waited and waited for Kawhi Leonard to make his choice in free agency, and after checking out some flight patterns and combing the dark internet for information, we waited some more. Finally, in the middle of the night PT on Friday, news broke that Leonard had made his choice—not just of where he would play, but with whom he’d chosen to play. Leonard will sign a four-year, $142 million max contract with the Clippers, according to reports, and he’s also bringing Paul George along with him. To do so, the Clippers traded to the Thunder every draft pick they had from now until 2026—a total of four unprotected first-round picks, one protected first, and two pick swaps—Shai Gilgeous-Alexander, and Danilo Galinari. Is it worth it? Here are your winners and losers from yet another blockbuster offseason move:
Winners: Los Angeles Clippers
Justin Verrier: To grasp the significance of what the Clippers pulled off late Friday night, we have to start by going backward. They were once a laughingstock—not just in the NBA, but in all of sports. Donald Sterling, a racist and a slumlord, ran the franchise into the ground for three decades by pinching pennies, cutting corners, empowering charlatans, and creating a toxic environment. In the 27 years between when the team moved to Los Angeles and the trade for Chris Paul, it had two winning seasons, four playoff appearances, and just one free-agent signing of note (Baron Davis). Even the rebirth offered by the Lob City era soon evaporated; the franchise’s headiest times are now remembered for their bad vibes and missed opportunities.
So, yes, the Clippers shelled out a historic sum to buy their way to the front of the title race. But the alternative was letting Leonard form perhaps the greatest Big Three in history with their Staples Center co-tenant. After pulling out all the stops and making all the right moves for a full year with the goal of creating the most compelling case for Kawhi, being rendered irrelevant in their own city, let alone the league at large, for another decade was not an option.
Their reward for the historic price? Instantly forming the greatest team in franchise history. Chris Paul and Blake Griffin were dominant forces for the Clippers, each earning a top-five spot in MVP voting during their tenures. But the Leonard-George pairing is simply on another level. George was a legitimate MVP contender before a shoulder injury undercut his most productive offensive season to date, while Leonard holds the best player in the world belt after carrying the Raptors to a title. They are both also perennial Defensive Player of the Year contenders, with all the tools to become the new Michael and Scottie on that end. And they have help; while Blake and CP were saddled by poor benches and a rotating cast of Doc Rivers’s former players, Kawhi and PG will be surrounded by most of the same roster that gave the Warriors one of the toughest first rounds of their title era.
It cost the Clippers every future draft pick they’re allowed by league bylaws to trade to make it happen, but it’s worth it to finally matter like this in the here and now.
Loser: Los Angeles Lakers
Danny Chau: In hindsight, the Lakers’ death knell likely came on June 19, when ESPN reporter Ramona Shelburne painted a story of Lakers front-office incompetence, detailing how the team had tried to go back on an agreed-to deal after discovering that they hadn’t left enough space to sign a max contract. The Raptors made every concession they could to keep Kawhi happy; the Clippers, the eventual winners of the sweepstakes, did everything in their power during the season to show him how serious they were about building a championship-level future around him. Before Leonard even took a meeting, the Lakers had already dropped the ball with a lack of due diligence. The Spurs, the first team Kawhi departed from, is considered around the league to be, by most accounts, a model franchise; Kawhi dropped them at the first sign of organizational negligence. The Lakers needed an airtight game plan executed to perfection. They were dead on arrival.
But their premise was compelling. A team of LeBron James, Anthony Davis, and Leonard would have vied for the title of greatest trio in NBA history, if not snatched it outright. It’d be hard to conceive of a more complementary group of stars geared to thrive in the modern game. It’d be hard to think of how a team with that foundation could ever lose in the Finals, barring injury. The promise of conglomerative greatness might have been a no-brainer for many athletes, but perhaps not for a player who just proved all he needed to win a ring was enough able bodies around him and a doting but assertive front office. The Lakers entered the long weekend as potential championship favorites; now the pendulum is swinging the other way. L.A. hasn’t seen both its NBA franchises make the postseason in the same year since 2013. The Staples Center crosstown rivalry is about to reach a golden era.
Winner: Kawhi Leonard
Paolo Uggetti: This is how a superstar asserts himself. Not just by joining a superteam, but by creating his own. He does it by getting front offices to move heaven and earth and anything else he wants. He does it by keeping us in the dark for days, and then dropping the hammer when we least expect it (2 a.m. ET) and in ways we never thought possible (hello, Paul George). Nobody knew what Kawhi really wanted, so he started speaking up. According to ESPN, Leonard “pushed” George to ask out of Oklahoma City; then, he told the Clippers he would sign if they made the trade for George. That’s superstar clout.
Loser: Russell Westbrook
Uggetti: It feels like ages ago that Kevin Durant left Oklahoma City for more golden pastures, but it was only three years ago. The Thunder managed to pick up the pieces in the aftermath, trading for and then re-signing George to pair with Westbrook. But now George is leaving for a more capable contender, leaving Russ and everyone back in OKC to wonder whether they can start over once again.
No one can blame George. The Thunder topped out in the first round of the playoffs for a second straight season, and have few pathways to improve given how deep they are into the luxury tax. Leonard presented George with an opportunity to compete at a level he hasn’t since his Pacers pushed the Big Three Heat, and to do so back home in L.A. So George acted quickly, according to ESPN. Russ may have thrown George a party when he re-signed last summer, but Leonard laid down a pathway for titles.
It isn’t all bad for the Thunder. They now have more first-round draft picks than Sam Presti knows what to do with and a 20-year-old with All-Star potential in Shai Gilgeous-Alexander. But Westbrook finds himself in limbo. He was already at something of a career crossroads after Damian Lillard showed him what a modern point guard looks like in the playoffs. Now, at age 30 and with a long injury history, he has to decide whether there’s enough left over in OKC to contend with, and if he’s willing to wait on some of those draft picks to turn into some much-needed help.
Loser: The Raptors
Uggetti: Oh, Canada. Of all the losers in this outcome, they are the ones you have to be the most conflicted about. The Raptors got everything they could have asked for from Kawhi in his one contracted year. Masai Ujiri made the bold move to trade for Leonard, despite his expiring contract and the uncertainty surrounding his health, with the hope of raising Toronto’s ceiling of Eastern Conference also-ran. In turn, Leonard not only helped the Raptors conquer their East demons, he brought the franchise its first championship. They are literally winners all because of Kawhi.
But shouldn’t what Leonard and the Raptors pulled off together count for something? Maybe just one more year, to defend the title? Ujiri knew when making the trade that it was a risk that Leonard would flee to L.A. the first chance he got, but the best player on a title team walking away in the offseason is also unprecedented. You can bet that Ujiri will keep dealing, but with a lot of aging veterans around rising star Pascal Siakam, his moves may be to take a step back to build back up for the long term.
Winner: Cris Carter
Verrier: They say heroes come in all shapes and sizes. Well, the hero of Kawhi’s free agency just happens to be a Hall of Fame wide receiver. You need a P.I. license to track marquee free agents these days. We were out here following plane routes, watching grainy footage of our guy trying to buy a burrito, and relying on anonymous Reddit users and law students for intel. But Carter provided some stability for anyone whose social life is dictated by the NBA news cycle (hello). Two days ago, he gave us a heads-up that nothing was imminent. The following day, he spared everyone from standing by at their holiday barbecues. And he was right there alongside the other veteran newsmakers to get the word out on Friday night—only his included not one, but two pithy hashtags. In a particularly chaotic NBA free agency, Carter was the signal in the noise.