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The Clippers Got Kawhi Leonard and Paul George, and Changed What’s Possible in the NBA

These two deals redraw the league’s landscape, at once making the Clippers title contenders and tarnishing the Lakers’ offseason. But it goes beyond that, deeply affecting the Thunder, Raptors, and any team wondering whether their star player is happy. The rules have changed.

Ringer illustration

It’s 1:20 a.m. in Las Vegas as I sit here typing this story. July 5, 2019, is a day I’ll always remember for these two reasons: First, a 7.1-magnitude earthquake shook everywhere from Los Angeles to Las Vegas. That was a quite a start to Las Vegas summer league. Oh, and Kawhi Leonard and Paul George were acquired by the L.A. Clippers. It was shocking, and now I’m sitting here in my hotel room at Caesars Palace questioning the nature of my own reality. How is this happening?

The NBA should make its slogan “Expect the unexpected.” Because who the hell saw this coming? That the Clippers would sign Leonard is totally believable—they’ve built an organizationally aligned franchise with Steve Ballmer as owner, Lawrence Frank leading basketball operations, Doc Rivers at head coach, and a slew of talented players, young and old. The Clippers could have eventually achieved success, with or without Leonard. What is unbelievable is that the Clippers acquired George for [takes a deep breath] Shai Gilgeous-Alexander; Danilo Gallinari; three unprotected first-round picks from the Clippers in 2022, 2024, and 2026; the right to swap picks with the Clippers in 2023 and 2025; plus two firsts from the Miami Heat, including a 2021 first that’s unprotected and a 2023 first that’s protected 1-to-14. My oh my, the Clippers just sent the biggest trade package in history to the Oklahoma City Thunder to acquire George, which sealed the deal to sign Kawhi. All week, no one really knew where Kawhi would go. Not Woj. Not Stein. Kawhi was a mystery man, and under everyone’s nose he was recruiting George to the Clippers.

Kawhi led the San Antonio Spurs to an NBA Finals victory over the Miami Heat in 2014, ruining a three-peat bid by LeBron James, Dwyane Wade, and Chris Bosh. Then he did the same with the Toronto Raptors this past season, defeating the Golden State Warriors. He is the superteam slayer, and now he has one of his own.

He is also, apparently, a hell of a backroom dealer. Kawhi kept his circle close over the past couple of weeks. Nothing leaked unless they wanted it to. And the whole time, while we were speculating and prognosticating, he was making moves, or at least making it be known that he wanted moves made. He didn’t do the conventional thing and try to run it back with the Raptors, who legitimately could have won another championship. He didn’t join the superteam that the Los Angeles Lakers offered with LeBron, the best player of this generation, and Anthony Davis, the best big man of this decade. No, Kawhi chose the Clippers, the little-brother franchise in Los Angeles, a team that only a few years ago was run by a racist owner who was forced to sell the team. Now, they are a model franchise with two superstars. They built a home for Kawhi, and he immediately made it his own.

The Clippers should be the favorites to win the 2020 NBA Finals. It goes without saying that Leonard and George are two of the game’s elites. Kawhi is a superhuman scorer and a godly defender. George was an MVP candidate for most of last season during his career-best offensive stretch while maintaining his status as an elite defender. Both stars excel with or without the ball. Both stars are unselfish. Both stars defend. Most superstar groups have overlapping strengths, like Wade’s and LeBron’s ball handling, but Leonard and George are natural fits who can play off each other. And they’ll have one of the league’s strongest supporting casts.

With a core of young players including Landry Shamet and Montrezl Harrell still on their rookie contracts, and veterans on team-friendly contracts such as Lou Williams and Patrick Beverley, the Clippers have a deep roster whose skills that complement their two adaptable stars. Shamet is a shooting specialist who can whiz through screens and handoffs, while LouWill is a spark-plug scorer who can go off for 30 points on nights he’s hot, or simply space the floor as a shooter. Williams and Harrell ran more pick-and-roll than any duo in the NBA last season, and now Leonard and George will benefit from Harrell’s sturdy screens and bouncy rolls to the rim. Beverley is a ferocious defender who plays his role on offense. They also added Mo Harkless, a rock-solid defender at forward. Doc Rivers can play defense-focused lineups like Beveley-Harkless-Leonard-George-Harrell or plug in Shamet and Williams for an offensive boost. If Ivica Zubac is re-signed, they can play with a big traditional center. They’ll also have the room midlevel exception worth $4.9 million, which could be used to retain forward JaMychal Green or look elsewhere. The Clippers seem complete, but they aren’t done yet.

The Clippers have guts, man. They traded Blake Griffin, the face of their franchise, the “lifelong Clipper,” just over a year ago. The move was questioned by a lot of fans because Blake, despite all his injuries, was still good. And besides, he was a superstar. But as Jerry West said at the time: The Clippers were stuck. The Griffin trade freed them; that’s why you take calculated risks.

The Raptors’ risk paid off, too, when they traded their own face of the franchise, DeMar DeRozan, and center Jakob Poeltl for Leonard, who was coming off a season when he played just nine games thanks to a mysterious quadriceps injury. Kawhi didn’t want to play in Toronto, but Raptors president Masai Ujiri did it anyway. And Toronto won a title. The Raptors’ problem is that they are losing flexibility. Kyle Lowry, Marc Gasol, and Serge Ibaka will be unrestricted free agents in their early-to-mid-30s next summer, while Fred VanVleet (unrestricted) and Pascal Siakam (restricted) would also be up for new deals. The Raptors have an uncertain future, and their success wasn’t enough to keep Kawhi. Still, Leonard delivered the Raptors a championship and they’re one of basketball’s greatest one-hit wonders.

The Thunder also took a risk in acquiring George, granted it was for far less: Victor Oladipo and Domantas Sabonis. But Oladipo were Sabonis young. Now Oladipo has blossomed into a star and Sabonis is one of the game’s best young big men. George has moved on, but the haul they received from the Clippers is mind-blowing. You’ll read and hear a lot about how George illustrates the power of player movement, and while it’s somewhat true, how many teams would be willing to risk it all like the Clippers were? The Raptors weren’t, according to Woj. The Thunder now control all of the Clippers’ picks from 2022 through 2026—Kawhi will be 35 and George will turn 36 during the 2025-26 season. OKC got Gilgeous-Alexander, one of the game’s brightest young point guards—already a stellar, versatile defender and a savvy pick-and-roll playmaker. Gallinari is a super-talented forward despite his injury history, and the Heat first-round picks are a nice bonus. The Thunder aren’t losers here. They won big with this outrageous return.

But what will come next for the Thunder? They’re still $15 million over the tax and face a significant repeater tax fee, which will sting even more with the knowledge that they’re all but out of a wide-open title race. Could they trade Steven Adams? Good luck finding a market for a throwback center set to earn $52 million over the next two seasons, unless they attach some picks. Could they find a trade for Dennis Schröder? Hahaha. Could they deal guys like Jerami Grant and Andre Roberson? Sure. But maybe the true logical solution is to blow it up and trade their own face of the franchise: Russell Westbrook. Not many teams could use a point guard set to earn $40 million annually: Miami? Minnesota? New York? Orlando? Phoenix? At the least, it’s worth exploring.

There was only one loser Friday night: the Lakers. They were in the right to punt on all free agents for the chance at Kawhi. But it’s now two summers in a row now that a superstar has declined a chance to play with King James. George stayed with Oklahoma City last year, and Leonard went across the hallway this year. You can see Leonard’s choice as an indictment of whatever dysfunction there is within the Lakers. In choosing the Clippers, Kawhi opted for the Los Angeles franchise that doesn’t have an owner who hires family friends and a famous ex-player who blabbers to the media. At least the Lakers remain title contenders now with two superstars. Kyle Kuzma is a fine third piece, too. Danny Green, Jared Dudley, and Troy Daniels are quality depth additions. Kentavious Caldwell-Pope and JaVale McGee are back. They still have a long way to go, though, to build a complete team.

The Clippers-Lakers rivalry will be sweeter than ever. Heck, the whole league is gonna be a bar fight. There are the makings of superteams out there, but there’s no true favorite. About a dozen franchises have a legitimate argument for being able to win the title. There are five or six contenders in the Eastern Conference, and any of the eight teams that make the playoffs in the Western Conference could. With such a wide-open league, could the incentive to trade for a star rise? Can the Washington Wizards get a haul for Bradley Beal? Will the Thunder decide to rebuild and shop Westbrook? Will the Cleveland Cavaliers finally trade Kevin Love? These players could all move the needle for a team this coming season in the championship chase.

When Kawhi first met Raptors president Masai Ujiri last summer, all he wanted to know was whether Ujiri would stay in Toronto and what he’d do to improve the team. “He didn’t ask about anything else,” Ujiri said last month at an event in London. “Everything was based around winning. Every single thing.” In choosing the Clippers, Kawhi proved Ujiri’s words to be true. He joined one of the most stable franchises in all of sports, with a roster already built for success. But he did it on his own terms by recruiting Paul George. It was a surprise, but Kawhi is teaching us that nothing he does should come as a shock.