Kawhi Leonard shocked the NBA when he chose the Clippers over the Lakers and Raptors on Friday night. Instead of defending the NBA championship in Toronto or being the third wheel in a superteam with LeBron James and Anthony Davis, Kawhi created a superteam of his own by convincing Paul George to demand a trade and join him. The Clippers are no longer the other franchise in Los Angeles. They now have two of the best players at the most important position in the league as well as a supporting cast (Lou Williams, Montrezl Harrell, Patrick Beverley, Rodney McGruder, and Maurice Harkless) that fits perfectly around them.
The Clippers had to pay a massive price to put this team together. They sent an unprecedented bounty of young players and future assets to the Thunder for George:
- Shai Gilgeous-Alexander and Danilo Gallinari
- Three unprotected first-round picks (2022, 2024, and 2026)
- Pick swaps in 2023 and 2025
- Two first-round picks they’d acquired from the Heat (unprotected in 2021 and lottery-protected in 2023)
It’s a huge risk, even though both Kawhi (who turned 28 in June) and George (who turned 29 in May) are still in their primes. Kawhi was clearly hobbled by the end of last season’s playoffs, and George may miss the start of next season after undergoing shoulder surgery this summer. In the darkest timeline, the Clippers have given up a future All-Star in SGA as well as multiple top-five picks over the next decade to create a team built around an injury-plagued star that never makes it out of the second round.
None of that matters to Kawhi. What happens to the Clippers in 2026 doesn’t have any bearing on his chances to win a championship in 2020. His window could close at any moment. He played in only nine games two seasons ago in San Antonio while recovering from a mysterious quad injury, and played in 60 games last regular season as Toronto did everything it could to save him for the playoffs. Kawhi admitted that he wouldn’t have made it to the NBA Finals without that type of load management. He has no way of knowing just how long he will be able to play at the all-time great level that he reached in last season’s playoffs.
Kawhi shifted the risk that all players assume every time they step on the floor to his team. The future is never promised to any player, no matter how good they are. Kevin Durant may have sacrificed the rest of his prime by coming back too early from a strained calf in a doomed effort to lead the Warriors to a third consecutive championship. Kawhi understands that risk first hand after all of the medical disputes between him and the Spurs in his last season in San Antonio. He wouldn’t come back until he felt he was at 100 percent. A team doesn’t necessarily have the interests of its best player at heart, so why shouldn’t those players look out for themselves?
To land Kawhi, the Clippers were the ones who had to sacrifice. The Raptors were reportedly unwilling to pay such a high price: According to ESPN, team president Masai Ujiri wouldn’t give up as many future assets in a potential trade with the Thunder for George and Russell Westbrook. A team has to be somewhat desperate to roll the dice. The Raptors, after winning an NBA championship in their own one-season gamble with Kawhi, no longer were.
The obvious comparison for the risk the Clippers took on is what the Lakers did a few weeks ago when they traded for Anthony Davis. That deal kept its status as the biggest haul a team has ever paid for a superstar for less than two weeks. The Lakers cleaned house, giving up everything they had except for Kyle Kuzma:
- Brandon Ingram, Lonzo Ball, and Josh Hart
- The no. 4 overall pick in 2019
- Two future first-round picks (either a top-eight pick in 2021 or an unprotected pick in 2022, and an unprotected pick in 2024 or 2025)
- A pick swap in 2023
LeBron James was the driving force in the deal for Davis, just like Kawhi was for George. LeBron will turn 35 in December and leads the NBA in career minutes played. He couldn’t afford another lost season like his first in Los Angeles.
Kawhi is reading from LeBron’s playbook. One of the two has played in the last nine NBA Finals, and they have combined to win five of the last nine Finals MVPs while playing for four different franchises. A team with the opportunity to sign one of them would be crazy not to do everything in its power to bring them on board. The chance to win an NBA championship doesn’t come around often. The stakes are incredibly high when a team is chasing a player like LeBron or Kawhi. Sacrificing your future is the price to sit at the table.
Kawhi could have signed with the Clippers as more of a long-term play. They were a promising young team with an All-Rookie starting backcourt (SGA and Landry Shamet) as well as a treasure trove of future first-round picks and quality players on movable contracts. The odds are that they would have been front-runners for any stars who’d become available over the next few seasons. But that wasn’t enough to convince Leonard. Future flexibility, as the Celtics have shown the past few seasons, doesn’t necessarily mean anything. Kawhi agreed to sign with the Clippers once they turned potential into reality.
The recent rumors linking both Kevin Durant and Jimmy Butler to the Clippers now make more sense in the wake of the George trade. Like Leonard and George, they are also two of the best two-way wings in the NBA. Durant signed with the Nets and Butler forced his way to the Heat, leaving George as the best of the remaining players at that position still on the board. The difference, of course, is that Durant and Butler were free agents while George had seemingly committed to Oklahoma City long term last summer.
No one even knew that George was on the board before Kawhi put him in play and reportedly began recruiting him heavily over the past week. PG had just gone through his own free agency circus before announcing that he had unfinished business with Westbrook in Oklahoma City and signing a four-year, $137 million extension with the Thunder in 2018. But no commitment is final when the best player in the world decides that he wants to play with you.
Kawhi exercised every bit of the massive amount of power at his fingertips this offseason. He essentially looked around the league and picked what team he wanted to play on and what star he wanted to play with. Nothing was off limits. And no team was safe. It didn’t matter what Oklahoma City had done to make George happy over the past two seasons, just as it didn’t matter how much Toronto had done with Kawhi. There was only so much those teams could do. The opportunity to play with each other in their hometown was too good to pass up.
Leonard chose the perfect fit for himself, on and off the court. The Clippers gave him the chance to return home as the undisputed face of the franchise instead of sharing the spotlight with LeBron, while George has shown that he can be an incredible second option. He put up massive offensive numbers last season (28.0 points on 43.8 percent shooting, 8.2 rebounds, and 4.1 assists) despite playing primarily off-ball next to Westbrook. George was a more appealing partner than either Durant, who will miss all of next season after tearing his Achilles in the NBA Finals and may have to reinvent himself when he returns in 2021, or Butler, a shaky outside shooter who would have struggled playing off of Kawhi and whose game may not age well in his 30s.
The closest parallel to what Kawhi pulled off on Friday is what LeBron did in the summer of 2014, when he returned to Cleveland after playing in four consecutive NBA Finals with Miami. LeBron wanted to return to his hometown, and orchestrated a trade for another star (Kevin Love) to join him there. The Cavs then spent the next four seasons mortgaging their future to put the best possible team around LeBron. It was more than worth the sacrifice considering they went to four straight Finals and won the first NBA championship in franchise history, but it was a sacrifice nonetheless. The Cavs had the no. 1 overall pick in the 2011, 2013, and 2014 drafts on their roster before signing LeBron, and had to start the entire building process over from scratch in 2018, with several huge deals from the LeBron era still left on their books.
The Lakers are LeBron’s fourth stop in his career. The Clippers are Kawhi’s third. Both have moved around because they haven’t been willing to put the best interests of any of their franchises over their own. There is no way for an NBA team to perfectly balance between the present and future. Going all in each season means giving away at least some chance of contending down the road. The best way for a superstar in his prime to contend for a decade straight is to change teams. They can use their power to demand their current team go all in now, and then jump to another team with a more promising future in a few seasons and restart the whole cycle. The power dynamic between player and team has flipped. Superstars are using franchises for their own benefit and then discarding those franchises when they can no longer help them.
Kawhi can keep following the path that LeBron created. He signed a four-year, $142 million contract with the Clippers, which means he will be a free agent in the summer of 2023, when he will be only 32. He could change teams again at that point, just like LeBron did after four seasons with the Heat and Cavs. The Clippers were the best situation for Kawhi in 2019. They probably won’t be in 2023, after as many as four seasons of title contention. Kawhi may decide he’s better off playing for a new team with more future draft picks than the Clippers, who will not be able to trade a draft pick until 2028 because of Friday’s deal. That team would then be in the position that the Lakers were with LeBron, when they mortgaged their future to maximize the last seasons of his prime by trading for Davis.
Leonard didn’t owe anything to anyone this offseason. He earned the right to be an unrestricted free agent after eight seasons in the NBA, and his playoff dominance meant that three of the best teams in the league were willing to sit out one of the busiest free agency periods in NBA history to wait on his decision. Kawhi, just like LeBron in 2014 and Durant in 2016, controlled the future of the league. He took the principle behind the decisions his two predecessors made in those offseasons to its logical conclusion. Kawhi’s convincing George to play with him in Los Angeles is like if Durant had gotten Steph Curry to play with him in a third city in 2016 instead of joining him in Golden State.
Kawhi had the power to make the best possible decision for himself this summer and not care how it affected anyone else. That is what happens when you wear the crown as the best player in the league. Whoever ends up taking it from him will probably follow the same path.