The Race for Kawhi Will Define This NBA Offseason

Tue 25th June 2019

Off the back of one of the clutchest post-season runs in sports history, and with Kevin Durant’s tragic Achilles injury set to keep him off the hardwood for the next twelve months, one name in this 2019 free agent crop soars above the rest.

Kawhi “The Klaw” “King of the North” “Board Man” Leonard.

This is a stacked free agent class. Kyrie Irving, Kemba Walker, Jimmy Butler, the aforementioned Durant and the similarly-stricken Klay Thompson are among a crop of out-of-contract stars with the legitimate ability to swing a franchise’s championship fortunes on a course to the Larry O’B trophy.

Respectfully though, none of those superstars (with the exception of a healthy Durant) can hold a candle to the freakish two-way abilities of Leonard.

What we saw from the newly-christened Board Man in the last two months was nothing short of spectacular. Toronto’s 2019 championship run will go down in sporting lore as one of the unlikeliest in recent memory, in no small part – arguably in sole part – due to the heroics of Leonard.

What can tend to happen in these situations with a free-agent star of Leonard’s ilk, that so transcendent and powerful are his services that a swathe of front-office machinations are caught up in his gravity. Until his decision is made, the rest of the league is effectively stuck in orbit waiting to see which way their cards fall.

Some of those contingencies are obvious – if Kawhi joins up with Irving and goes to Brooklyn then clearly Durant won’t – but others are more nuanced. If Kawhi stays in Toronto does that open the door for Durant and Irving to join the Clippers?

On Monday, Leonard (in a natural and widely expected move) declined to exercise his $21.3 million player option with the Raptors for next season, meaning he will officially become a free agent in the coming weeks. 

There are reports surfacing as this goes to print that Leonard and the Clippers have a meeting “tentatively scheduled” for July 2, but, again, this is hardly a surprise given the second LA-based franchise have long been touted as the front-runner for Leonard’s services.

So much of the NBA’s future now hinges on what unfolds with the NBA’s newly-minted mega-star. So what are the likely outcomes?

Toronto Raptors

Until two weeks ago, remaining in Canada was probably the least likely of Leonard’s many options. Now the smart money seems to be evenly split between him staying and going.

With that said, it’s not hard to see the funny side of headlines like “Kawhi ‘seriously considering re-signing’ with Raptors” being published in the Toronto Sun.

You mean, he wasn’t seriously considering it beforehand? What more can this city do!

Financially, the Raptors have the upper hand in any negotiations. They can offer Leonard five-years and $190 million, while any other suitor can offer at most four years and $141 million. In the outrageously cash-rich NBA landscape $49 million extra may not seem like a huge deal, but just step back and consider that number for a second.

Forty. Nine. Million. Dollars.

At 27 years old, with the probability of at least one more massive payday after this upcoming contract, that has to be an appealing option for Kawhi. Particularly in the wake of the devastating injuries to Thompson and Durant.

Leonard is no stranger to missing basketball games. The idea of a long-term deal, expiring when he turns 32 and allowing him to sign another big-money contract to take him to the end of his career, has to be tempting.

Alternatively, Toronto could also offer, say, two years and $70 million. They’re a contending team, likely to be making deep playoff runs for at least the next two seasons, and the two-year deal (or a one and one) would provide Leonard with the best of both worlds – a huge payday with the added security of a definite payday down the track.

The way the Raptors fitness staff handled Leonard’s workload this season is likely to be a major selling point as well; what other team in the league would be perfectly content with their superstar playing just 60 games?

In terms of pure basketball fit, there is no team that suits Kawhi’s career situation at this point better than the reigning champions. The roster has been built to suit him, head coach Nick Nurse clearly knows the ins and outs of his game better than most, and GM Masai Ujiri is arguably the most competent executive in the NBA. 

The real question at this point is:

  • Why wouldn’t Kawhi want to stay and build a legacy in the North?
Los Angeles Clippers

The Clippers have two major things going for them:

1. They’re in LA; and

2. They’re not the Lakers.

The first is important because Leonard is an LA native, and, since the infamous rift with San Antonio, the rumours have always revolved around him returning home.

The second is important because, well, the Lakers are a basket-case. Sure, they’ve managed to snare Anthony Davis, but at the cost of basically all their future assets and pretty much any chance of rounding out a competitive roster for next season.

The Clippers are, by comparison, on the up. Their roster for next season looks outstanding – Danillo Galinari, Lou Williams, Landry Shamet, Shai Gilgeous-Alexander and Montrezl Harrell are all on team-friendly deals, and they have the potential to free up two max salary slots. Adding Leonard and another star makes the team (already playoff-calibre) a genuine contender.

There’s a reason LA’s second-biggest franchise have long been the favourite to sign the now two-time Finals MVP. They can offer the infamous Tinseltown lifestyle without the drama. They’re the Robin to the Lakers’ Batman. If Robin was cool.

Coming to LA and taking a talented Clippers outfit to the promised land as The Man on the team, somewhat counterintuitively for a quiet achiever like Leonard, seems to be something he’s always wanted.

The Rest

Outside of Toronto and LA, in the Leonard sweepstakes the rest of the teams in the NBA are like the direwolves in later seasons of Game of Thrones – an afterthought. 

The two New York franchises are (as ever) in the conversation, but can anyone really see the Board Man fitting in the cramped streets and bright lights of the Big Apple?

Both certainly have the cap space, but money is hardly going to be an issue for Leonard anywhere in the NBA. It is not in dispute that he will be receiving a max deal somewhere. The choice is likely to come down to a mix of basketball fit and lifestyle. The Knicks are a sh!t team and Brooklyn is a sh!t city

The Lakers, as we’ve discussed, are by far the least likely of the LA franchises. Plus with their nonsensical salary-cap manoeuvring in the Davis trade, they may not have the cap space after all.

The 76ers will reportedly get a meeting with Leonard, but, again, the fit feels really weird. Leonard is not the type of guy to cope well with the renowned fickleness of a Philadelphia home crowd. 

It’s Toronto or the Clippers, and the choice of either will dictate how the rest of this offseason plays out.

Written and produced for by Eddie Dadds

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