Kawhi Leonard firmly inserted himself into the conversation for the best basketball player in the world, leading the Toronto Raptors to the 2019 NBA title. With that as the backdrop, his already interesting decision in free agency (including an easy decision to decline a lucrative player option) took on even more intrigue, especially as he became the lone major free agent to actually take his time to make his choice.
Leonard met with the Lakers and Clippers in L.A. and, on Wednesday, flew to Toronto for a final meeting with the Raptors — that caused pandemonium north of the border. There was little in the way of leaks or reliable information for the five days it took Leonard to make his choice, which is exactly how he wanted it, and in the end, the All-NBA forward and two-time Defensive Player of the Year elected to join the Los Angeles Clippers, per Chris Haynes of Yahoo and Adrian Wonarowski of ESPN.
Not only will Leonard be going to the Clippers, but the team has traded for Thunder star Paul George.
Leonard earned Finals MVP honors with his tremendous performance against the Golden State Warriors and, by any rational measure, he is one of the best players in the league. The 28-year-old is also in the midst of his prime and, with a meticulous load management plan executed to perfection in Toronto last season, Leonard was able to peak in a playoff setting.
In what was the best offensive season of his career, Leonard averaged 26.6 points (with 61 percent true shooting) and 7.3 rebounds per game in 2018-19, with a full array of off-dribble creation combined with the strength and shooting acumen to maintain strong efficiency. On the other end, he remains a terror defensively and, even with the caveat that Leonard wasn’t quite the per-possession monster of his absolute defensive peak, he is a prototypical lock-down defender who can function in multiple systems.
There had been reports that Leonard wanted a second star with him on the Clippers if he were to go there, and he managed to convince George to push for a trade to also join him back home.
It came at a cost, as the Clippers sent out Shai Gilgeous-Alexander, Danilo Gallinari, and five first rounders in the deal, as well as two pick swaps.
Now the second wave of free agency will surely take place, but the West is suddenly fascinating with a number of teams that will think they have a great shot at the Finals, including the Clippers who now jump to the top of the line. In the meantime, Kawhi can enjoy the fact he’s in for a big payday.