On a night that appeared to be historic because of an earthquake that occurred during Zion Williamson’s first Summer League game, a different kind of seismic shift occurred several hours later when the Clippers became arguably the best team in the league. The Los Angeles Clippers won the race to get Kawhi Leonard’s signature, convincing the free agent forward to join their team on a four-year max contract. But in an added twist, Leonard wasn’t the only All-Star the Clippers got, as trading for Paul George was a prerequisite to landing the reigning NBA Finals MVP.
Additionally, it came at the expense of two other teams that believed their championship hopes would increase to the nth degree by securing his signature: Leonard’s now-former team and reigning champs, the Toronto Raptors, and the Clippers’ fellow Staples Center tenants, the Los Angeles Lakers.
The power Leonard possesses to swing a title race was cemented last season and is something that we only see out of the league’s premier superstars like LeBron James and Kevin Durant. Leonard now belongs in that tier, and it’s why three basketball teams did everything they could to acquire his services. In the end, it was the Clippers that managed to pull off the improbable, and as the summer now settles into a true offseason, it begs the question: Where do all three of these teams go from here? They all find themselves at radically different points due to Leonard’s decision, and as such, we decided to look at all of them now that the dust has begin to settle.
In case you didn’t know, getting Kawhi Leonard would have been exponentially better than not getting Kawhi Leonard. The Lakers, perhaps more than any other team in the NBA, understand that accruing as much talent as possible and figuring the rest out later is generally a good idea. They did that when they got Anthony Davis, and while hitting 50 percent of your shots is pretty good, people are inclined to remember the more recent miss over the earlier make.
Getting Leonard would have brought on obvious questions in terms of fit alongside Davis and LeBron James, but the Lakers correctly deduced that putting those three together would have been unprecedented, the first time in league history that three top-5 players — not to mention two guys who have a case for being the best player in the world — would wear the same uniform. Through that lens, this is a gigantic loss.
The silver lining in all of this is that it does require Los Angeles to spend the money that would have been allocated to Leonard towards building out a roster. The joke was that the Lakers were going to get Leonard, then due to its financial situation, dole out minimum deals to James’ friends. Perhaps the team still does that — there is still a need for some more shooting, and Kyle Korver is available and J.R. Smith will likely join him in a few weeks — but bolstering the frontcourt with JaVale McGee and DeMarcus Cousins and getting a pair of honest-to-god NBA wings in Danny Green and Kentavious Caldwell-Pope on board is a good start to using up their cap space, even if they got a bit more than some expected them to get on the market.
In the backcourt, Los Angeles brought back Rajon Rondo, who, while still an elite passer, has serious fit questions, and Alex Caruso. They also signed Quinn Cook, a capable backup point guard who will give them shooting off the bench, and Avery Bradley, who has struggled in recent seasons, but that’s not exactly the best point guard depth chart on earth. It is very possible that the team’s best five-man group involves all of them sitting on the bench, and the Lakers seem to agree as they’re likely to have LeBron as their starting point guard.
Despite the disappointment of failing to land a third star, there might not be a better 1-2 punch in the league right now than James and Davis even with the Leonard-George duo combining forces. That should provide understandable optimism in Laker Land, even if the duo best suited to challenge it for the league’s top two-man pairing shares a building with them. The questions about the Lakers are real, though, as they’ll be left to fill out the roster with minimums. Frank Vogel will have his hands full figuring out how to balance lineups and rotations, because the best offensive lineups figure to have real defensive issues and vice versa.
The Raptors trading for Leonard is, was, and always will be the right move. Losing him hurts a ton, but Leonard brought the city its first NBA title. That can never, ever, be taken away, even if he ended up being a one-year rental. That’s important context that might go missing when people say Toronto lost Leonard. It’ll assuredly sting, but ask any Raptors fan, and their lasting memory of Leonard’s time up north will revolve around what was accomplished instead of how it came to an end. What I am saying is he deserves a statue in Toronto at one point or another.
The franchise is, nonetheless, at a crossroad. The Raptors have to make a decision: Is it worth running it back with a very solid but not title-worthy group, or should Toronto go into full asset-acquisition mode? If it’s the former, that’s easy enough, for one year at least. The question will likely drag out into the start of 2020, when decisions will have to be made as they near the trade deadline. Kyle Lowry, Marc Gasol, Serge Ibaka, and Fred VanVleet are all unrestricted free agents next offseason, and potentially losing all of those dudes and Leonard for nothing in a 12-month span would be, to put it delicately, less than ideal.
The latter would entail taking those first three guys and trying to get as much back as possible for them. That might be the case for VanVleet as well, but at 25, he is a potential building block for the organization going forward. Pascal Siakam, who is slated to become a restricted free agent next summer, seems like the most untouchable player on the roster. Our pal Blake Murphy over at The Athletic laid it all out last month, noting that regardless of Leonard, Siakam figures to be an important piece to the puzzle in Toronto in the future.
Siakam’s development and transformation into one of the league’s most unique talents should give the Raptors optimism going forward. The team is really good at identifying raw talent and molding young players, which could end up being a useful talent to possess if they decide to go young and place an emphasis on, say, getting OG Anunoby more time. Still, there would be something really strange about this path, because while it is the right move, can you envision Toronto, on opening night, celebrating a ring with Siakam, VanVleet, Nick Nurse, and a group that does not include any of the aforementioned players who helped bring a ring to the city?
Who knows what they will do, but right now, Toronto is in the unique position where it can choose its own adventure, and you’d be hard-pressed to find a more adventurous executive in basketball than Masai Ujiri. In an offseason that has been beyond fascinating, for the next few weeks, there may not be a squad more fascinating than the defending champs.
They won. That, at the end of it all, is what matters. Perhaps the best basketball player in the world not only hit the market, but it seems abundantly clear that he wanted to play for the Los Angeles Clippers. This is a monumental shift for the franchise that, prior to the Lob City era, was the laughing stock of the league for a whole host of reasons. And not only that, but they got the player who finished in third in MVP voting last year — ahead of the aforementioned player in the “best player in the world” conversation. And for the cherry on top, they got both of them instead of their bitter rivals in the same dang building, which have coveted both players for years.
Yes, the Clippers paid a whole lot in the trade that landed them Paul George, sending Oklahoma City an excellent veteran forward in Danilo Gallinari, a stud rising second-year guard in Shai Gilgeous-Alexander, and enough first-round draft picks that the Thunder will more or less benefit from what LAC does on the floor for some time. It, however, was not a trade that landed them George, it was a move that got them George and Leonard, making such a hefty price tag something of a no-brainer.
Los Angeles is, understandably, the favorite to win an NBA championship, jumping atop the oddsmakers’ books following the acquisitions. They’re not quite a perfect team, however. A touch more playmaking would be nice, and while the center pairing of Ivica Zubac and Montrezl Harrell is very solid, is it enough to go to war with, say, Anthony Davis and, if he’s able to take a positive step forward this season, DeMarcus Cousins?
Having said that, man, this team is good and probably the deepest “superteam” in recent memory. Getting your femur snapped in half sounds like more fun than getting checked by Leonard, George, and Patrick Beverley on the perimeter. They have three guys, the aforementioned superstars and Lou Williams, who are capable of being handed the basketball and getting them a bucket whenever the situation needs it. They have a coach in Doc Rivers who knows exactly what buttons to press to manage a number of superstars with championship aspirations. They have a front office that is willing to assess where the team is and how to improve over the course of the season if need be.
But at the core of this is what this all means. Kevin Arnovitz of ESPN made the point on the episode of The Lowe Post after the Lakers acquired Davis that getting him was an expression of the team’s identity: We are the Los Angeles Lakers, and as such, we acquire stars. For years and years, this has been the way the Lakers have operated, and when they are unable to execute this plan, we get things like [gestures vaguely towards the last six years of Lakers basketball].
The Clippers have never had any sort of an identity, outside of being the team that loses a lot and is owned by Donald Sterling, a ghoulish monster who seemingly took pride in being as awful as possible. The Lob City era was a major step forward in changing that perception, and while we’ll have to see how this step in changing the perception even further plans out, the Clippers saw the opportunity to play the Lakers’ game at their rivals’ expense and pulled it off.