On Saturday morning, in the kind of bombshell only the NBA delivers, Kawhi Leonard agreed to sign a four-year, $142 million (U.S.) contract with the Los Angeles Clippers. He went home.
After a week of indecision the tipping point was a nuclear bomb: the Clippers traded for fellow Los Angeles native and six-time all-star Paul George of the Oklahoma City Thunder. They moved Canadian-born rookie guard Shai Gilgeous-Alexander and forward Danilo Gallinari, plus a ransom: according to Adrian Wojnarowski of ESPN, four unprotected first-round picks, another protected first-rounder acquired from the Miami Heat, and the right to swap first-round picks with the Clippers in 2023 or 2025.
Reports say George and Kawhi met earlier this week, and George told the Thunder he wanted out a few days ago, a year after George re-signed in Oklahoma City on a four-year, $137 million (U.S.) deal. The trade came through. If it hadn’t, Kawhi might be a Raptor today.
George’s own path is a possibility tree of its own: after seven years in Indiana he was traded to Oklahoma City in 2017 for Victor Oladipo and Domantas Sabonis. The Raptors actually thought they had a better offer on the table for George at the time: it involved DeMar DeRozan and more. But Indiana wanted to send George to the West.
George had said at the time he wanted to be a Los Angeles Laker; he told ESPN later it was a 50-50 call in OKC to re-sign, or go home. In other words, Oklahoma City had already tried their version of the Kawhi gambit, and it worked; the difference is they got a blockbuster haul for George at the end. Now he goes home, too.
And so ends the year of Kawhi in Toronto, which was perfectly executed, wildly successful, and was swallowed up in the superstar chaos of the NBA. Kawhi was not a passive guest: he was a ruthless NBA operator with a goal in mind off the court, too, and got what he wanted. He gave up over $90 million (U.S.) by leaving the Spurs, and then Toronto, for this deal. It was always up to Kawhi to decide.
Sources familiar with Kawhi’s thinking indicate Los Angeles was always the plan, in concert with championship contention, and if anything it was a credit to the Raptors that they made it this difficult a decision. During the playoffs, and even the Finals, sources indicate Kawhi and his advisor and uncle Dennis Robertson were focused on the Clippers, even as Toronto’s championship run unfolded. During the playoffs Robertson was overheard more than once in the post-game back-hall melees talking about leaving; even after Game 4 in Philadelphia, where Kawhi made the first of two shots in the series to save the season. The Clippers planned to pair Kawhi with 76ers wing and Kawhi’s friend, Jimmy Butler, and the Kawhi camp gauged Butler’s interest repeatedly. Sources indicate they were in contact even after the NBA Finals.
The title closed the gap. When Butler decided to sign with Miami instead when free agency opened, it seemed like a blow to the Clippers. Sources indicate Kawhi was genuinely undecided at the time; he wasn’t ready to leave Toronto yet. By Thursday night sources say the Clippers were telling people in the league they thought Kawhi was going back to Toronto.
And then, the bombshell. Yes, the Lakers made noise early in the week after striking out on Butler themselves. LeBron James reportedly offered to defer to Kawhi, with Anthony Davis as the third MVP-level player in the trio. But Kawhi was said to be concerned about the dysfunction in the organization, and two sources say Kawhi did not want to play on a super team with LeBron. The Lakers were also the only team who leaked anything during the process, which more than anything indicated they had no idea who they were really dealing with.
In a way, nobody did. Kawhi was as ruthless and unswayable off the court as he was on it. He controlled this process, and it was a black box.
Meanwhile, the Clippers had spent a full year waiting to make this pitch: sending team officials to Raptors games, stalking the prize. They are the eternal undercard to the Lakers, even with NBA legend Jerry West in the fold, and with ultra-rich owner Steve Ballmer. They play in a Lakers building. All the statues outside are Lakers, and all the jerseys in the ceiling, too.
Kawhi evidently didn’t care. The Raptors are an objectively great NBA organization. Team president Masai Ujiri held his nerve and they won a title, and that achievement lasts forever. Toronto won it all.
They’re just not in California, and that’s how they lost it. It bears repeating: Before he came here, Kawhi really did not have any interest in playing in Toronto. Kawhi was born in Los Angeles and went to college in San Diego and this year he bought a $14 million (U.S.) mansion close to the latter. In his first public appearance in Toronto, Kawhi listed his goals: “Just being able to be healthy. That’s my No. 1 goal. Have a long-term career. To be able to be dominant wherever I land, and that’s about it. I want to win championships and get in those record books.”
He had all that here. The Toronto medical staff, led by Alex McKechnie, was spectacular: the trust between them and Kawhi’s people grew, and eventually they were on the same page. The team made the ultimate decisions on load management. Everything worked. The Toronto Raptors, for the first time in team history, did everything right.
And still Kawhi chose the Clippers, after six largely silent days in which the fever grew. The Raptors got the final of the three meetings, but details were kept under wraps. Private planes were tracked and traffic helicopters dispatched at the mere suggestion of Kawhi physically returning to Toronto. This city was crazy for Kawhi.
It should have been. He gave everything while he was here. He lived in the moment, and the spectacle of his sheer talent and will was awesome, and dragged this franchise to a title. It’s easy to forget that right now, because the NBA is planets colliding and black holes that spawn, and teams get destroyed or remade in an instant. Look at Golden State, who have three titles and lost to the Raptors in the Finals. Kevin Durant left for Brooklyn, Klay Thompson is rehabbing a torn ACL, and they traded for D’Angelo Russell. Dynasties fall.
And Toronto’s dream of one evaporated, so now comes the unwinding. Point guard Kyle Lowry, burnished with a championship pedigree and in the final year of his contract, will likely be traded. Same for centre Marc Gasol, who showed that he can fit in with any championship-level team, and who couldn’t be run off the floor by Golden State. Forward Serge Ibaka quietly had a marvellous post-season, filled with big-game moments in his renewal season: like Gasol and Lowry, he is in the last year of his deal. All will probably go. Shooting guard Danny Green waited, but he will sign a two-year deal with the Lakers. Good for him.
There was always the safety net built into the Kawhi and Gasol trades. Ujiri refused to give up Pascal Siakam or OG Anunoby, or to commit long-term. Now Siakam will be a centrepiece, and Anunoby will be given a chance to blossom after his lost season last year. Fred VanVleet will be the point guard when Lowry departs.
It is not a teardown, but it is starting again, and the next question might involve what Ujiri wants to do after the greatest season of his career. Maple Leaf Sports & Entertainment is expected to engage in contract extension talks with their basketball architect. It should. He is elite.
But Kawhi left Toronto. If any town understands the pull of home, it’s this global city of transplants and locals, right? In the Finals Kawhi was asked about the quadriceps injury whose alleged mishandling drove him out of San Antonio.
“Well, just the year, last year, a lot of people were doubting me. They thought I was either faking an injury or didn’t want to play for a team,” Kawhi said. “So me just going through that, and I just knew that I would have to make myself happy and no one else. And I have to trust myself. And whatever, it doesn’t matter what anybody has to say about me. I know who I am as a person, I know how I feel, and always just trust yourself.”
That’s him. He is, as Ujiri always said, his own man. It was worth trading for Kawhi Leonard. His presence created something unforgettable in this city and this country, and they could build a statue and nobody should blink. Remember the Philly series? Milwaukee? The Finals, and the parade? Kawhi Leonard was a fun guy, the board man, a genuine superstar. Finding another one won’t be easy.
But now he is betting on something else, and it’s a crushing blow to a franchise and a city that just flew as high as it could go. It was an incredible year. It should be remembered. When Kawhi Leonard returns as a Clipper, this town shouldn’t be angry. Toronto should just say thanks.
Maybe this town will, because there will be a banner in the rafters that will hang forever. The Raptors won a championship. It’s nobody’s fault that he left. But it’s over.
Bruce Arthur is a Toronto-based sports columnist. Follow him on Twitter: @bruce_arthur