How Kawhi Leonard’s Shock Decision Rocked the NBA
The most coveted man in free agency chose to leave his champion Raptors and spurn the Lakers in favor of teaming up with Paul George on the Clippers. Why?
Take a second and imbibe this clip of Entertainment Tonight Canada watching some chopper footage of Kawhi Leonard arriving in Toronto for his free agency meeting with the Raptors, hot on the heels of winning Finals MVP with the team in their first championship season. The chopper shot itself is absurd, of course—the sheer effort involved in finding the flight’s tracking number, gassing up a chopper, loading up a camera, and scoping the great man, the object of an entire country’s sporting desire, um, walking out of a private plane and getting into a car.
The hosts of the show analyzing this footage are on pins and needles, fretting like a teen obsessing over whether their crush will reciprocate their affections. They worry that Leonard, notably taciturn and private by nature, is getting weirded out by the helicopter. They show footage of people cheering him at a recent Blue Jays game he attended, and worry that he’s getting too much attention, getting freaked out, beginning to think that Toronto is too clingy. Count on Canadians to posit that being mannerly is the key to retaining an elite free agent.
NBA free agency creates the most heat sports can possibly generate without actually playing a game. NFL players operate like cogs, their careers cut short at basically any time. Baseball players have to exercise a monumental effort, cruel at-bat after cruel at-bat, to generate one extra Win Above Replacement (WAR). Soccer stars, subject to the isolation of space and the vagaries of tactics, can only do so much to influence their employers’ fortunes, minute to minute.
But an elite NBA player affects basically every possession their team plays, on both ends of the floor. One great basketball player can take a crummy NBA team to the playoffs, boost a fringe playoff squad into contention, transmute a contender into a maddeningly unbeatable and widely-loathed dynasty. The stakes in their relocations are massive, and have become the subject of endless media and fan speculation, sometimes more than, well, the games themselves. Thus, the helicopter.
Or, perhaps, a gaudy mural somewhere in Los Angeles:
Or losing your mind over a picture of Leonard sporting a Blue Jays jersey on vacation in Barbados:
When Raptors General Manager Masai Ujiri traded DeMar DeRozan for Kawhi last summer, he and everyone knew that it was a risky play—an upside shot at the title without a guarantee that he would stick around and become a franchise cornerstone after the season was over. It worked: the Raptors won the title. But the aftermath was still unknowable.
Leonard isn’t really like other NBA players. He’s quiet. He keeps a very small circle. His business-minded uncle, Dennis, is his closest confidant. No one really knew what he was thinking, what he was looking for in a new franchise. Your opinion on where he was heading had more to do with you than it did with him.
I, for instance, was weirdly convinced by the Blue Jays jersey. Why would he wear one if he wasn’t going to re-sign in Toronto? It just made no sense, except, I suppose, that Blue Jays jerseys look cool and are comfortable in the Barbados heat? And why would he leave a team that was going to defend the NBA championship? It just seemed like a no-brainer!
Lakers fans, on the other hand, having acquired Anthony Davis and a max cap slot, were totally convinced he would be going to the Lakers. We’re the Lakers! We’re exceptional! LeBron came, how could he not come here!? Arye Abraham, a 22-year-old who wobbles along the thin line between “NBA Insider” and “Internet Grifter,” fed into this sense of exceptionalism by unleashing a steady stream of tweets declaring that, no matter what anyone else was saying, Kawhi would be going to the Lakers, and reaped tens of thousands of followers as a result. He wasn’t alone. Watching a small heap of social-thirsty half-reporters propagate false reports about a situation that no one knew anything about and share them on the internet to flatter the vanity and a tribe of half-informed Lakers weirdos was a real spectacle, especially considering the degree to which the same kinds of tactics have made a cozy little home in modern political discourse.
But, in the end, most people ended up being wrong as hell about what was going on with another human being they had no immediate access to. Two human beings, as it happens:
Why the Clippers, specifically? It’s hard to say, and we may never know. The Lakers were a shit-show this year, and Kawhi probably didn’t want any part of the kind of toxicity that their derelict ownership and management situation has the potential to create. Not to mention: playing with LeBron is maybe kind of stressful. Toronto might have made sense to me, but any number of things could have got Kawhi to move on. Clingy Canadians? Could’ve been. Tired of Drake’s bullshit? Makes sense to me, I certainly am. Too cold? I’m not even kidding: it could have been that Toronto was just too damn cold.
But then again, maybe Kawhi was just enamoured with the dream of tackling a new challenge somewhere else, on his own terms. The Clippers have quietly become a top-shelf organization in the wake of the collapse of the Lob City teams. Steve Ballmer has created an excellent ownership situation—they have a competent, forward-thinking front office, and Doc Rivers is one of the NBA’s finest coaches, a player-first guy who still exhibits a sharp tactical edge. If Kawhi really was just looking for something new, in his hometown to boot, the less-heralded LA Squad was the only feasible choice.
It seems like the Clippers will contend right away. Last year’s squad was a hodgepodge of second-tier talent, bound together by Rivers’ coaching expertise and the heroism of Lou Williams, the NBA’s finest bench scorer. They ground their way into the eighth seed this season, and gave the Warriors their hardest series in their Western Conference run. The team is plopping Leonard right on top of that, and replacing some of their other wing production with Paul George, an MVP candidate who is nearly Leonard’s equal on both ends.
George has reportedly wanted to play in Los Angeles for a long time, and it’s possible that, after an excellent season that ended in the most embarrassing way, he felt like he had done pretty much all he could with the Thunder. It’s interesting that he has decided to move away from Russell Westbrook, a spicy fella who tends to dominate whatever team he’s playing for, for better or for worse, and align himself with Kawhi Leonard, who is quieter, more focused, less intent on generating attention for himself and more willing to operate in a broader team context.
Kawhi might be the first NBA player who moved Los Angeles to maintain a lower profile, instead of chasing fame. He’s playing on a less-celebrated team, with another player who he can share the spotlight with, in a city where fans are conditioned to leave celebrities alone and where the most famous basketball player in the world is also plying his trade at the same time. At the end of the day, Kawhi wasn’t intent on being Canada’s hero, or another Laker Legend—he just wanted to do him, play basketball, cash checks, and lay low.
At least, I think that’s what happened. I don’t really know, because no one really knows.