Kawhi Leonard has kept his NBA free agency decision on the low better than anyone else in this social media era. The Toronto Raptors, Los Angeles Lakers, and Los Angeles Clippers appear to be the final three, but no one, from NBA insiders to coaches to teammates, has been able to provide a solid update. People who make their money from pulling information out of inner circles have been turned away like a college kid with a low-quality fake ID. With all that being said, I know where Kawhi is going.
There isn’t a superstar in the NBA more reserved than Kawhi when it comes to all of the drama and glamour that follows around most top-tier players. You would be lucky to see him crack a smile or give a demonstrative response to a play during the course of a game. Reporters call him boring, analysts call him a robot (though he’s more Terminator than C-3PO), and fans can all but guess what he does in his free time. But to his core, he really is a fun guy. Don’t get it twisted. He is a man that is all about his business. All of the click-bait interviews, in-game celebrations, and nights out at the club don’t seem to be fun for Kawhi. Asserting his dominance on opponents on both ends? Now that’s what brings a momentary smile to The Claw.
We need to understand that first to understand this free agency decision. For a typical free agent, the allure of Los Angeles sells itself, especially when compared to Toronto. You have Hollywood, famous athletes and entertainers to rub shoulders with around every corner, and a basketball history that bleeds through the cracks of the sidewalks. Outside of New York, where the Knicks fans still lack my sympathy for their treatment of Kristaps, there is no larger city to tap into for his off-court benefit. Whether that be driving up the revenue from his shoes and memorabilia, taking part in highly publicized commercials, or being in a region flushed with big-time players in tech investing, real estate, and other business ventures.
Seems like an easy choice for the typical NBA player, right? In fact, similar logic was used when everyone was convinced that Paul George was headed to Lakers just a year ago and look how that turned out. Or how about a few years back when Russell Westbrook’s contract was up and insiders were just sure that he would head back to his home state of California to rejuvenate the city of LA? DeMar DeRozan was in a similar situation as Kawhi but opted to stay in Toronto. The Clippers have always seemed like the little brother and the Lakers have been a mess, especially with the Magic Johnson departure, failed deadline trade for Anthony Davis, and Luke Walton firing. Plus, Kawhi is far from your typical NBA player driven by the bright lights. This is the same guy that drove a 1997 Chevy Tahoe after signing a contract for over $90 million. Kawhi is not with the drama, which is why I’m sure he didn’t appreciate all of the speculation and coverage surrounding his flight to meet with Raptors front office yesterday. To say Kawhi is built different would be an understatement.
And we can’t underestimate the power of trust and comfort, especially for a guy who was dragged in the media by a first-class organization for wanting to feel 100 percent before returning to action. Toronto and Masai Ujiri, in particular, have built that trust in only a year. They managed Kawhi’s minutes, knowing his playoff health was more important than upsetting the occasional fan who came to the game to see the Finals MVP. Even after he brought them their first championship and proved to be the most important player in the league, his teammates were never out in public talking about how he owed it to them to run it back. They understood that this time would come and all they could (and should) do was support him. From the day they won the Finals, my expectation has been that Kawhi would go back to Toronto on a 1+1 deal and reevaluate next summer.
The Raptors not only offers stability from the top-down, but Toronto as a city has much cheaper rent, less media fanfare, and the exclusive opportunity to be the face of basketball for an entire country. Based on what I have seen from Kawhi that seems like a very steady situation to return to for the time being, with the chance to be the premier 2020 free agent.
However, from a pure basketball standpoint, this decision gets a little foggier. Remember when I said Kawhi is about his business? That business is basketball and business is booming. Everything else, the cost of living, financial opportunities, media coverage, etc., comes second. All three teams would be in the upper third of their respective conferences with the addition of Kawhi. Let’s take a quick look at the lineups I’m projecting, based on my expected free agent pickups (indicated with *) and current rosters before I let you know where Kawhi is going and when he will decide:
Starters: Kyle Lowry, Danny Green*, Kawhi Leonard*, Pascal Siakam, Marc Gasol
Bench: Fred Van Vleet, Matt Thomas, Norman Powell, OG Anunoby, Serge Ibaka
Summary: You bring back the same starting unit, with the expectation that Danny Green is going to stay in Toronto if his friend Kawhi does the same. Siakam is going to take another big step and should average 18-20 points a game while continuing to grow as a ball-handler. Lowry has finally shaken the reputation of being a liability in the playoffs so he should play free.
Marc Gasol isn’t getting better and probably won’t play more than 65 games despite still being a plus defender, passer, and outside shooter. Then you have a bench unit of Van Vleet (the best backup point guard in my opinion), Thomas (a 3-and-D Iowa State grad who played the last few years overseas), Powell, Ibaka, and Anunoby, who is back to full strength to build on a solid year.
Los Angeles Clippers
Starters: Patrick Beverley, Shai Gilgeous-Alexander, Kawhi Leonard*, Danilo Gallinari, Montrezl Harrell
Bench: Lou Williams, Landry Shamet, Rodney McGruder, Mo Harkless, Ivica Zubac*
Summary: With Beverley resigning, the Clippers have all of the core pieces from last year’s team. Imagine trying to score on a team with Beverley, Kawhi, and Shai locking up on the perimeter. Gallinari continues to be one of the more underrated offensive weapons in the league and is coming off a year where he averaged a career-high 19.8 points a game on over 43% shooting from deep. He is best suited to utilize a similar load management technique as Kawhi, so it’d be interesting to see how Doc Rivers managed that situation.
I expect Zubac back, but Montrezl Harrell is just the type of ultra-energy big that would protect the rim and provide an easy outlet to Kawhi. This unit (minus Kawhi) pushed the Warriors to six games, in large part because Sweet Lou is a professional bucket getter who is grossly underpaid. The big pitch here is that the Clippers would still have enough money to go out and get a guy like Jabari Parker or Marcus Morris to add frontcourt depth and versatility off the bench.
Los Angeles Lakers
Starters: Quinn Cook*, Kawhi Leonard*, LeBron James, Kyle Kuzma, Anthony Davis
Bench: Alex Caruso*, JR Smith*, Kyle Korver*, Jared Dudley, DeMarcus Cousins*
Summary: I think the Lakers will be able to sign Korver and Smith without much effort given their connections with LeBron. The point guard spot is a huge question, and something Kawhi should consider given the fact that he has benefited from playing next to top-level floor generals to make his life easier. While LeBron is a supreme playmaker, at this stage in his career, it may be a lot to ask for him to play primarily point. Quinn Cook is available and was effective for the Warriors the last few years. They should target him as a floor-spacing ball-handler.
Bring back Alex Caruso (a balding young guard with plus athleticism and a great motor) and add DeMarcus Cousins, who apparently has a plummeting market among big men. The big three of LeBron, Kawhi, and Anthony Davis would be historic, but the bench would be aged and suspect defensively. They would need to manage the minutes of LeBron, AD, and Kawhi to ensure the unit is strong for the stretch run. There are also questions on the whole organizational stability and if Frank Vogel will be a long-term coach there. LA has no Masai Ujiri type personality in the front office.
With all that being taken into consideration, I expect Kawhi’s decision to come out between 6 and 9 PM EST. There are other factors outside of basketball in his decision, but I don’t think his family or his fame or even his money moves will be what define his decision. Kawhi’s whole career has been driven on one thing: becoming the most dominant two-way player in the NBA. He has done that and he’s only going to get better. The time is prime to make a basketball decision to work towards becoming the best two-way player in the history of the league.
The best place to do that given these three scenarios is with the Lakers. On a team with two other top-five players, he would not only set himself up to win a championship next year but to have a running mate in Anthony Davis for the next 5-7 years. As much as people will say that championships don’t define a player, Kawhi has the real chance to match Kobe and potentially Michael Jordan in that category if he joins this Lakers team.
You can knock Kawhi all you want and call it stacking the deck, but remember, Kawhi isn’t affected by the outside noise. Even the Terminator was viewed as the villain to some. But at the end of the story, no one will be able to take away the talent, production, and championships of Kawhi Leonard. So while you’re watching the new season of Stranger Things be sure to check for those updates from Woj followed by an angry Twitter video reaction from Stephan A. Smith.