As the final seconds of the Toronto Raptors’ first NBA championship played out, a wag in the Los Angeles media corps suggested that Kawhi Leonard should just collect his hardware as Finals MVP and head down the coast to sign with the Clippers.
While free agency doesn’t begin until June 30 at 6 p.m. EDT, the point is clear. Leonard will be one of the most sought-after players during this year’s feeding frenzy and many observers now believe that if Leonard doesn’t re-sign with the Raptors, he’ll end up with the Clippers, not the Lakers.
Among them is ESPN’s NBA expert Adrian Wojnarowski.
“No. 1, they [Lakers] don’t have the money to sign him,” Wojnarowski said on “Get Up” on Tuesday. “And two, the idea of him being a third wheel on a super-team, that has not been Kawhi’s M.O. The Clippers are poised to be able to lure him from Toronto. This would be a Raptors/Clippers fight. He may take meetings with more teams, but it’s not even certain that he’d take a meeting with the Lakers right now.”
Leonard is a Southern California guy, which will hold huge sway with his decision. Does he return to the Raptors and try to win another title for an incredibly supportive fan base, or head back home and, if the Clippers do sign him, become the face of a franchise that would battle LeBron James and Anthony Davis and the rest of the Lakers for Hollywood supremacy?
It’s a big decision for a guy who at 27 has just won his second NBA title and second NBA Finals MVP Award.
The Clippers have the necessary room to land two max contract free agents and could make a huge leap next season. While the Clippers have always played in the shadow of the Lakers, they made the playoffs this season while the Lakers missed the postseason for the sixth straight year.
Without any superstars on the roster, the Clippers had their eighth straight winning season and pushed the Golden State Warriors to six games in the first round.
“We did more than most thought we could,” coach Doc Rivers told reporters at the end of the season. “This is the start of something great here.”
That sounds like something Leonard might smile about.
During the NBA Finals, Joe Vardon of The Athletic reported that the Clippers “feel confident” Leonard will listen to their pitch in free agency, but they also have concerns that he will remain with the Raptors.
Regardless of what happens, Leonard is expected to decline the player option on the final year of his contract and become a free agent. Toronto can offer him a five-year deal worth about $190 million, which is one year and some $50 million more than any other team.
Not surprisingly, Leonard isn’t saying anything right now. He’s been too busy celebrating the Raptors’ first NBA title, including riding in a victory parade on Monday.
“I’m enjoying this” he said. “It’s not time to stress, it’s still time to have some fun. I’ve just been enjoying my experience.
“I’m going to take the right time,” he added. “You don’t need too many days to figure it out. We’ll see what happens. Once that time comes, then we’ll all lay the pros and cons out.”
Leonard was presented with the key to the city, prompting fans to chant, “Stay! Stay! Stay!”
He said he enjoyed his season in Canada.
“It was a good experience, experiencing Mother Nature, all four seasons,” he said. “Man, it was a great experience. Everybody off the court was great. The fans, just meeting people in Canada. It’s been fun.”
As with any championship team, the Raptors will go through changes one way or another. Center Marc Gasol also has a player option, while guard Danny Green is a free agent.
Guards Kyle Lowry and Fred VanVleet and forward Serge Ibaka are heading into the final year of their contracts.
Ibaka and Leonard have become friends.
“I’ve been talking with him a lot during the season and in the playoffs, but after we won, I can see the man is happy,” Ibaka said. “That’s the most important. We play this sport because we want to enjoy and have fun and be happy and be somewhere people love you. I’m sure he feels that people here love him, and after this moment, that’s the most important.”
Leonard joined Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and LeBron James in winning the Finals MVP Award with two teams.
“I think he’s the best two-way basketball player in the NBA,” Lowry said after the Raptors dethroned the Warriors in Game 6. “He just goes. You know, I’ve seen some stuff from him this year that you just say, ‘Wow.’ You do. You say, ‘Wow.’ You appreciate the work that he’s put in. He works extremely hard at his game and works extremely hard on his body. And he loves this basketball thing. Loves it.”
While Leonard’s final year in San Antonio was messy and controversial, it now appears brilliant on his part that he sought a second opinion on his injured quad and then sat out even though he was cleared medically to play. He played just nine games that season. Teammates urged him to play and questioned his commitment. Once traded to the Raptors, he used “load management” to make sure he was getting rest, playing in 60 of 82 games in the regular season.
If Leonard does sign with the Clippers, he’ll be reminded of what has driven him his whole career.
His father, Mark Leonard, died on January 18, 2008, after being shot at the car wash he owned in Compton. He was 43.
Kawhi’s mother, Kim Robertson, spoke with ESPN in 2014 about Mark’s death.
“Me and my brother were in the car,” Robertson told ESPN. “Kawhi was in the back and he just says, ‘My dad is dead.’ I really didn’t see Kawhi suffer from it. I wanted him to. I would say, ‘Kawhi, you OK? You OK?’ But I think he just kept it in. I was kind of scared. You know how young men, they lose their father, who is a big figure in their life. It might turn them to do things bad. But Kawhi’s always been strong. He’s a good kid. He wants to get better and better.”
Kawhi played the next night for Martin Luther King High in Riverside.
“Basketball helps me take my mind off things, picking me up every day when I’m feeling down,” Kawhi told The Los Angeles Times after that game. “Basketball is my life, and I wanted to go out there and take my mind off it. It was real sad. My father was supposed to be at the game.”
Leonard went on to play two brilliant seasons at San Diego State, helping the Aztecs win for the first time ever in the NCAA Tournament. His final college game was a Sweet 16 showdown with eventual national champion UConn at the Pond in Anaheim.
Now it’s up to Leonard whether he remains the King of the North in Toronto or comes back home.