The hardest thing right now is explaining to fans of the Toronto Raptors that Kawhi Leonard’s decision to leave for the Los Angeles Clippers wasn’t personal.
Truth is, his departure feels like a backhand to the face after all the love the city showed him during their run to the NBA championship. But in reality, its only business, just like it was when Lebron James twice left Cleveland and Kevin Durant bolted Golden State.
There is no allegiance in pro sports. But it literally cuts both ways. Management dumps players more often than teams dump them. So understand that given the chance, players will always go to the place that suits them and the reason doesn’t always need to be financial. Sometimes is just based on instinct and friendship.
Maybe Drake will write a song about this someday.
Those not interested in Leonard’s comings and goings will just view Saturday’s transaction as another exciting day along the NBA’s fault line. Free agency means daily quakes of news. And this one shook the shelves.
The Clippers were obviously motivated by the Lakers acquisition of Anthony Davis and the forecast the balance of power in the Western Conference had shifted to them. So they went out and pulled off a double-deal rivaling the Brooklyn Nets landing Durant and Kyrie Irving.
Along with agreeing to sign Leonard to a four-year, $141 million deal, the Clippers acquired Paul George from the Oklahoma City Thunder in a transaction that will reverberate in their organization for many years.
The Clippers understood Leonard was toying with the idea of teaming with Davis and James, so they picked up George – Leonard’s BFF – to help lure him to their side of the Staples Center.
The Clippers traded four future unprotected first-round picks, one protected first-round pick and two pick swaps to the Thunder. Oklahoma City is getting L.A.’s unprotected 2022, 2024 and 2026 picks, their unprotected 2021 and protected 2023 first-round picks via Miami and the rights to swap picks with the Clippers in 2023 and 2025, league sources said.
The Clippers also are sending point guards Shai Gilgeous-Alexander and Danilo Gallinari to OKC.
According to ESPN, George and his agent, Aaron Mintz, approached Thunder general manager Sam Presti last week and requested a trade. Leonard’s interest in playing for a championship contender (we know Toronto, we know) was matched by George’s interest in sharing the ride with his buddy.
They found a willing partner in the Clippers, who realized how the two moves were connected, and are also well aware George will likely miss few weeks at the start of the 2019-20 season with his bum shoulder. George is owed about $105 million for the next three seasons after averaging a career-best 28 points last season.
Can you imagine what a team with Leonard, George and Patrick Beverley might be able to do and how it can make the Lakers, Golden State Warriors and various other contenders at least a little nervous?
Still, our bet is that this deal eventually works out better for the Thunder who will have access to great young players for the next six seasons.
Look, the Raptors will get over this. They were fully aware Leonard might only be with them for one season – and what a season it was. They accomplished something the New York Knicks haven’t done since 1973.
In time, the disappointment of losing Leonard will be outweighed by the luxury of having him for one magical season. Toronto’s problem now shifts to what can be done knowing Kyle Lowry and Serge Ibaka will be free agents after next season. And it must be done quickly because Milwaukee, Philadelphia, Boston and the Nets are hungry for what they had last season.
Meanwhile, the Western Conference has an intense inter-city rivalry bubbling to the surface, which should make the run at the Warriors even more interesting.
Regardless, we have arrived at a new age in the NBA, one where players can look down the road with their friends and leverage their situations to the point they wind up playing together. Durant and Irving did it. James and Davis did it. Now Leonard and George have followed suit.
“Kawhi recruited the hell out of him,” one source told The Athletic. “He did a number on Paul.”
Lasting memory? Leonard had 14 games of 30 or more points in the playoffs. Only Michael Jordan, Hakeem Olajuwon and Kobe Bryant had more in one postseason.
Oh, well. This will be the first time ever that a reigning NBA Finals MVP will change teams before the following season.
It wasn’t personal, Toronto. It’s just the way business is done now in the NBA.