The NBA’s 2019 Finals MVP Kawhi Leonard will be one of the Association’s two most sought-after free agents this summer, and with good reason.
After the playoff run he just had, averaging 30.5 points, 9.1 rebounds and 3.9 assists per game en route to winning his second championship, Leonard proved beyond a doubt that even after basically missing a full season, he’s still one of the very best players the league has to offer, if not the downright best. For a fact, few others can match the three-time All-Star’s two-way impact, or his blend of bucket-getting expertise and ball-stopping toughness.
The Toronto Raptors made a gamble trading for Leonard in 2018 – granted, one that paid off in spades, but a gamble nonetheless because back when Leonard made the original trade request, word was that the superstar forward wanted to end up in Los Angeles. We’ll see if winning a title with Toronto changed his mind at all, but Leonard’s name is still being connected to the two L.A. teams as we approach free agency, so that might not be a great sign for the Raptors.
At the same time, if he really does sign elsewhere this summer, Leonard would make history by becoming the first player in NBA history to switch teams after winning Finals MVP, so maybe we should look at the past here for a sign as to where Leonard will sign come July.
Either way, here are four of the likeliest free-agent landing spots for Leonard.
NEW YORK KNICKS
A non-Kevin Durant elite player signing with the New York Knicks may seem… hopeful, but apparently, the Knicks plan on being aggressive in wooing Leonard this offseason (via the Newsday):
“This time, the Knicks are not pushing all of their chips – or max salary slots – into the pursuit of one player. According to a source with knowledge of their plans the team is expected to push hard for Leonard when free agency begins on June 30 at 6 p.m. While Durant’s flirtation with New York has been immersed in talk of branding deals and production opportunities, there is a contingent in the Knicks front office that is enamored not just with Leonard’s two-way talents on the court, but with the fact that he would bring little drama with him.”
New York wanting Leonard doesn’t need much explanation; he’s an elite player, one that would propel the Knicks from the bottom of the East to the playoffs by himself.
Why Leonard would choose to sign there, on the other hand, is a bit harder to put into words. For starters, they’re not anywhere near contention, and probably won’t be, unless they can woo Leonard and another top-notch free agent. Secondly, the Knicks haven’t exactly been the most stable team over recent years, something that will surely weigh on the minds of prospective free agents.
Maybe the urge to play in a huge market and continue building his brand will be enough to convince Leonard that New York is the place for him, but we’ll have to see it to believe it.
LOS ANGELES LAKERS
After signing LeBron James last summer and trading for Anthony Davis this summer, the Los Angeles Lakers are currently trying to open up space for a third superstar to complete the triumvirate. And one of the options to complete LeBron’s next Big Three is Leonard.
Reports have gone back and forth as to whether the Lakers actually have a chance to land Leonard, but there’s no doubt that if they can get enough cap space for one more max slot, they’re going to push for him, and hard. If it were to happen, a trio of James, Davis and Leonard would be terrifying, capable of dominating on the wings and in the painted area. Truth be told, that’s the type of core that can challenge for a title right away.
But Leonard would have to be willing to share the ball with two other high-usage options, an idea he may not be so privy to, as well as deal with all the usual drama that surrounds LeBron’s teams.
Plus, the Lakers aren’t the only team in Los Angeles with cap space, and the other option is not only more stable, but also reportedly very much in play for Leonard, even if they haven’t historically been a haven for elite free agents.
LOS ANGELES CLIPPERS
The latest report we have on Leonard’s free agency – and a lot of the rumors since the season ended – tie the two-time Defensive Player of the Year to Los Angeles’ less popular brand, the Clippers.
Here’s what ESPN’s Adrian Wojnarowski had to say on the matter early on June 18:
And in his newsletter, The New York Times’ Marc Stein echoed those reports:
“The Clippers remain the favorite among most league insiders to win the Kawhi Leonard Sweepstakes. But the swagger that emanated from Clipperland for much of the season about the ability of this long-suffering franchise to finally land an A-list free agent has been dialed down some. A hint of concern has inevitably creeped in as the start of free agency draws closer and the race to secure Leonard’s formal commitment becomes more real.”
Toronto winning the title may have tilted Leonard’s free-agent fortunes slightly in their favor, but the fact that the Clippers remain so firmly in the race speaks volumes.
We’ll see what happens, but Leonard signing with what has historically been known as L.A.’s second team would be a franchise-changing moment for the Clippers, and kickstart what could be a fun rivalry with the Lakers for years to come.
The team that had enough gall to try and revamp their roster before the season despite having made the playoffs five years in a row saw their gamble pay off beautifully in the form of an NBA championship.
Even if Leonard leaves this summer, the trade would have been worth it since it helped the Raptors make history in 2018-19. And no matter what, he’ll be revered in Toronto forever.
Of course, the city (and team) would still prefer that he re-signs with them this offseason.
When talking to the huge parade crowd celebrating the title, Leonard did briefly talk about his impending free agency…
…but didn’t say anything noteworthy on either side, be it that he is planning on staying or leaving.
Regardless, having Leonard come back, along with a returning Kyle Lowry and (likely) extended Pascal Siakam would have Toronto right back where they left off this season, as one of the best teams in the league.
But even if he does go, the trade was still a stroke of genius, and one that changed the Raptors franchise forever.
You can follow Frank Urbina on Twitter: @FrankUrbina_.