NBA Rumor: Kawhi Leonard Free Agency

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Kawhi Leonard not a lock to stay with Clippers?

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The most likely scenario, league sources say, remains Leonard opting out to re-sign with the Clippers — or, in Steve Ballmer’s worst nightmare, to shock the league by signing elsewhere. Leonard’s well-known affinity for Southern California has led various rival front offices to presume that he would have no interest in switching teams for the third time, but the notion that Leonard is unattainable seems to be waning a bit as the Aug. 2 start of free agency nears.

Dallas, just to name one expected suitor, will not be dissuaded from pursuing Leonard even if he’s forced to miss all of next season, league sources say. Leonard’s situation is frequently likened to Kevin Durant’s free agency in 2019 after Durant had sustained a torn Achilles tendon in the Finals. Brooklyn furnished Durant with a four-year, $164 million deal as part of a sign-and-trade with Golden State, with the Nets knowing they would have to play a whole season without him. Even at 30 and with a worrisome injury history, Leonard appears capable of generating similar interest.

Kawhi Leonard still expected to opt out despite injury

One executive I spoke to following the announcement that Kawhi had surgery to repair the partially torn ACL said he thinks no matter what, Kawhi would opt out, especially given the fact that Kevin Durant got the max after he suffered a ruptured Achilles. That executive also noted that Kawhi’s going to hit the 10-year mark for his years of service, which plays a role in upping his max contract as well.

NBA execs expect Kawhi Leonard to stay with Clippers

All five of the NBA executives polled believe Leonard will ultimately remain with the Clippers after his free agency concludes and look to run it back with George and compete for another shot at the championship. “I figure they have to make some changes and run it back with those two guys,” one NBA executive told HoopsHype. “You’ve got to give it another chance, I think. They just hired Ty Lue for this group. It wasn’t a normal season. You’ve got to give it a normal season a chance first, I’d think.”

If Leonard wants to maximize his future earnings, he can re-sign with the Clippers on a two-year deal worth $81.8 million with a player option after the first season. He can then opt out and re-sign with the Clippers in the 2022 offseason on a five-year deal worth $235 million. This process would net him $274 million over the next six years through his age-36 season. Assuming he’s still playing at a high level, he can extend in the 2025 offseason to secure an additional $119.1 million over two years.

Kawhi Leonard: I think Kawhi is staying with Clippers

Adrian Wojnarowski: I think Kawhi is staying with the Clippers. There’s been some mention of Miami… Could Miami be a sleeper for him? I think he’s where he wants to be geographically. I think he’s gotten along very well with the organization, with management, with ownership. I think Ty Lue has been really been good this year for them. The way it’s been described with me with Ty in LA is, “Ty can hit you without leaving a bruise.” And he can coach you hard, can hold guys accountable. And I think that’s an environment Kawhi likes, I think it’s been good for this team.

Kawhi Leonard widely expected to re-sign with Clippers this offseason

Yet barring a dramatic turn of events in these coming months, it’s looking like this Leonard free agency will be decidedly less dramatic. While this league has certainly taught us to expect the unexpected, the truth is that Leonard is still widely, well, expected to re-sign with the Clippers. As it stands, that’s the word from Clippers sources and rival executives alike.

Kawhi Leonard likely to re-sign with Clippers?

As of today, there is no reason to think Leonard’s packing his bags. One non-Clippers executive placed the odds of Leonard leaving L.A. this summer at less than one percent. But the whole NBA is well aware Kawhi has the option to turn down his $36 million extension this summer to become a free agent. The team generously affords him the luxury of commuting from his home in San Diego even if he’s late to team activities. Most people think he’ll stay. But no one I talked to really knows what he’s thinking and this is the NBA. Superstar turnover is the norm.

Of course, the receipt on George can be crumpled and thrown in the trash if it means that it guarantees that Kawhi Leonard will stay a Clipper, too. Kawhi isn’t eligible for an extension until next offseason, when he has the option to become a free agent. As we saw this season, a lot can happen in a year, but multiple front office sources said the timing and intent behind the extension is also a way of showing Kawhi that the franchise is committed to competing with that duo.

Paul George feels responsible of keeping Kawhi Leonard in L.A.

And while he said he wouldn’t put “a gun to Kawhi,” George later acknowledged he has a responsibility to make sure Leonard remains a Clipper. “The responsibility is to make him feel like the way I felt when I came into my extension,” George said. “I knew where I wanted to be. I knew who I wanted to play with. That’s my responsibility to go into the season. “Again, it’s Kawhi’s decision. I’m a grown man. If he decides to go elsewhere, that’s a decision that I’ll be happy for him. But my hoping and my responsibility, what I would love, is to play with him for the rest of my contract or the rest of his contract. I guess I have to work on that when it comes to his time.”

The showdown concluded Friday night, with the league’s balance of power at stake. The Raptors engaged with Oklahoma City in trade talks, though not at the highest levels. Oklahoma City’s Russell Westbrook was believed to be interested in playing with Kawhi, but sources say he was never discussed in talks with the Raptors. And even then, the ask for George was astronomical: Pascal Siakam, Fred VanVleet and four unprotected first-round picks, before they even started matching up salaries to account for George’s higher number. Perhaps that would have been where Westbrook came in, but not likely.

“It’s certainly disappointing,” Nurse admitted after first saying Leonard’s decision to return to his native Los Angeles was not a total surprise. “I think we all knew that was a situation that could happen and he delivered big-time,” Nurse said at half-time of Toronto’s Summer League game against the Golden State Warriors. “He’s first of all a great person. He was unbelievably fun to coach, just locked in, loaded and ready to go. When people would ask me what was it like coaching him and I always said the best thing was I got to stand there on the courtside and watch this guy go to work. And that was something I’ll never forget. Now we’ve got to go kick his ass,” Nurse said with a smile, echoing the words point guard Fred VanVleet had uttered about Toronto’s task should Leonard become a former teammate.

Enter Paul George, the Oklahoma City star who sources say was heavily recruited by Leonard in those days leading up to his trade demand and this blockbuster deal that pairs the two of them with the Clippers. Talk about the least likely of pitchmen. The league’s quietest talent, the man whose one-of-a-kind laugh has been dissected like the Zapruder film and who so many were still convinced was a cyborg because of his robotic ways, got this deal done by selling a fellow Southern California native in the kind of way that left the Thunder with no choice but to make this move. “Kawhi recruited the hell out of him,” one source close to the situation said. “He did a number on Paul.”

If George didn’t get his wish, would he be fully engaged? And if he wasn’t, would he go public with his trade demand during the season? That worst-case scenario could have left the Thunder with a disgruntled superstar undercutting his own trade value. There was no easy way out for Oklahoma City. But there was a strong sense, sources said, the Clippers needed George to secure Leonard. And that gave the Thunder some leverage that was unlikely to be available in the future.

Green said he talks to Leonard — who has maintained a low profile over the last week despite elaborate attempts to track his every move and brainwave — from time to time. But he, like the city of Toronto and the rest of the country, is still waiting for a decision. “Has it surprised me? No. Did I think it would take this long? No,” he said of Leonard’s deliberations over whether to stay and play for the Raptors, or leave for either the Clippers or Lakers in Los Angeles.

As the most sought-after basketball player in the world after leading Toronto to its first NBA championship, Leonard is no longer the teenager who never received scholarship offers from blue-blood colleges. Times have changed, but everything about Leonard’s quiet handling of free agency has felt familiar for Hutson, one of only a few people in the world who knows what it is like to recruit, and land, Leonard. The major influences on Leonard — his mother, Kim Robertson, and uncle, Dennis Robertson — are the same now as they were in high school. “He’s going to make [his decision] on his own terms, his own time,” Hutson said. “He’s going to talk to the people important to him about it. He’s not going to be out leaking every little bit or have an announcement.”
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July 24, 2021 | 3:04 am EDT Update
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