NBA

Kawhi Leonard bolts champion Raptors for Clippers

Less than a month after leading the Raptors to their first NBA title, Kawhi Leonard is leaving Toronto for the Los Angeles Clippers.

Star forward, 2-time Finals MVP guided Toronto to its 1st NBA title

Kawhi Leonard celebrates with hundreds of thousands of fans in downtown Toronto on June 17, days after he and the Raptors won the NBA championship. (Frank Gunn/Canadian Press)

It was a heck of a season, but that's all the Toronto Raptors are going to get from Kawhi Leonard.

Less than a month after leading the Raptors to their first NBA title, the superstar free agent is leaving Toronto for the Los Angeles Clippers.

On Saturday afternoon, the Raptors published a statement on their twitter account from team president Masai Ujiri, that confirms the reports that both Leonard and guard Danny Green are leaving.

A person familiar with the negotiations says the Clippers will be landing Leonard as a free agent after they acquire Paul George from the Oklahoma City Thunder in a massive trade for players and draft picks.

George will be traded for at least four first-round picks, according to the person who spoke to The Associated Press on condition of anonymity early Saturday because none of the moves have been finalized. And Leonard made his decision to sign with the Clippers after the team swung the deal to land George, the person said.

ESPN, which first reported the trade, also said the Thunder were getting Shai Gilgeous-Alexander and Danilo Gallinari from the Clippers.

WATCH | Leonard leads Raptors to NBA title over Warriors in Game 6:

The Toronto Raptors won their first NBA title in franchise history with a 114-110 win in Game 6 of the NBA Finals over the Golden State Warriors. 2:56

Leonard going to the Clippers means that for the first time, a reigning NBA Finals MVP will be changing teams before the next season. Leonard was also pursued by the Los Angeles Lakers and, of course, the Raptors.

The most the Clippers can offer Leonard is $142 million US over four years, which is the deal he is expected to sign. Players can sign with new teams as early as noon ET on Saturday.

Leonard coveted

Leonard was arguably the most coveted prize in this year's free agency, and met with several teams including the Raptors, Lakers and Clippers in his hometown of Los Angeles.

The Lakers didn't wait long before starting to move on from their quest for Leonard. Green announced that he is signing a two-year deal with the Lakers.

"It's been unfortunate how things turned out for everybody, and the city of Toronto and Canada, that we couldn't run it back. Kawhi has made his decision. Seems like the announcement is out," Green said in a video he posted to his social media accounts. "It's time for me to make my announcement ... I will be teaming up with new teammates in L.A., the Los Angeles Lakers.

"Had a fun time in the city of Toronto ... always have a great place in my heart, will never forget the historical run that we had."

The news ends months of speculation and angst for Raptors fans, that has only heated up after free agency opened last Sunday.

#ThankYouKawhi and #ThankYouDanny were both trending on Twitter in Toronto on Saturday morning as Raptors fans woke up to the news.

Kawhi Leonard, pictured here celebrating the Raptors' first NBA title in their 24-year history, is leaving after one season in Toronto. (Ezra Shaw/Getty Images)

Leonard's departure was considered by many to be a foregone conclusion a year ago when Raptors president Masai Ujiri acquired him from the San Antonio Spurs in an off-season blockbuster that sent beloved franchise icon DeMar DeRozan to Texas.

Leonard had a year left on his contract plus a player option — which he was certainly going to decline — when he moved to Toronto, and many believed he'd put in a season in Canada before bolting for his hometown of Los Angeles.

Still, Ujiri hit the jackpot with his calculated gamble to trade his best scorer, DeRozan, for Leonard coming off a franchise-record 59-win season, and the Raptors certainly made Leonard's decision a tough one. After Leonard missed all but nine games last season with San Antonio with a serious quadriceps injury, he said health was his biggest concern heading into this past campaign.

'Load management'

Toronto responded by treating the superstar, who turned 28 on Saturday, with kid gloves. They made "load management" part of their lexicon, holding him out of back-to-back games for health maintenance.

The extra rest was beneficial as Leonard averaged career-bests of 26.6 points and 7.3 rebounds in the regular season.

But Leonard's load management made its biggest impact in the playoffs. Leonard had one of the best performances in NBA post-season history in leading the Raptors to their first Larry O'Brien Trophy.

He averaged 28.5 points in a six-game Finals victory over the Golden State Warriors. He scored 732 points in the playoffs — only Michael Jordan (759) and LeBron James (748) have had more in a single post-season — and 14 times reached 30 points during the Raptors' title run.

He was also excellent on both sides of the ball as they dispatched Orlando, Philadelphia, Milwaukee and finally the two-time defending champions Golden State Warriors. He was rewarded with his second career Finals MVP award.

There were iconic moments along the way, including his series-winning final shot in Game 7 against the 76ers that bounced on the rim four times before falling, sending the Scotiabank Arena crowd into a frenzy.

WATCH | Leonard's ridiculous buzzer beater sends Raptors to East Final:

Kawhi Leonard poured in 41 points, including a dramatic game-winner as the Toronto Raptors beat the Philadelphia 76ers 92-90 to advance to the Eastern Conference Finals. 1:23

Leonard's status as a sports icon in Toronto and across Canada perhaps closed the gap between the Raptors and other suitors.

"He's earned the right to think about this and we'll respect it," Raptors general manager Bobby Webster told reporters in late June. "Obviously, we'd love to have him back, but this is his decision and it's a big one for him."

But ultimately, what Toronto had to offer wasn't enough.

Leonard averaged 26.6 points on 49.6 per cent shooting, 7.3 rebounds, 3.3 assists and 1.8 steals over 60 regular-season games with the Raptors in 2018-19. He took his game to an elite level in the playoffs, averaging 30.5 points, 9.1 rebounds, 3.9 assists and 1.7 steals over 24 games.

It's a massive blow to Toronto's chances of back-to-back titles, and obviously puts a damper on the Lakers' off-season quest as well — even though they will finalize a trade Saturday to bring in Anthony Davis from New Orleans and have  landed the sort of shooter that LeBron James craves by adding Green.

With files from CBC's Doug Harrison and The Associated Press

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