How the stunning moves around signing Kawhi Leonard change the NBA
L.A. is now the centre of the basketball universe. And Toronto is... not
While you were (probably) sleeping early Saturday morning, the #KawhiWatch ended in a way that's more dramatic than anything we could have imagined. Here's what went down and what it means:
Kawhi Leonard is leaving the Toronto Raptors to sign with the Los Angeles Clippers. It's expected he'll ink a four-year, $142-million US contract, which is the maximum the Clippers can give him under NBA rules. This was the move pretty much everyone expected Kawhi to make since last summer, but the way it happened was completely unexpected.
Kawhi only struck a deal with the Clippers after they secured a blockbuster trade for another superstar. L.A. made a deal to acquire MVP finalist Paul George from the Oklahoma City Thunder for an unprecedentedly massive haul: five first-round draft picks, the right to swap two other picks, and two players. One of them is Canadian guard Shai Gilgeous-Alexander, who just completed his rookie season and averaged about 11 points per game. The other is veteran forward Danilo Gallinari, who averaged about 20.
Now we know why Kawhi took so long to make his decision. According to the world's top NBA reporter, ESPN's Adrian Wojnarowski, Leonard recruited George to ask for a trade from OKC so they could both end up on the same team. And Leonard told the Clippers that if they landed George, he'd sign with them too. Looking at how much L.A. had to ultimately give up to get it done, it makes sense that the George deal took nearly a week after the start of free agency to complete. Leonard's camp reportedly was also telling the Lakers as late as Friday night that they were still in the running, and that reportedly drove the Clippers to go all-in on the George deal so they could stop Kawhi from going to their intracity rival. The Raptors stayed in the mix the whole time too, but it appears now that they were probably never more than a source of leverage and/or a fallback option in case neither of the L.A. teams could make things work.
Wojnarowski originally reported that the Raptors had a chance to trade for George if they were willing to also accept overpaid and problematic star Russell Westbrook from OKC and part with rising star Pascal Siakam. But Woj later reported it was never a realistic scenario: Toronto didn't have the draft picks to match the Clippers' extremely aggressive package.
The Clippers are probably the favourites to win the NBA title now. They have arguably the best player in the world (Leonard) and one of the three finalists for this year's MVP award (George). They gave up two of their better complementary players in Gallinari and Gilgeous-Alexander, but the supporting cast is still solid, led by Sixth Man of the Year Lou Williams. The Clippers made the playoffs this year without any true star players. Now they have two of the best in the league.
L.A. is now the centre of the basketball universe. Remember that the Lakers recently acquired MVP-calibre big man Anthony Davis to pair with LeBron James, who's 34 now but probably the second-greatest player of all time. Their supporting cast is paper thin, but with two superstars like that, they're right up there with the Clippers. You could argue that four of the NBA's best six players now play in the same building — L.A.'s Staples Center, which the Lakers and Clippers share. Plus, the Golden State Warriors dynasty is crumbling with Kevin Durant on his way to Brooklyn and Klay Thompson set to miss a big chunk of next season. The seat of basketball power has clearly moved down the California coast.
So where does this leave the Raptors? They're playing with house money after their surprise championship. Despite the way this went down, there won't be many hard feelings for Kawhi. The Raptors and their fans knew this was the deal from the minute they traded for him a year ago: Kawhi had wanted to play in his hometown of L.A. for a long time and he was probably going to make that happen this summer. The fact that the Raptors turned one year of Leonard into their first NBA championship still makes that deal one of the best in sports history.
But next season is going to be a bit rough. Toronto still has a playoff-calibre roster, but barring another miracle trade by Ujiri, it won't be a title contender. The Raptors are up against the salary cap (you can only go over it to sign your own players) and just about every good free agent has already found a home anyway. That includes key role player Danny Green, who's now reportedly signing with the Lakers. Siakam is probably the future of the franchise now, so Ujiri may start rebuilding around him at any time. Several Raptors have big contracts that will expire after this season, including Kyle Lowry ($35 million), Marc Gasol ($25M) and Serge Ibaka ($23M). So Toronto is in position to have a lot of cap space to remake the team starting next summer. For a very good and detailed look at the Raptors' options going forward, read this piece.
This story is taken from The Buzzer, CBC Sports' daily email newsletter. Stay up to speed on what's happening in sports by signing up below.