He sure made us wait for it. As most of us had become reserved to the fact that the announcement wouldn’t come until the end of the holiday weekend, the majority of NBA fans attempted to enjoy their days without worrying about where Kawhi Leonard would end up. Personally, I tried going to bed earlier instead of refreshing my Twitter feed every couple of minutes in order to get any sliver of news. However, it backfired on me, as the Finals MVP announced late Friday that he had chosen to join the Los Angeles Clippers, rebuffing the offers of the cross court Lakers and the reigning champion Toronto Raptors. Kawhi held the competitive balance of the NBA in his hands with his free agency decision and instead of creating a superteam for the ages by joining the Lakers, he orchestrated one of the most shrewd maneuvers of all time.
He convinced Paul George, who finished 3rd in the MVP race this past season, to demand a trade from the Oklahoma City Thunder in order to join him on the Clippers. His persuasion skills must rival that of Don Corleone, as George had just signed onto a 4 years/ $137 million with the Thunder. But on the heels of a shocking first round exit, when a top 3 player calls, you listen. And on the side of the Clippers, they would have been fools not to get this deal done by any means. What followed was an unprecedented movement of assets and current players for George, as Oklahoma City received Shai Gilgeous-Alexander, Danilo Gallinari, three unprotected first round picks (2022, 2024, and 2026), pick swaps with the Clippers in 2023 and 2025, and two first round picks that LA acquired from the Miami Heat (unprotected in 2021 and lottery protected in 2023).
After the dust settled, the Clippers were left with one of the most potent rosters in a Western Conference that is ripe for the taking. They now have arguably two of the top three small forwards in the league, the most important position in the league (the past eight Finals MVPs have been small forwards). They resigned defensive stalwart Pat Beverley to the most lucrative deal of his career (3 years / $40 million), creating one of the most formidable defensive backcourt/wing combos in the entire NBA. Both he and Kawhi posted career highs in defensive rating (108.7 and 107.7, respectively), as the unit will definitely be well suited to choke out opposing backcourts. The length of Kawhi and Paul George alone will be enough to give offenses the shakes.
The fact that the Clippers’ two blockbuster pickups are in their prime (Kawhi is 28 and George is 29) is just the beginning. LA retained a wonderfully balanced core to surround the two stars, a core that earned respect from around the League the way that they challenged the Golden State Warriors in the first round of this past year’s playoffs. They kept the reigning Sixth Man of the Year Lou Williams, who posted a career high in points (27.1) and assists (7.3), all while increasing his usage rate and reducing his turnover percentage from the previous year. Guard Landry Shamet is coming off of a record year in which he shot a dazzling 42.2% from behind the line. Montrezl Harrell has continued to progress each year, settling into an undersized center role, thriving in the pick-and-roll with Williams. This past season, he posted career highs in points (16.6) and blocks (1.3), as he continually showed signs of turning into a well-rounded machine. As the roster continues to fill out, it is apparent that LA is no longer a one team city. The Staples Center will now be home to a proverbial arms race to reach the Finals.
Speaking of the other team in the City of Angels, the Lakers were the team most affected by missing out on the Kawhi Leonard sweepstakes. The Lakers cleared $32 million in order to sign Leonard to a max deal. Consequently, they made the decision to wait until they had signed him to the deal to start making moves in free agency. This strategy makes sense if a team is extremely confident that they’ll be able to clinch a superstar signing. However, this move to wait and see what Leonard would do backfired as valuable free agents got scooped up by contenders. There were a bevy of legitimate options available, but as Kawhi continued to take meetings, the pickings for serviceable role players meant to bolster their lineup became slimmer and slimmer.
Once his move to the Clippers was announced, the Lakers moved quickly, resigning Javale McGee, Kentavious Caldwell-Pope, Rajon Rondo, and Alex Caruso, and bringing on sharpshooter Danny Green, bench mob artist Jared Dudley, defensive specialist Avery Bradley, and former All-Star DeMarcus Cousins, who was in search of a home in a free agency market that was not kind to injured centers. Adding all of these players to the already present trio of LeBron, Anthony Davis, and Kyle Kuzma creates an intriguing rotation that is far more prepared for a playoff run than the core that the Lakers shipped off to New Orleans. According to FiveThirtyEight’s “way too-early projections,” the Lakers recent signings are projected to give the team a +1.8 increase in offensive plus/minus and a +3.6 increase in defensive plus/minus. For a team that could use improvement on the defensive side of the ball (ranked 13th in defensive rating and gave up 113.5 ppg), they have begun to address the holes in their armor.
On the other side of the Paul George trade was seemingly the beginning of a massive rebuilding effort. The aforementioned haul that Oklahoma City Thunder GM Sam Presti received in this trade, combined with the previous efforts to shave down the highest payroll in league history from last season, puts them in prime position to hit the restart button. And after his third straight first round exit, and another superstar opting to desert him in the middle of Oklahoma, Russell Westbrook looked around to see the only home he’s ever known in the NBA crumbling around him. So it’s understandable that Westbrook and his agent approached Presti about the possibility of a trade.
The issue is who will be willing to trade for him? The interest in the former MVP should be there, as we shouldn’t forget that he has averaged a triple-double for an entire season twice in the last three seasons. But the offense-stopping ball dominance (15th in usage rate), combined with low levels of efficiency from all levels of the floor (48% from 2pt, 29% from 3pt, and 65.6% from FT), and a massive contract on the books (4 years/ $171 million remaining on his deal), might scare away suitors. These factors, combined with his apparent history of scaring off a second superstar wing player with his style of play (Durant, George, Oladipo, sort of), could make teams hesitant to deal for Westbrook.
But, as a wise prophet once said, “scared money don’t make no money.” The potential offensive intensity that could arise from pairing Westbrook with an established scorer and a legitimate offensive system that doesn’t rely on him playing hero ball could prove to be just what the doctor ordered. The only team that could realistically provide this, or even truly wants to, is the Miami Heat. Pat Riley could be crazy enough to try and make the pairing of Jimmy Butler and Westbrook work (imagine the content that would arise from a mic’d up practice session). There are a number of end loaded contracts on that Heat roster that could be shipped off to Oklahoma City, and coach Erik Spoelstra has enough experience in dealing with having multiple megastars at the same time, showing the ability to craft an offensive system that works. With Kawhi Leonard leaving the Eastern Conference, the path is legitimately open for the taking, and it might be time for the Heat to make this move and capitalize on the chance.
Possibly the most intriguing consequence of Kawhi Leonard’s free agency decision was that it could virtually spell the end of the superteam era for the foreseeable future. As we’ve gone through this free agency period, there has been less of a focus on building an unstoppable conglomeration of three or more superstars and a substandard bench. Instead, teams have capped their search for stars at two, then electing to surround their high profile players with meaningful rotation players to buoy the minutes when the starters are out. What has arisen from this movement is an NBA Jam-like landscape where we see two main stars that complement each other on almost every contender. The two LA teams have Kawhi/George and LeBron/AD, the Nets will have Kyrie/KD, the Sixers with Joel Embiid and Ben Simmons, the Bucks have Giannis and Khris Middleton, the Blazers with Lillard/McCollum, Houston with Harden/CP3, and even the Spurs with DeMar Derozan and LaMarcus Aldridge.
Even if they don’t have the blockbuster duo, there are a number of teams that have constructed legitimately competitive teams that are rife with youth and talent. Units like the Nuggets, Jazz, and Pacers are spearheaded by a consistent scoring threat and exciting players throughout the roster. Before, teams like this have no chance of sniffing the Conference finals, let alone the NBA Finals. But the neutralization of the Warriors and the decision of Kawhi has given the League something it hasn’t seen in a long time: parity. Instead of just a dominating figure towering over the NBA landscape, there is now a number of growing pockets of power that are stocking up to challenge for the League’s top prize.