Board Man Gets Paid: Landing Spots for Free Agent Kawhi LeonardJune 24, 2019
Board Man Gets Paid: Landing Spots for Free Agent Kawhi Leonard
A colossal payday awaits Kawhi Leonard after he turned the 2018-19 NBA season into his personal comeback story.
He is unsurprisingly en route to the open market after deciding to decline his $21.3 million player option for next season, league sources told Yahoo Sports' Chris Haynes.
Save for some medical-maintenance off days, the superstar swingman showed no ill effects from the quad injury that effectively wiped out his 2017-18 campaign. Leonard's 60 regular-season appearances were strong enough for him to claim second-team spots on the All-NBA and All-Defensive squads.
He subsequently hit an even higher gear in the postseason and propelled the Toronto Raptors to their first-ever NBA title.
In accordance with hoops tradition, board man must now get paid.
While an abundance of teams are willing to do so, only a handful have a chance to make his final cut. Based on what he's likely to covet and what these clubs can offer, we have assembled and ranked his top landing spots in free agency.
The Long Shots
The Mavericks have a ton of spending money and an opening for a two-way wing to slot in between Luka Doncic and Kristaps Porzingis. Leonard could grab control of Dallas' offense and defense, and he might see new elements of his game surface under savvy skipper Rick Carlisle.
Leonard would be the perfect for the Mavs, but it's hard to imagine the feeling being mutual. He can handpick his running mate elsewhere in one of the Association's major markets.
New York Knicks
The Knicks play in the NBA's premier market, and they can create enough salary-cap space to sign both Leonard and his chosen running mate. While he can find better basketball situations, this might be as good as it gets when it comes to endorsements, which might be the reason "some people around Leonard still see New York as a potential destination," league sources told SNY's Ian Begley.
However, the Knicks' on-court argument probably isn't strong enough to land Leonard. The roster, coach and front office are all unproven, and none of their prospects is a can't-miss star in the making.
While the Sixers are gearing up to re-sign Jimmy Butler and Tobias Harris, they could have plenty of cap room if Butler and/or Harris leave. As such, it was noteworthy to hear ESPN's Adrian Wojnarowski discuss the possibility of Leonard meeting with the Sixers.
The ideal player to suit up alongside Joel Embiid and Ben Simmons looks an awful lot like Leonard. He'd be a supercharged version of Jimmy Butler, with tighter defense, sharper shooting and a more powerful scoring punch. However, nothing suggests the Sixers are close to the top of Leonard's list, and they might not be willing to wait on his decision as teams try to poach Butler and Harris.
4. Brooklyn Nets
Shortly after the San Antonio Spurs traded Leonard to the Toronto Raptors last summer, he was reportedly making plans for this July.
On the Back to Back podcast last July (h/t Brian Lewis of the New York Post), the Toronto Star's Bruce Arthur said Leonard was calling other players to gauge their interest in joining him next season. The Brooklyn Nets reportedly made his initial list of potential landing spots.
Back then, the Nets were directionless rebuilders coming off three consecutive campaigns with at least 54 losses. The conversation has changed considerably since. Brooklyn went above-.500 for the first time in five years, sent D'Angelo Russell to the All-Star Game and drew first blood against the third-seeded Sixers before bowing out of the opening round in five games.
"You look at the young core of Brooklyn, the winning culture being built here—it's a lure," free-agent forward Jared Dudley told SNY's Anthony Puccio in April. "Not to mention the general manager and head coach turning this thing around so fast without having any draft picks."
Nets head coach Kenny Atkinson has made a habit of maximizing his players, while general manager Sean Marks worked around a limited asset collection by continually identifying undervalued talent. The Nets now appear to be in great hands with established, reliable contributors and rising prospects who've yet to approach their ceiling.
Adding Leonard and a second max player in free agency could be Brooklyn's finishing touches. If the Nets are smart this summer—as they have been throughout this tenure's regime—they should have the scorers, shooters and stoppers to both support Leonard and survive without him when his body needs a break.
3. Los Angeles Lakers
While several teams can afford Leonard the opportunity to select his running mate, the Los Angeles Lakers are the only one who could surround him with two top-10 talents.
Since Anthony Davis' first NBA season in 2012-13, LeBron James has provided the second-most win shares overall, while Davis ranks sixth. They hold the second and third spots on the career player efficiency rating leaderboard, respectively, and they each held top-10 ratings in real plus-minus this past season in what felt like a down year for both.
Putting the two together might make us rethink what's possible on the hardwood.
"James has teamed up with some hypnotic talent in the back half of his career, but placing him beside Davis is like introducing Martin Scorsese to Leonardo DiCaprio," Michael Pina wrote for SB Nation. "... The potential is boundless."
Adding Leonard, a Southern California native, to the equation could send the Lakers on a historic trajectory. And yet, it feels unlikely for a few reasons.
For starters, the Lakers can't afford him or any other max talent right now. While they're attempting to open an additional max slot, according to ESPN's Adrian Wojnarowski and Bobby Marks, they might be looking at $23.7 million in cap room unless the parameters of the Davis deal change. For context, Leonard's max salary for next season is $32.7 million.
Plus, word leaked last summer that Leonard wasn't keen on playing second fiddle to LeBron. Moving into a three-way share of the team lead presumably would be even less appealing.
2. Toronto Raptors
If the Raptors can't convince Leonard to stay, it won't be for a lack of trying. They checked every box possible over the past 11 months.
They rolled out a load-management plan that drew high marks from the soft-spoken superstar. They fortified themselves for the stretch run with a deadline deal for three-time All-Star Marc Gasol. They developed Pascal Siakam into a Most Improved Player finalist. They not only kept Kyle Lowry engaged (which wasn't easy after trading his best friend), but they helped him book his fifth consecutive All-Star trip.
The Raptors assembled a roster strong enough to survive without Leonard when needed, but one in which the seat at the head of the table was unquestionably his. Toronto captured its first-ever NBA title, and Leonard took home all but one Finals MVP vote.
"When Kawhi showed up there, I'm not sure he imagined any future in Toronto," Wojnarowski said in early May on The Woj Pod (h/t Real GM). "I do think it's a serious consideration now."
Leonard looks like he's enjoying himself, at least as much as a basketball-playing cyborg can. While he never warmed up to Toronto's weather, he has said nothing but good things about the organization and its fans. Haynes reports Leonard "is believed to be seriously considering re-signing," and some rival executives "view his current team as the favorite to land him."
Clearly, the Raptors gave him plenty to think about, and that won't change going forward. They can effectively run it back next season, and they might be the favorites if they do. Should they need a reset afterward, they have most of their rotation coming off the books in 2020.
In other words, Toronto is more of a 1B than a No. 2, but that still leaves it chasing one team at the top.
1. Los Angeles Clippers
Barring a last-second twist, Leonard's free agency is expected to be a two-team race between the Raptors and the Los Angeles Clippers. It's been that way for months.
Toronto can offer a longer, richer contract than anyone else, plus it has a year's worth of shared experience culminating in a world title. But if location matters to Leonard, the Raptors could be battling forces they cannot defeat.
"They can't change the geography," Wojnarowski said on the Woj & Lowe show in December (h/t RealGM.com). "They can't change the weather in Toronto. Those will always be things against them in this. Home and L.A. has been the focus for Kawhi Leonard through all this."
The comforts of home are powerful enough to be the sole reason behind this ranking. But there are more layers involved.
The Clippers have the flexibility to add a second star of Leonard's choosing, plus a head start on a high-level group of supporting actors. Lou Williams, Montrezl Harrell, Landry Shamet and Shai Gilgeous-Alexander are all ready for prominent roles. Last year's 13th pick, Jerome Robinson, and this year's draft-night additions, Mfiondu Kabengele and Terance Mann, could continue expanding this cost-effective rotation. If the Clips don't sacrifice Danilo Gallinari for cap space, he can be another offensive hub on the perimeter.
Coach Doc Rivers stomached a $50,000 fine for likening Leonard to Michael Jordan. Clippers officials, including president of basketball operations Lawrence Frank, heavily scouted Raptors games to transparently communicate their interest in Leonard.
All of the hard work could soon pay off in a massive way.
The Clippers might not have the best on-court recruiting pitch to Leonard, but the combination of everything they can offer could be the key to winning these sweepstakes.
Unless noted otherwise, statistics courtesy of Basketball Reference and ESPN.com.
Zach Buckley covers the NBA for Bleacher Report. Follow him on Twitter, @ZachBuckleyNBA.