Report: Kawhi Leonard, Clippers Agree to Max Contract After Raptors' Title Win

Joseph Zucker@@JosephZuckerFeatured ColumnistJuly 6, 2019

TORONTO, ON - MAY 12:  Kawhi Leonard #2 of the Toronto Raptors dribbles the ball during Game Seven of the second round of the 2019 NBA Playoffs against the Philadelphia 76ers at Scotiabank Arena on May 12, 2019 in Toronto, Canada.  NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading and or using this photograph, User is consenting to the terms and conditions of the Getty Images License Agreement.  (Photo by Vaughn Ridley/Getty Images)
Vaughn Ridley/Getty Images

One of the biggest dominoes fell in NBA free agency as Kawhi Leonard agreed to a contract with the Los Angeles Clippers early Saturday morning, per Chris Haynes of Yahoo Sports.

ESPN's Adrian Wojnarowski reported the Clippers will also acquire All-Star forward Paul George in a trade with the Oklahoma City Thunder to bolster their roster.

This time last year, Leonard was engineering his exit from the San Antonio Spurs, a saga that ended with a trade to the Toronto Raptors.

Considering what he achieved in 2018-19, it's easy to forget how much of a wild card Leonard was heading into the season.

Questions lingered over the quad injury that limited him to nine games in 2017-18 and helped indirectly sour his relationship with the Spurs. Some also criticized the manner of his trade request as well, with his quiet demeanor playing against him in this case.

And then it wasn't even clear Leonard was happy when he finally got his wish, with Haynes reporting in July 2018 he "has no desire to play in Toronto."

Ultimately, all of those storylines subsided as Leonard helped lead the Raptors to their first NBA title, and he reminded everybody why he's one of the league's best players in the process.

The three-time All-Star averaged 26.6 points, 7.3 rebounds and 3.3 assists. He also shot 49.6 percent from the field and 37.1 percent from beyond the arc. Leonard took his game to another level in the playoffs, when he averaged 30.5 points and 9.1 rebounds.

In the second round, Leonard hit a fadeaway over Joel Embiid in Game 7 to send the Philadelphia 76ers packing.

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While he didn't have the same kind of singular moment in the Eastern Conference Finals or NBA Finals, his consistency was his biggest strength. He played exactly like one would expect from one of the biggest stars.

When Toronto general manager Masai Ujiri acquired Leonard, he always knew the threat of his free agency loomed large this summer.

The Raptors' championship is all of the justification necessary for that trade. For years, the franchise had the reputation of wilting under the bright lights of the playoffs. Leonard was exactly the figure required to turn that narrative around.

Having said that, his departure creates a large ripple effect for the Raptors. Without Leonard, their ceiling for next year is clearly much lower, and Ujiri now faces a bigger dilemma about where he'll take the team going forward.

A rebuild isn't happening, but a reshuffle might be necessary down the line. Kyle Lowry, Serge Ibaka, Fred VanVleet and Pascal Siakam are hitting free agency in 2020, with Siakam a restricted free agent. 

OG Anunoby and Norman Powell will be the only players of consequence under contract by then, which will leave Ujiri with a boatload of salary cap space.

The team can use that flexibility to either retain all of its key stars or re-sign VanVleet and Siakam while using the leftover money to target free agents who are closer in age to them—VanVleet and Siakam are 25—than Lowry (33) and Ibaka (29).

Of course, Ujiri thought mostly of the short term when rolled the dice on this squad, and his gamble paid off. Perhaps he's willing to take the same approach again with a different trade target in mind.

For the Clippers, adding Leonard is obviously a massive move. He doesn't come without some level of risk, though.

He missed 60 games as Toronto carefully managed his workload after the quad injury. He told ESPN's Rachel Nichols that plan was instrumental in allowing him to play at a high level in the postseason.

The Raptors were 17-5 without Leonard during the regular season, which helped them secure the second seed in the East. If Toronto hadn't done so well when he was out, then his load management plan probably gets a few more sideways glances.

Even if part of a carefully orchestrated formula, it's not ideal for a team to be without its best player for a quarter of the regular season.

The Clippers have put together a strong supporting cast since ending the "Lob City" era. As much as the trio of Chris Paul, DeAndre Jordan and Blake Griffin did to make the franchise relevant, L.A. had achieved all it could with that core.

Few expected the Clippers to make the playoffs in 2019, and the fact they did indicated both how good Doc Rivers is and how solid a foundation they have in place. A true star player was clearly the one thing missing, a fact made abundantly clear when Los Angeles had no counter for Kevin Durant in the opening round.

Leonard represents that missing piece, especially with George at his side.

Not only does he help the Clippers make a big step forward on the court, he strengthens the perception they are a marquee destination for free agents or All-Stars trying to force trades from their current teams.

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