LOS ANGELES — Among all the mysteries of the summer, the fate of NBA Finals Most Valuable Player Kawhi Leonard may be the most significant.
Did the Toronto Raptors do enough to lure the three-time All-Star forward to re-sign? Winning a title certainly upped their chances, but does Leonard agree?
He might. Per Chris Haynes of Yahoo Sports, Leonard is "seriously considering" a return to Toronto, "but there are a handful of teams who could secure a meeting."
Loyalty may inspire Leonard to stay with the Raptors. But if he does decide to leave, Pelinka and the Lakers can make a compelling case.
A squad built around Leonard, LeBron James, Anthony Davis and Kyle Kuzma would be a force. With the Golden State Warriors facing serious injuries to Kevin Durant and Klay Thompson (both potentially free agents this summer), the Lakers would take over as the favorites heading into next season.
But if you believe the buzz around the league, especially in the national media, the Los Angeles Clippers are the clear option for Leonard instead of the Lakers. ESPN's Adrian Wojnarowski has stressed continually that the Clippers are the biggest threat to the Raptors.
"The reality is Kawhi Leonard's focused on Los Angeles, but it's the Clippers, not the Lakers," Wojnarowski said on Get Up! last week. "... The idea of him being a third wheel on a team trying to create a superteam, that has not been Kawhi's M.O. The Clippers are poised to be able to lure him from Toronto. This will be a Raptors-Clippers fight down the end. He may take meetings with more teams; it's not even certain he'd even take a meeting with the Lakers right now."
Wojnarowski's comments may have been based on the notion that the Lakers won't have enough cap space after the Davis deal to pay Leonard.
The Clippers have a nice core of players with Lou Williams, Montrezl Harrell, Shai Gilgeous-Alexander and Landry Shamet along with a proven coach in Doc Rivers and a strong front office that includes Lakers legend Jerry West. They can sign two maximum-salaried players, but only if they move the contract of veteran scorer Danilo Gallinari.
The Lakers would certainly be top-heavy with Leonard, James, Davis and Kuzma, but it's also unclear who else the Clippers could add to their squad with Leonard to bolster their championship viability. They may have more talent in volume, but does their roster stand out as better than the Lakers'?
Perhaps Wojnarowski has insight into Leonard's thought process. Leonard is not exactly an open book, but simply playing with James could be a turnoff.
If it's not, Leonard could return home to the Los Angeles area on a team for which he doesn't have to carry the offense every night. That may be a positive given Leonard's potential need to pace himself with days off for load management throughout the regular season.
The Lakers' ability to land Leonard may not be tested, not if he chooses to return to Toronto. The Raptors have the financial advantage, able to pay their star up to nearly $190 million over five years. Other suitors, including the Clippers, can pay up to $140.6 million over four seasons. In the best-case scenario, the Lakers would be slightly short of Leonard's maximum salary at almost $138 million for four years.
If Leonard is focused on optimizing his career earnings, he shouldn't be looking for a long-term deal. Instead, he should aim for free agency again in summer 2021, when he'll be eligible for the top-tier max that could start at nearly $43 million. Again, the Raptors would be able to pay him the most if he chose to stay, at a stunning $250 million over five years (compared to another team at $188 million over four).
But Leonard has already shown that money isn't his primary motivation given his contentious exit from the San Antonio Spurs, who may have been able to give him a supermax contract this summer had he stayed. Money won't be unimportant in determining where Leonard lands, but it may not be the decider.
Still, two years with Toronto would pay $68 million; it'd pay $67 million with the Clippers and almost $66 million with the Lakers. In addition to the Clippers, Leonard might meet with the Dallas Mavericks, per Chris Sheridan. The New York Knicks and Brooklyn Nets will also have enough cap space for two stars.
If the Lakers emerge victorious in the Leonard sweepstakes, they wouldn't have a true guard on the roster, though both James and Leonard can play in the backcourt. They would have about $4.8 million via the room exception to sign a guard, perhaps Darren Collison or Cory Joseph (who is represented by Klutch Sports Group, with James and Davis). Alex Caruso and Lance Stephenson might be willing to stay on minimum salaries.
Kentavious Caldwell-Pope, also with Klutch Sports, would need to take a pay cut if he wants to remain with James and the Lakers. Unless the team is willing to give Caldwell-Pope the full $4.8 million, he too would be limited to a minimum salary. JaVale McGee could do the same. Any returning player would be eligible for a greater salary next year when the Lakers can use their rights to give them pay raises.
Los Angeles might also be able to fill out its roster with veterans like JR Smith and Kyle Korver (assuming they are released from their partially guaranteed contracts by the Cleveland Cavaliers and Memphis Grizzlies by way of the Utah Jazz). Trevor Ariza was a client of Landmark Sports when Pelinka was an agent. He too might have an interest in joining a championship contender, especially if he's not getting significant offers elsewhere.
Depth is important. Pelinka would need to do significant work to fill out the roster, but since he's already struck a deal for Davis, landing Leonard would be a massive success for the franchise after a six-year playoff drought.
Teams can begin negotiating with free agents Sunday. Commitments may come soon after, but contracts cannot be signed until July 6. Leonard's future is a mystery, but only for one or two more weeks.