Kawhi Leonard Controls the NBA's Balance of Power with Free-Agency Decision

Sean Highkin@highkinFeatured ColumnistJune 29, 2019

TORONTO, ON - JUNE 17:  Kawhi Leonard #2 of the Toronto Raptors holds the MVP trophy during the Toronto Raptors Victory Parade on June 17, 2019 in Toronto, Canada. The Toronto Raptors beat the Golden State Warriors 4-2 to win the 2019 NBA Finals.  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

When Kevin Durant tore his Achilles during Game 5 of the NBA Finals, it sent shockwaves through the league, altering everything from that series to the Golden State Warriors' long-term future. It also changed the outlook of free agency, which is set to begin Sunday at 6 p.m. ET.

Now, what has been billed for a year as the summer of KD has become the summer of Kawhi Leonard. The reigning Finals MVP put together one of the most spectacular postseasons runs in recent memory to lead the Toronto Raptors to their first title in franchise history, making a strong case for himself as the best player in the NBA. Just in time to become a free agent by declining his $21.3 million player option for the 2019-20 campaign. 

Durant's future will still cause plenty of intrigue around the league, but whether he re-signs with the Warriors or goes elsewhere, he won't play next season as he recovers from one of the worst injuries a basketball player can suffer. Neither, in all likelihood, will Klay Thompson, who is expected to re-up with Golden State after suffering a torn ACL in Game 6 of the Finals. The Warriors are no longer the juggernaut they've been for the past half-decade, and the NBA has never been more open than it is now.

Leonard can single-handedly tip the balance of power with any decision he makes.

There is no finalized list of teams Leonard is expected to meet with, but Yahoo Sports' Chris Haynes reported Thursday that both Los Angeles teams, the Lakers and Clippers, will get a chance to pitch him, as well as the incumbent Raptors. The New York Knicks, who have been linked to Durant for the better part of a year but whose plans are in doubt following his Achilles injury, are also reportedly hoping to get an audience.

Leonard's choice will have wide-ranging implications for the rest of the league.

If he re-signs with the Raptors, they enter the 2019-20 season as the favorites to repeat as champions. With Marc Gasol opting into the final year of his contract, Danny Green is the only rotation player in danger of departing. Leonard would keep Toronto well-positioned to make another title run.

If Leonard leaves Toronto, no matter where he goes, it will take the defending champions out of next year's title discussion and open up the Eastern Conference in the process. The Milwaukee Bucks and Philadelphia 76ers are hoping to re-sign their own high-priced free agents and run back their cores from last season.

Milwaukee (60-22) had the best record in the NBA and made the Eastern Conference Finals, while only a Leonard Game 7 buzzer-beater kept Philadelphia from possibly eliminating the Raptors in the second round.

TORONTO, CANADA - JUNE 10: Kevin Durant #35 of the Golden State Warriors reacts to his leg injury during a game against the Toronto Raptors during Game Five of the NBA Finals on June 10, 2019 at Scotiabank Arena in Toronto, Ontario, Canada. NOTE TO USER:
Jesse D. Garrabrant/Getty Images

With Leonard out of the picture, it would be safe to pencil Bucks-Sixers into next year's Eastern Conference Finals, ensuring that either Giannis Antetokounmpo or Joel Embiid will add Finals experience and possibly a title to his resume.

If Leonard chooses a Los Angeles team, it would be a game-changer too. The Lakers are now armed with enough cap space to pair a max player with LeBron James and Anthony Davis after Davis agreed to waive his $4 million trade bonus and L.A. traded Mo Wagner, Isaac Bonga and Jemerrio Jones to the Washington Wizards, per ESPN's Adrian Wojnarowski, Zach Lowe and Bobby Marks.

There's been much debate about whether general manager Rob Pelinka should use that money to chase another big name or fill out the roster with several rotation players. Leonard is the one free agent on the market who would definitively be worth that money to L.A. A Big Three of Leonard, James and Davis would instantly make the Lakers the league's new superpower and the team to beat in the Western Conference.

The Clippers have been preparing to pursue Leonard for months. They already have a strong roster of good role players on cheap contracts, a deep-pocketed owner in Steve Ballmer and one of the NBA's most well-respected and accomplished coaches in Doc Rivers. Adding a superstar of Leonard's caliber would make them an instant contender, and they have a second max slot to continue to upgrade the roster once he's on board.

TORONTO, CANADA - MAY 12: Kawhi Leonard #2 of the Toronto Raptors shoots the game winning basket against the Philadelphia 76ers during Game Seven of the Eastern Conference Semi-Finals of the 2019 NBA Playoffs on May 12, 2019 at the Scotiabank Arena in Tor
David Dow/Getty Images

With the injuries to Durant and Thompson all but taking the Warriors out of contention next season, the Western Conference is as wide-open as it's been in years. Several teams—including the Lakers, Clippers, Utah Jazz, Denver Nuggets, Portland Trail Blazers and Houston Rockets—have legitimate cause to believe they can make a run to the Finals or at least be in the conversation. The Lakers or Clippers could separate themselves from the pack instantly by adding Leonard.

The Knicks appear to be a long shot to sign Leonard, with most of the buzz about his free agency centering on the Los Angeles teams and a reunion with the Raptors. However, if they were to defy the odds and land him, it would make them a force to be reckoned with in the East.

Durant's injury and Kyrie Irving's seemingly inevitable signing in Brooklyn have this summer shaping up to be a disaster scenario for New York after the franchise spent the last year making moves to pair those two stars. As Haynes noted, the Knicks are still hoping to get a meeting with Leonard, and convincing him to join would finally vault them back to contention while creating an attractive situation for future free agents.

Leonard's free-agency decision will also create major ripple effects for every team he doesn't choose. If Leonard leaves the Raptors, team president Masai Ujiri will have the opportunity to undertake the full rebuild he seemingly wanted to start in years past. Gasol, Kyle Lowry and Serge Ibaka would likely be put on the trade block, giving other contending teams the opportunity to acquire an impact player while the Raptors stockpile young talent and picks to retool around newly minted Most Improved Player Pascal Siakam.

If Leonard doesn't choose the Lakers, the team will be forced to decide whether to spend that money on a second-tier star in the Tobias Harris-Al Horford group or sign several less expensive players. The Warriors' injury problems and collapse in the Finals laid bare the merits of surrounding superstars with quality depth rather than building a top-heavy roster filled out by minimum players. Leonard is good enough to be worth that gamble; others in that price range may not be.

As for what Leonard will actually do, anyone who claims to know is lying.

If you're looking for evidence that he's going to the Raptors, Lakers or Clippers, you can find it. He recently took a photo with a fan while on vacation wearing a Blue Jays jersey, which would seem to point to a return to Toronto. Various conflicting reports about former Lakers president Magic Johnson's involvement in the team's pitch meeting would indicate his interest there is serious. ESPN's Jalen Rose is among those who believe Leonard doesn't want to team up with LeBron James, a school of thought that gives the Clippers a shot if Leonard leaves.

Some other top free agents' fates seem to be all but decided. But with just one day remaining before free agency kicks off, Leonard is still a mystery.

This free-agency period promises to be as eventful as any in recent memory. Golden State's downfall only makes it more so—and means Leonard's decision is the focus of the entire offseason.


Sean Highkin covers the NBA for Bleacher Report. He is currently based in Portland. Follow him on Twitter at @highkin.