Kawhi Leonard Rumors: Star to Decline Clippers Contract Option, Start LAC Talks

Adam Wells@adamwells1985Featured ColumnistAugust 1, 2021

Los Angeles Clippers forward Kawhi Leonard dribbles during an NBA basketball game against the Phoenix Suns Thursday, April 8, 2021, in Los Angeles. (AP Photo/Marcio Jose Sanchez)
Marcio Jose Sanchez/Associated Press

For the second time in three years, Kawhi Leonard will become a free agent after reportedly declining his player option with the Los Angeles Clippers

According to Adrian Wojnarowski of ESPN, the 30-year-old has turned down his $36 million salary for the 2021-22 season. Wojnarowski noted the expectation is Leonard will negotiate a new deal to remain with the Clippers. 

Leonard remains a dominant player when he's healthy, but his minutes have been carefully managed in recent seasons. The five-time All-Star missed the Clippers' final eight playoff games in 2021 with an unspecified knee injury. 

The team announced on July 13 that Leonard underwent surgery to repair a partially torn ACL but did not specify a return timetable. 

Prior to the knee issue, Leonard was averaging 30.4 points on 57.3 percent shooting with 7.7 rebounds and 4.4 assists per contest in 11 playoff games. 

Leonard's decision to opt out wasn't totally unexpected, though it doesn't mean he is looking to leave Los Angeles. 

In April, Sam Amick and John Hollinger of The Athletic reported executives around the NBA were expecting him to re-sign with the Clippers. As a 10-year veteran, he will be eligible for the 35 percent max extension worth at least $39,344,970 per season. 

Obviously, things can change when other teams get in on the bidding. ESPN's Brian Windhorst named the Miami Heat as a possible destination for Leonard in March. 

The five-time All-Star was half of the Clippers' bounty during the 2019 offseason. He helped orchestrate Paul George's trade to Los Angeles, though it came at a steep price with the Clippers sending Shai Gilgeous-Alexander, Danilo Gallinari, first-round picks in 2021 (from Miami Heat), 2022, 2023 (from Miami Heat), 2024 and 2026, and the right to swap first-round picks in 2023 and 2025.

The Clippers signed Leonard to a three-year, $103.1 million deal in July 2019, and he helped them become one of the best teams in the Western Conference right away. They had the second-best record in the West (49-23) but flamed out in the second round after blowing a 3-1 lead to the Denver Nuggets

Prior to the start of this season, Jovan Buha of The Athletic detailed some of the chemistry issues the Clippers had in 2019-20. He noted some team members were upset that Leonard and George were given preferential treatment, including personal security guards, trainers and power over the practice schedule.

Despite some apparent internal strife, George committed to Los Angeles by signing a four-year, $190 million extension that tied him to the team through the 2023-24 season with a player option for 2024-25.  

The Clippers had another strong regular season in 2020-21. They were the No. 4 seed in the West with a 47-25 record and had the second-best net rating (plus-6.2) in the conference. 

Things didn't work out the way Leonard would have liked in the postseason. The Clippers wound up losing to the Phoenix Suns in the Western Conference Finals without their superstar.

Leonard has averaged 26.0 points on 48.8 percent shooting, 6.8 rebounds and 5.0 assists per game in 109 starts over the past two seasons.