The news the basketball world has been waiting for since free agency began on July 1 broke last night at around 11 P.M. Pacific Time. NBA Finals MVP Kawhi Leonard had finally made his decision, choosing to join the Los Angeles Clippers via free agency over the Toronto Raptors and Los Angeles Lakers.
But that wasn’t all. The reason for the extended wait on Leonard’s decision also became clear as it turned out that the two-time NBA Champion had been orchestrating some behind-the-scenes moves trying to convince Oklahoma City Thunder superstar Paul George to join the team by requesting a trade to the Clippers.
The plan came to fruition. George requested a trade from the Oklahoma City Thunder and the Thunder obliged, sending the veteran small forward to the Clippers in exchange for a record haul of four unprotected first-round picks, one protected first-round pick, two pick swaps and two players in Shai Gilgeous-Alexander and Danilo Gallinari. And just like that, the Clippers have one of the best 1-2 punches in the NBA.
Kawhi Leonard held the power this offseason
Leonard had one of the most impressive postseason runs in NBA history last season. After recording his best regular season to date with averages of 26.6 points, 7.3 rebounds and 3.3 assists per game, Leonard ramped up his production even further in the playoffs averaging 30.5 points, 9.1 rebounds and 3.9 assists as he led the Toronto Raptors to their first NBA Championship in franchise history.
Entering the prime of his career at 28 years old, Kawhi Leonard already doesn’t have much left to prove. The 15th overall pick in the 2011 NBA Draft out of San Diego State has won NBA Defensive Player of the Year honors twice and is a two-time NBA Champion and NBA Finals MVP. As a Southern California native, it made sense that Leonard would choose to return to Los Angeles in his first stint as an unrestricted free agent.
ESPN’s Ramona Shelburne reports that Kawhi Leonard first tried to recruit Kevin Durant to the Clippers, but when Durant decided to stick to his original plan of joining the Brooklyn Nets, Leonard turned his attention to fellow SoCal native Paul George. The former Raptor reportedly didn’t want to create a super-team with the Los Angeles Lakers but also didn’t want to join the Clippers without pairing up with another superstar. He got his wish in George.
Leonard didn’t put up gaudy numbers in his time with the San Antonio Spurs as a team-first player under Head Coach Gregg Popovich, making the NBA All-Star Team only twice in his seven seasons in San Antonio. But after his run through the playoffs last season and this dramatic move to Los Angeles, Kawhi Leonard’s days as an underrated and overlooked star in the NBA are over.
Paul George has his best opportunity at an NBA Championship
Paul George joined the NBA one year before Kawhi Leonard and has had an impressive career to date, making the NBA All-Star Team six times, the NBA All-Defensive Second Team twice and the All-Defensive First Team twice as well. Like Leonard, he is also entering his prime and coming off of the best season of his NBA career.
George emerged as a legitimate NBA MVP and NBA Defensive Player of the Year candidate in 2018-19. He racked up career highs of 28 points, 8.2 rebounds and 4.1 assists for the Oklahoma City Thunder, all while playing defense at an elite level. But despite his excellent season, the Thunder were eliminated from the NBA Playoffs in just five games.
Oklahoma City took a gamble before the start of the 2017-18 season in acquiring Paul George in a trade with the Indiana Pacers. George was set to become a free agent at the end of that season and had made his intentions of signing with the Los Angeles Lakers clear. But the gamble paid off for the Thunder as George enjoyed playing in Oklahoma City so much that he resigned with the team on a four-year deal.
Maybe George’s contentment in Oklahoma City changed after another failed playoff run with Russell Westbrook. Or maybe he just couldn’t resist the temptation to return to Southern California with such a prime opportunity to win a championship. Whatever the case may be, George’s decision to request a trade put the wheels of this blockbuster in motion.
The Los Angeles Clippers are a contender
The Los Angeles Clippers have a history of being one of the worst NBA franchises of all time. Since joining the league as the Buffalo Braves in 1970, this franchise has won exactly five playoff series. The Clippers have never advanced past the second round.
Those days of futility are over.
Since buying the team in 2014, team owner Steve Ballmer has lived up to his promise of pouring money and resources into this team and its facilities to turn the Clippers into a legitimate contender. Los Angeles’s excellent asset management and long term planning put the team in position to make these moves, and the “win now” portion of the plan finally begins in 2019-20.