Pat Riley taught us, or maybe Kevin Garnett did first: If you are wooing a superstar — a true superstar, not a lower-level All-Star who happens to head some weak free-agency class — you’d better have another in house already. Maybe two.
The guys who swing championships don’t care about picks you’ve gathered, that 20-year-old point guard who looks like a future All-Star, the pristine cap sheet, how artfully you’ve manipulated Rodney McGruder‘s cap hold. The Clippers had all of that to sell Kawhi Leonard as they stalked him across the NBA for a year. It didn’t matter. Leonard wanted Paul George.
As my head was spinning with news of two intertwined deals — the trade for George and signing of Leonard — that reshape at least three franchises, my brain lingered briefly on two forgotten side plots: Blake Griffin and the Indiana Pacers.
Leonard wanted a star. Didn’t the Clippers still have one after trading Chris Paul to Houston? They re-signed Griffin amid much fanfare. Had they stood pat, they could have entered this summer with Patrick Beverley, Lou Williams, Montrezl Harrell, Jerome Robinson, Griffin, and about $40 million in cap space — enough to fit Leonard. In that scenario, there is no need for the Clippers to trade the Oklahoma City Thunder their unprotected first-round picks in 2022, 2024, and 2026 — and give Oklahoma City the right to swap first-rounders in the intervening years.
In that scenario, the Clippers never acquire the rest of the motherlode (and it is a freaking motherlode) they sent the Thunder: Shai Gilgeous-Alexander and two Miami Heat picks — the first acquired from Philadelphia in exchange for Tobias Harris (who was acquired in exchange for Griffin), the second as incentive for absorbing Maurice Harkless this week.
The Clippers wagered Griffin, with a worrisome injury history, would not have that sort of appeal. Despite the cost they paid for George — which was really the cost for a George/Leonard package anyway — they wagered correctly. Leonard understands the importance of star two-way wings, both in winning titles and in enabling his team to manage his playing time. I don’t think Griffin draws him to the Clippers.
The Clippers didn’t lose all the direct and indirect proceeds of the Griffin trade here, either. Landry Shamet remains. They turned one of Philadelphia’s picks (via Harris) into Mfiondu Kabengele with a draft-day trade. The extra financial wiggle room allowed them to snare Harkless and McGruder — rangy wings who fit alongside Leonard and give the Clippers even more leeway managing the ol’ load.
And now they have the best wing combination in the league. Leonard, George, and Beverley are going to terrorize people on defense. My god. Beware dribbling anywhere in their vicinity unless you are an expert point guard. George and Beverley can split duty defending the best opposing scorers so Leonard doesn’t have to overtax himself before it counts.
George works best as a second option on offense — he fit well with Russell Westbrook, which is not all that easy to do — and he can play that role in different ways, out of different actions, around Leonard’s jab-stepping and shoulder-checking and pitter-pat dribbles.
They are an ideal match. They have been tied together from the start of Leonard’s NBA career in the 2011 draft. On that night, Indiana and the San Antonio Spurs had agreed on a deal sending George Hill to the Pacers for the 15th pick — provided a certain player the Spurs wanted was still on the board. San Antonio would not tell the Pacers who it was. When Indiana discovered it was Leonard, they contemplated backing out of the deal; they had Leonard around No. 5 on their own draft board.
“When Kawhi ended up being there, we had to think about taking him,” David Morway, a key member of the Pacers’ front office at the time told me in 2013. “But we already had Danny Granger and Paul George. That’s what made it a little easier for us.”
We already had Paul George. Eight years later, the Clippers have both square in their primes. (Side note: Boston had a shot to get both too, but that is a complicated story.) They likely enter next season as favorites in the West — and perhaps title favorites.
Their age gives the Clippers a little more insurance against injury, and the doomsday Brooklyn Nets-style downside of coughing up multiple high picks to the Thunder. But that downside still exists. We cannot highlight the risk the Lakers took on in forking over a half-decade’s worth of draft equity to the Pelicans in the Anthony Davis deal without acknowledging that the Clippers did the same here.
The Clippers’ star duo is younger on average than Anthony Davis and LeBron James. The Clippers’ recent history of relative front-office competence gives you faith they would be more nimble handling unfavorable twists. And those twists will happen. Nothing goes according to plan in the NBA anymore. The move in 2011 to reduce the length of player contracts has revolutionized the league. Stars are always close enough to free agency to flex their power. The extra year incumbent teams can offer means less and less. No one is immune to injury. Projecting five years ahead is folly.
This was the cost of nabbing Leonard and George, and it was worth it if the alternative was nabbing neither — as it appeared to be. The Clippers had built a nice safety net for such a blow. They could run back a plucky, likable playoff-level team and seek other ways to use cap space and extra picks. But this summer has hammered home the lesson (again) that cap space and extra picks don’t mean all that much until you turn some of them into Star No. 1. Who were the Clippers’ next reasonable candidates for that designation? You won’t find them in the 2020 free-agency class.
Meanwhile, the draft of my free-agency winners and losers column (coming soon) contains this line about the Thunder: I am weirdly worried about Oklahoma City, considering they won 48 games with the league’s ninth-best point differential. It felt like they were trapped into a roster that had peaked. Any uptick in shooting from Westbrook would probably balance out a slight downturn from George’s MVP-level performance. They were in salary-cap prison, a notch below the best teams in the West — a more crowded group today than it was a month ago.
It seems obvious now, but the Thunder had to know their only way out was to trade George. Steven Adams has limited trade value on his near-max contract. Westbrook’s supermax, which will pay him $47 million in 2022-23, is a straight-up albatross. They may mind-trick some dumb team into taking it at some point, but the Thunder have to assume Westbrook carries negative trade value.
(Sam Presti, Oklahoma City’s GM, “pursued a package” of Westbrook and George to the Raptors late Friday as he attempted to leverage Toronto and the Clippers against each other — and, in the case of the Clippers, against the threat of a superteam in the same building — knowing that Leonard wanted George and George wanted out, sources told ESPN’s Adrian Wojnarowski. It is unclear how interested the Raptors were in taking on Westbrook if it were to cost them Pascal Siakam. Toronto “couldn’t keep up” with the Clippers’ outlay of picks anyway, Wojnarowski reported.)
They don’t escape from cap jail with this trade, though they get some relief from the luxury tax — and a good player on a movable contract in Danilo Gallinari. They do get a road map for a post-Westbrook future.
Gilgeous-Alexander is a stud. I’d bet on him making multiple All-Star teams. The Thunder now almost draft on behalf of three teams — themselves, the Heat, and the Clippers. Miami has more downside than the revamped Clips, though they insulated themselves some by acquiring their own Star No. 1 in Jimmy Butler. They are set up to chase Stars No. 2 and 3 in the summer of 2021 — as is much of the league. A Miami team with one star and massive cap space is scary.
Regardless: This is a haul for Oklahoma City. In five or six years, the Thunder may come out of this as the biggest winners. Think about it like this: In a roundabout way, they turned Serge Ibaka (starting with the 2017 deal sending Ibaka to Orlando for Victor Oladipo and the pick that became Domantas Sabonis) into everything they got in this deal. Even if Presti got roped into the proceedings late, he did a remarkable job making the best of it.
The Thunder may try to flip Westbrook and Adams, and enter a full-on rebuild. Even if they can’t, they have already snared a lot of the proceeds of a full-on rebuild. They could even go the other way. They have enough ammo to make a real offer for Bradley Beal — Billy Donovan coached Beal in college — and still have extra assets leftover. Their tolerance for luxury-tax pain looms large in pursuing any such deals. [Update: Wojnarowski reports that both Westbrook and the Thunder “understand that the time has likely come to explore trade possibilities for Westbrook.”]
As is, they might still contend for one of the last two playoff spots in the West, though at first blush I would probably pick them to (barely) miss the postseason. Gallinari was a borderline All-Star last season and can work as the stretch power forward the Thunder haven’t had since Ibaka kinda, sorta became one. Oklahoma City can play Gallinari and Jerami Grant together at power forward and center, or even steal some minutes with Gallinari as a wing. Andre Roberson is presumably coming back. But their present-day ceiling is obviously lower.
Losing out on Leonard stings for the Lakers, even if they recovered well to dot the roster around Davis and LeBron with capable players. They still have two of the league’s five best players. They will contend in the West next season. It was worth waiting on Leonard. He is that good. A LeBron-Davis-Leonard trio would have wrought devastation given good health and a semi-reasonable supporting cast.
It will be harder for the Lakers to add that third star now in either the summer of 2020 or 2021. Just the salary owed Davis, James, and Luol Deng via the stretch provision — the latter hilariously lingering on the Lakers’ books through 2022 — leaves them short of projected max cap space in both offseasons. And that does not include a dime for Kyle Kuzma, their first-round picks, or any of the deals they signed in the wake of Leonard’s late-night aftershock.
Leonard would have been the perimeter star to take the ball-handling torch from LeBron. They must find that player eventually.
Adrian Wojnarowski says the LA Clippers took the advantage in the Kawhi Leonard sweepstakes when they traded for Paul George.
The Raptors, meanwhile, understood what they were getting into when they traded for Leonard. They knew he had wanted Los Angeles, and that he might leave in free agency regardless of how the season played out. They knew Leonard bolting would leave them without a franchise tentpole, and with almost all of their key veterans — Kyle Lowry, Serge Ibaka, eventually Marc Gasol — in the final year of their contracts. The only alternative might be rebuilding around Siakam, OG Anunoby, Fred VanVleet, and the collective draft acumen of an elite front office.
They were fine with all of that. A trade — even one as big as Toronto’s swing for Leonard — is not a gamble if the team executing it sees no downside. The DeMar DeRozan version of the Raptors had run its course. LeBron — Toronto’s Voldemort — leaving the conference did not change that.
Losing DeRozan, Jakob Poeltl and a low first-round pick meant little to the Raptors beyond nostalgia. Every other Leonard suitor had something real to lose, something that would at least make you think — Jaylen Brown, Brandon Ingram, whatever. Toronto was tethered to nothing.
They had been ready to rebuild for years anyway. They would take one shot at glory in the meantime. It worked. They won a title. That is the entire point of this enterprise. Winning even one is hard. They got one. They win the Kawhi Leonard trade forever. And now they move on.
They will surely investigate trades for Lowry, Ibaka, and Gasol. It’s unclear whether those guys on expiring deals will net meaningful assets. Ujiri will try. He does not like losing players for nothing. He doesn’t have to rush. The Raptors excelled when Leonard rested last season. They still have a good, tough, savvy team — a strong playoff team. There is nothing wrong with taking a feel-good one-season victory lap.
But they are not a contender. The East may be down to just two of those — Milwaukee and Philadelphia — until Kevin Durant returns.
The West now has two contenders in one city. The Clippers have work to do rounding out their roster. They could use another dash of point guard ball-handling atop Beverley and Williams, and some more big bodies. But they are going to be awesome.
Leonard’s discontent with San Antonio warped the league perhaps more than any other event over the last decade-plus aside from LeBron’s free-agency decisions. San Antonio’s draft-day swap for Leonard would have otherwise gone down as one of the greatest trades in NBA history.
For a league-average starting point guard in Hill, the Spurs had found an annual future MVP candidate. Leonard was 22 when he won the 2014 Finals MVP. Three years later, he was a credible candidate for league MVP. With Leonard, San Antonio was positioned to be a 50-plus-win contender through, what, 2025? He could have carried the Spurs beyond 30 years of consistent excellence. That is unheard of in the NBA.
Perhaps nothing is meant to last so long anymore. The relationship between player and team deteriorated, and the league has never been the same. The Clippers now get their chance at sustained excellence. Let’s see what they do with it.