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NBA Free Agency Is on Fire, but Kawhi Leonard Still Controls Everything

NBA free agency isn't about KD, Kyrie or Kemba. It’s about where Kawhi Leonard will land. His decision could alter the entire power structure of the NBA next season.

This will be brief, since I imagine there will be breaking news at any moment that renders this obsolete. This is just a public service announcement for anyone who's head is still spinning after Day 1 of NBA free agency. The entire league is picking up the pieces now, and if there is one thing that's become clear, it's that Kawhi Leonard is the most powerful person in the NBA. Kevin Durant's move to Brooklyn is freighted with uncertainty and a long recovery timetable, Jimmy Butler went to Miami and the Heat face a similarly uncertain future, Kemba Walker will make the Celtics good, not great, while Steph Curry is getting ready to anchor a new and very strange era of the Warriors alongside D'Angelo Russell.

It turns out that free agency isn't about any of those guys. The future of the league depends on what Kawhi decides. If he chooses to stay in Toronto, the Eastern Conference becomes a royal rumble between the Raptors, Bucks, and Sixers. If he goes to the Clippers, an additional contender emerges out of thin air while the Lakers are left scrambling to fill out the roster with spare parts. In that scenario, there would be at least 10 teams who enter the year believing they have a shot at an NBA title. 

Or he could land with the Lakers. Kawhi on a team with LeBron James and Anthony Davis would infuriate half the basketball-loving public, it would create a new superteam to fill the vacuum created by Golden State's sudden mortality, and it would leave us with millions of Lakers fans crawling all over everyone like the zombies in World War Z. The Lakers would enter next year as the biggest story in basketball and the entire league would orbit around them. There would be interesting fit questions. There would be tough decisions as the Lakers fill the remainder of the roster. There would be significantly less margin for error than there was for the KD Warriors, but the Lakers would enter next year as the clear-cut title favorites. Without Kawhi, LeBron and AD are still great and plenty powerful, but they'll be counting on guys like Danny Green and hoping that Andre Iguodala is set free by the Grizzlies.

Those are the scenarios in play at the moment. The Lakers look like a slight favorite, but that may only be a reflection of how well Lakers fans amplify literally any report that favors them. All we know for sure is that Kawhi didn't take any meetings on Day 1: As Chris Haynes of Yahoo! Sports reports, "He'll ramp up the process over the next several days."

Additionally, ESPN's Ramona Shelburne said this on ESPN's The Jump last night: 

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On that same show, ESPN's Dave McMenamin said that teams aren't even 100% sure that they will get a meeting with Leonard. 

Shelburne responded by theorizing that maybe the confusion surrounding the meetings is part of a "loyalty test": 

There are many things to say about NBA free agency this summer, but first and foremost, it is genuniely incredible how little anyone has known about what Kawhi will do, how he will do it, or why he will do it. It's a perfect way to bookend one of the most chaotic offseasons of all time, and probably a good reminder that the less anyone actually knows about free agency, the more interesting it becomes. 

The appeal of free agency isn't rooted in the breaking news. It's about studying All-Star Game videos, decoding press conferences, reading Reddit conspiracy theories, tracking who vacationed with whom. Any of this behavior is embarassing to explain among civilized people who don't follow the NBA, but it's part of being a basketball fan today. There are leaks. Smokescreens. Competing agendas. Woj bombs. Instagram announcements.

Now the most dramatic decision of all belongs to the person who has refused to engage with any of it.