- Kawhi Leonard’s decision to join the Clippers is the best possible outcome for the NBA. With Paul George at his side, and LeBron and AD across town, the landscape of the league has never been more fascinating.
On Friday night in Las Vegas, everyone at NBA Summer League learned about something called a "foreshock." That's the term used to describe a smaller earthquake that precedes a bigger earthquake on the same fault line. I learned about foreshocks as I was checking Twitter while fans filed out of the Thomas & Mack Center. A 90-second earthquake—the second and larger of two quakes in two days—had just shaken the building and forced organizers to cancel the remainder of the Pelicans-Knicks game. All of this came during a night that also featured LeBron James and Anthony Davis sitting front row while Zion Williamson made his NBA debut in front of a sold–out crowd of fans making the pilgrimage from all across the country. I figured an earthquake nightcap would be the craziest NBA event of the evening.
Then Kawhi Leonard ended a five-day odyssey and signed with the Clippers, Paul George was traded to L.A. for two players and five first–round picks, the Lakers filled out their roster with Danny Green and Kentavious Caldwell-Pope, and Patrick Beverley was in the middle of a casino filming a video of himself with Lou Williams. "Don't. Talk. To. Us," Beverley said. "The prices just went up," Williams added.
In the days to come there will be plenty of time to sort through what just happened and how it affects everyone involved, but for now, let's just start here: Friday night's Kawhi decision was the best possible outcome for the NBA. Partnering with Paul George in L.A. is better than Leonard returning to Toronto for a Raptors team that was unlikely to recapture the magic of the run we just watched, and it's better than joining LeBron James and Anthony Davis on a superteam that nobody needed.
On the Raptors side of that spectrum: It was assumed by many that Kawhi returning to Toronto would make them the best team in the East. Are we sure about that? It took out-of-body performances from Fred VanVleet to survive the Bucks, and they needed one of the greatest buzzer-beaters in playoff history to beat the 76ers, a team that was playing with 60% of Joel Embiid this spring, and a team that just added Al Horford and Josh Richardson this summer. I would have enjoyed seeing Kawhi return to Toronto, and much of what's exciting about this new Clippers era would also have been true if the Raptors had also been his choice. But as perfectly as Toronto played its hand this year, the supporting cast is getting older, and has been for a while now. Those obstacles are part of what made this spring's run so satisfying, but it also makes the future harder to trust. If winning is the goal for Kawhi and entertainment is the goal for basketball fans, teaming up with Paul George, Lou Williams and Montrezl Harrell is a safer bet than the idea of running it back in Toronto with Pascal Siakam and Kyle Lowry.
As for the Lakers side of this: I spent most of the past week arguing with myself about whether Kawhi on the Lakers would be a good thing. All along, it was the audacity of that particular possibility—that the most dominant player in the playoffs could win a title and immediately leave that title team to join forces with LeBron James and Anthony Davis—that kept Kawhi's free agency at the center of sports news every single hour for the past 96 hours. Whatever he decided was always going to be a big story, but if Kawhi had been choosing between the Raptors and Clippers all along, there would have been roughly half the drama, and half the interest. It was that nuclear Lakers option that forced the entire world to pay attention and wonder about the possibilities.
If Kawhi had actually signed with the Lakers, that energy was not going to disappear, and the next 12 months would have been fun in an anarchist sort of way. The AD/Kawhi/LeBron Lakers would have been heroes to some and an evil empire to many more, but everyone would have watched them navigate everything that came next. How would Kawhi fit next to LeBron? Would AD be turned into Kevin Love, or would LeBron delegate more than we've ever seen before? When things break down, who would be in charge? Pelinka? Rich Paul? Frank Vogel? Also, and maybe most importantly: if the Lakers were going to pay max money to AD/Kawhi/LeBron, who else would be on the roster? Or, alternately: Davis, Leonard, and James would have a decent claim as the greatest Big Three ever, or at least the most talented. Would the other pieces even matter?
In any case, it's for the best that the NBA didn’t go that direction. As much as I enjoyed the idea of the Lakers driving the entire NBA insane and then remaining vulnerable enough for a handful of teams to have a shot at beating them, it's important to acknowledge the reality that most regular people would find all of this annoying. LeBron raiding other teams for superstars is a story that we've seen before, and it's not one we necessarily needed again.
As for superteams: they're fine in general, but we just lived through an era in which Kevin Durant took the concept to its extreme joined the nucleus of a 73-win team and rendered two straight playoff runs a formality. If there were ever a time to err on the side of caution and exercise some restraint, this is it. A super-charged Lakers team would have been a lot more complicated and more interesting than the KD Warriors ever were, but the founding principal and prevailing perception would be awfully similar. It wouldn’t even matter that most people complaining would be overstating the inevitability of Lakers titles. Kawhi on the Lakers would have been a symbol of obscene excess and a valid reason for fans to roll their eyes at how the NBA conducts its business.
This Clippers alternative is so much better. No one needed to spend the next 24 months sleepwalking through debates about whether the Lakers are bad for the NBA, but we were going to do it anyway. Instead, George and Kawhi and Beverley will create the most horrifying perimeter defense on earth, Kawhi and George will try to carry an elite offense, and there will be room for challengers. The Lakers aren't going to disappear, the Jazz are loaded, the Nuggets and Rockets will return almost everyone, the Warriors will be scary when Klay gets back, and the Bucks and Sixers will be waiting in the East all year. Even with the Clippers leading the pack of contenders, there will be at least eight teams who enter next season knowing they have a very real shot at the NBA title.
It all began with Zion, LeBron, AD, a million draft picks going to OKC, and a literal earthquake. Now, as the dust begins to settle, this new landscape is refreshing.