As a wise master once said, “always in motion is the future.” This expression is particularly true when it comes to the enigmatic Kawhi Leonard.
While staying the course and remaining in Los Angeles seems to be the most likely outcome of Leonard’s potential free agency (it’s still not certain that he’ll be opting out of the final year of his current contract), NBA insider Marc Stein reported last week that “the notion that Leonard is unattainable seems to be waning a bit as the Aug. 2 start of free agency nears.”
If there is even a shred of doubt in Leonard’s mind, teams are going to smell blood in the water and prepare free agency pitches. According to The Ringer’s Kevin O’Connor, several teams have already reportedly shown interest in the All-NBA First-Teamer, and the market seems unperturbed by his partially-torn ACL for which he had surgery earlier this month.
With that being said, here are a few teams (more are bound to come out of the woodwork) that will attempt to lure Leonard away from his hometown team.
It’s now or never with the Mavericks in terms of free agency, as this summer will be their last without Luka Doncic’s inevitable max extension on their salary sheet. With some maneuvering, they’ll be able to create max cap space or execute a sign-and-trade with LA to acquire Leonard.
It would be a confounding inverse of the “Kevin Durant: My Next Chapter” free agency signing, as Leonard would be joining the team that he’s ousted in the postseason two years in a row. Even still, a Doncic/Leonard pairing would be terrifying enough to keep any opposing team awake at night. Doncic is the ultimate playmaker, but Leonard’s offensive brilliance would take some of the burden off of the 22-year-old superstar. He’d also give them some much-needed defense on the wing. It’s a testament to Leonard’s versatility that he’d likely fit seamlessly alongside such a high-usage player like Doncic thanks to his spot-up shooting ability.
O’Connor cited Leonard’s relationship with newly hired Mavericks’ General Manager Nico Harrison as a reason why he might bolt to Dallas. Harrison was once an executive at Nike when Leonard was sponsored by the shoe brand.
Unlike the Mavericks, the Heat will not be able to clear max cap space to sign Leonard outright, so a sign-and-trade would be the only avenue. One would think this would deter Leonard, as the Heat would be forced to send away quite a bit of their depth in order to acquire him.
That said, if Miami forms a core of Leonard, Jimmy Butler and Bam Adebayo, it almost doesn’t matter who the other nine players on the roster are. The defensive versatility of those three stars is mind-boggling; they’d be able to implement a switching scheme that would rival that of the Golden State Warriors at their peak.
For Clippers fans, this scenario would be the least painful if Leonard decides to walk, as they’d likely be getting some sort of package involving Duncan Robinson and/or Tyler Herro in return. This is the equivalent of having your steak replaced with two mini-cheeseburger sliders, but hey, at least you’re eating something.
New York Knicks
A year ago, this would’ve been a laughable notion. But for the first time in eight years, the Knicks proved competent enough to make the Eastern Conference Playoffs, and seemed to have established a professional and desirable team culture in the process. They have the cap space to sign Leonard outright, and can pitch All-NBA Second-Team forward Julius Randle as a co-star for Leonard to go to war with.
Would this team be better than last year’s Clippers team? Probably not. Is the East as bad as it once was? Not at the top, particularly when the Knicks’ cross-river rival is healthy. But it’s the Big Apple, and free agents will always be at least intrigued by the idea of ending the 49-year championship drought for one of the largest and most iconic markets in all of sports.
The question of whether last year’s Clippers team is better can be realistically asked for any of the options above. Leonard will never know how far his team could’ve gone had he not gone down with his ACL injury in the Conference Semifinals. Perhaps a desire to answer this “what-if” will be what keeps him around in LA.