Not since Kevin Durant’s move to Golden State has one player singularly dictated the future of the league. Kawhi Leonard’s free agency decision impact spreads well beyond Los Angeles and Toronto — every contending franchise awaits his decision because where Leonard goes, the Larry O’Brien trophy will follow.
LeBron James, the self-anointed greatest player of all-time, is grovelling. Propaganda is being peddled through the press that James will just willingly slide into a playmaking role, while Leonard and Anthony Davis seize the reigns, as if James has ever been the type to cede control. But then again, James has to lay it on thick because Leonard is his last chance at a guaranteed championship.
As for the great Lakers franchise, the biggest show in basketball with 16 banners hanging in the rafters, are flying blind without a backup. Every prospect and pick they had was shipped out to acquire Davis, leaving them with as many former head coaches as proven starters. Even in the best case scenario where Leonard signs, the Lakers would still need to fill out their roster with aging players on the veteran’s minimum. And if he doesn’t come, plan B involves scrounging on the best of the rest to salvage the twilight of James’ career.
Across town, the Clippers are just as desperate. They’ve devoted multiple years to this singular pursuit of Leonard, only to be third in a three-horse race. Lawrence Frank, the president of basketball operations, spent much of the season stalking Leonard’s every move. They’ve played the media as well as anyone, so much so that they hired one of the most celebrated basketball storytellers ever in Lee Jenkins to put down his pen. The front office unceremoniously dumped Blake Griffin, and later Tobias Harris, all in an effort to budget for Leonard and a second star of his choosing, and now that entire plan went to dust when all of the top-end talent flew off the board within the first few hours of free agency. Now they’re just left with selling unproven prospects and organizational stability.
Behind the scenes, one can only imagine how many shirts Steve Ballmer has sweat through since Sunday. Don’t forget that Ballmer is the richest owner in basketball, and he met a record-setting $2 billion price tag for the Clippers in 2015. He convinced The Logo himself in Jerry West to switch allegiances — which couldn’t have come cheap — and he’s shelling out roughly $10 million a year for Doc Rivers. Ballmer isn’t lighting money on fire just to squeak into the playoffs with Lou Williams and some middling youngsters — he’s trying to land a star, and still there are no assurances, not even a hint of anything, from Leonard.
Up north, this is a seminal moment for the reigning champions. Never before has Canada been so singularly captivated by one player — a basketball player no less — and more than just the title defense is at stake. An estimated 44 percent of Canadians tuned into the NBA Finals, and one tenth of the country spilled onto the streets in downtown Toronto for the championship parade. If Leonard stays, this could be the tipping point for an entire country. Hysteria already spilled over in the form of ardent fans staking out Leonard’s meeting on Wednesday, while a traffic helicopter was commandeered to trail his commute from the airport to the hotel.
For the franchise, Leonard staying could either be the start of a dynasty, or a return to square one. If defending a title isn’t enough, if having a world class organization and an innovative medical staff doesn’t suffice, if receiving a key to the city with the Prime Minister on hand, and an organic “Kawine and Dine” campaign doesn’t move the needle, then what more can the Raptors do? Are they doomed to always being second class in the eyes of American players?
The rest of the league is in a holding pattern. Houston, Denver, Utah, Portland, and Oklahoma City could potentially reach the Finals if Leonard avoids the Lakers, whereas the East would be decided between Philadelphia and Milwaukee so long as Leonard leaves Toronto. With Durant leaving Golden State, parity has finally been restored after more than a decade of superteams. Leonard can either choose to keep it even, or stack the deck in his favor.
Leonard, as always, is moving at his own pace. The never-ending deluge of spotty reporting around his decision has made this process feel arduous, but Leonard is only exposing just how little these so-called insiders actually know. Contrary to all the hasty prognostications, Leonard is exploring free agency for the first time after an exhausting playoff run that stretched well into June, and he is wisely gathering as much information as possible before making the biggest decision of his career. And he can take as much time as he wants, because the whole league is just waiting on Leonard to reshape it to his liking.
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