Kawhi Leonard and Paul George are not unlike a growing number of NBA stars willing to team up for a common goal: The championship. It has become the norm in today’s NBA, where recruiting is starting to rival that in college, where backroom negotiating and long-term planning is just as strategic as a play drawn up by a coach during timeout.
But this shocking union, which changed the fortunes of the Clippers overnight, was different from the others in this respect: Leonard and George didn’t want to join LeBron James. They wanted to beat LeBron James.
As the battle for basketball supremacy begins in earnest next season in Los Angeles -- and by extension, perhaps league supremacy as well -- this must be stressed: For the second time in as many summers, two All-Stars declined the chance to become teammates with one of the game’s greatest players of all time.
George was arguably the biggest unrestricted free agent in July of 2018 and all signs pointed toward L.A. and the Lakers at the time. Actually, the George-to-the-Lakers campaign first gained steam a year before, when George entered the final year of his contract with the Pacers and requested a trade. Not long after that, Magic Johnson did his famous “wink-wink” reaction on “Jimmy Kimmel Live” when asked by the host if he thought the Lakers had a good chance at getting George.
As it turned out, George was traded to Oklahoma City, where he bonded quickly with Russell Westbrook, a ball-dominant point guard whose style doesn’t agree with everyone, certainly not Kevin Durant, who bailed on Westbrook the previous year for the Warriors. When George and Westbrook lost in the first round that year to Utah, it only fed the perception that George was all but packaged to join LeBron with the Lakers.
And yet, George pulled a stunner, re-signed with OKC and was thrown a party by Westbrook. George then had the best season of his career and finished third in the 2018-19 MVP balloting.
As that scenario played itself out, another brewed halfway across the country: Leonard and the Spurs were in the midst of a breakup and once again, the Lakers lurked.
Spurs coach and president Gregg Popovich wanted no part in helping a rival, however, and sent Leonard to the Raptors, about as far away possible from the Lakers. There, Leonard served his year in exile rather spectacularly, lifting the Raptors to their first-ever championship and then reaching free agency and the chance to give LeBron a Finals MVP as a teammate.
This time, the enticement was even greater for Leonard than it was for George: LeBron also had Anthony Davis in the fold, and the chance to add another top-10 player would make the Lakers a strong favorite to sip champagne in 2020.
There’s an obvious appeal to be teammates with LeBron. He’s the most unselfish scorer in league history, evident by his staggering number of career assists, far better than anyone who averaged 30 points in a season. Plus, LeBron commands much of the off-court attention, allowing others to lead a less demanding existence in terms of criticism.
Plus, LeBron by all accounts is a generous teammate, willing to share his endorsement perks with even the 12th man, and always anxious to include teammates into his exclusive social world.
And yet: Leonard not only declined the chance to suit up next to LeBron, but successfully recruited George to leave OKC and join him with the goal of beating LeBron as well as putting the Clippers in position for an NBA takeover.
Actually, George was Leonard’s second choice. Days before free agency opened on June 30, Leonard reached out to Kevin Durant to gauge his interest, but Durant by then was already committed to the Nets. With the number of impact free agents dwindling quickly, Kawhi and his camp turned their attention to players already under contract, and George was a natural choice, though an unexpected one.
Like Kawhi, George grew up about 25 miles from L.A. and at least part of him yearned to return closer to home. Also, both are scorers who double as elite defenders who can guard multiple positions, and there may not be another player like either in the NBA. George and Kawhi are perennial members of the league’s All-Defensive team. In that sense, the league has never seen a pair of wing teammates with such a balance since Michael Jordan and Scottie Pippen with the Bulls.
Once you consider the Clippers also have tenacious guard Pat Beverley, their calling card next season and beyond will be defense, and this versatility will give coach Doc Rivers many options to choose and schemes to create.
Anyway: The conversations between Kawhi and George obviously were mutual and deep enough to force OKC and the Clippers into action once George requested a trade. Sam Presti, the GM with the Thunder, was taken aback. Yet, Presti also wanted to do right by George if only because of what George did for OKC and Presti last summer; the GM was under severe pressure to keep George, who cost Presti a promising young forward in Domantas Sabonis and also scoring guard Victor Oladipo, both sent to Indiana.
That said, Presti was clever in his asking price from the Clippers. He wanted a batch of first-round picks, but not any ordinary first-rounders. He wanted picks that kick in just when Kawhi and George are in their late 30s or possibly retired. That way, those picks will likely be at their premium with the Clippers potentially cratering with aging stars or starting a rebuilding process. So OKC gets four unprotected picks outright, one protected for 1-14, and two unprotected first-round swaps.
OKC basically owns the Clippers’ future.
But the Clippers wanted ownership on the present. And speaking of ownership, Steve Ballmer gave GM Lawrence Frank and consultant Jerry West the freedom to win now and worry later. Curiously, West recommended the Clippers trade Blake Griffin last summer right after Griffin signed an extension; this was done to keep salary cap flexibility with 2019 free agency in mind.
While this was ongoing, the player left scratching his head today is LeBron.
Yes, LeBron did at least get Davis, but Davis was already part of LeBron’s inner circle, as a client of Klutch Sports, the management firm formed by LeBron. And so, to summarize: LeBron never managed to get free agents to Cleveland, unless you count his aging pal Dwyane Wade, and the same now goes for the Lakers. His only taste of a championship happened when he left his team for another, in this case, Cleveland for Miami.
The snubbing of LeBron for the second time in two years serves as the tasty subplot of what just happened with the Clippers. And if the Clippers, long considered LA’s second-class team because of their lack of rich history and titles, deny LeBron a championship here in his twilight, how much of a coincidence will that be?
The basketball pulse in the NBA next season will be mostly concentrated in Los Angeles and split by the two teams that play in the same building. The motivation for the Lakers is to salvage what’s left of LeBron’s career and affix another banner in the rafters. For the Clippers, it’s to raise their first banner and, as best they can, snatch a snippet of the attention and respect the Lakers enjoy in LA.
LeBron James can either beat a pair of stars who wanted no part of being his teammate. Or he can lose and make the basketball world understand why Kawhi Leonard and Paul George chose a different path.
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