Kawhi Leonard is coming home to Southern California to play for an unexpected underdog and, in an unforeseen twist, to play with a high-profile sidekick.
After five days of rumors and anxious waiting, the 2019 Finals MVP has decided to sign a four-year, $144 million max contract with the Los Angeles Clippers in free agency, snubbing his other two finalists — the Toronto Raptors and Los Angeles Lakers — in stunning fashion.
The agreement was first reported by Yahoo Sports, and league sources confirmed it to The Washington Post.
Leonard, the crown jewel of the NBA’s 2019 free agency class, will reportedly be joined by all-star forward Paul George, who will arrive to the Clippers via a blockbuster trade with the Oklahoma City Thunder. ESPN.com reported that the Thunder will receive forward Danilo Gallinari, guard Shai Gilgeous-Alexander, and five first-round picks in the deal.
This league-altering series of events is a signature triumph for the Clippers, who have long played second fiddle to the Lakers in Los Angeles and will now emerge as one of the favorites to win the Western Conference in 2020.
Leonard, 28, averaged 26.6 points, 7.3 rebounds and 3.3 assists last season, before taking his game to new heights in a postseason run for the ages. He leaves Toronto after a memorable season in which the Raptors unseated the Golden State Warriors to win the first title of their 24-year franchise history, turning down the possibility of a five-year, $190 million max contract to stay.
By returning to L.A., Leonard completes a circuitous basketball journey that began as a high school star in Riverside, Calif. After two standout seasons at San Diego State, Leonard spent his first seven seasons with the San Antonio Spurs.
Despite winning a title and his first Finals MVP in 2014, Leonard’s relationship with the Spurs broke down in 2017 while he dealt with a nagging leg injury. That impasse led the Raptors to roll the dice and trade for Leonard last summer, even though reports at the time suggested he had interest in joining the Lakers.
One year later, Leonard exits Canada and returns home with no unfinished business. The three-time all-star averaged 30.5 points, 9.1 rebounds and 3.9 assists during Toronto’s title run, earning widespread recognition as the league’s best player during the playoffs.
In Game 7 of the Eastern Conference semis, he hit a buzzer-beater that bounced on the rim four times to eliminate the Philadelphia 76ers. In the Eastern Conference finals, his defense on 2019 NBA MVP Giannis Antetokounmpo helped Toronto dig out of an 0-2 hole to eliminate the Milwaukee Bucks in six games. Then, in the Finals, he outdueled Stephen Curry and lifted the steady Raptors past the Warriors.
The Clippers made little secret of their interest in Leonard, dispatching front office staffers to attend his games throughout the season and floating out various team-up scenarios with the likes of Kevin Durant and Jimmy Butler.
The central tenets of the Clippers’ pitch: Leonard could return home and be the face of a franchise that was solely focused on basketball, eschewing the shadow of LeBron James and the circuslike atmosphere that has surrounded the Lakers in recent years. The Lakers’ dream of a “Big 3” of James, Leonard and Anthony Davis — one that required sending a massive collection of draft assets in a June trade with the Pelicans for Davis — is dead.
George, 29, averaged 28 points, 8.2 rebounds and 4.1 assists last season, but the Thunder endured a second straight first-round exit. Now, Leonard and George will form the league’s premier pairing of two-way wings, giving the Clippers multiple skilled playmakers and the foundation for an elite defense. George, like Leonard, is a native of Southern California.