Kawhi Leonard eviscerated the Golden State Warriors to give the Toronto Raptors their first championship. He’s been the best player in an NBA Finals series against a two-time MVP, and looks every bit the sensational superstar teams are going to salivate over this summer.
Yes, the summer. Remember: the Toronto Raptors traded the face of their franchise in DeMar DeRozan knowing full well Leonard can and very well might just leave for nothing this summer. That reality will officially arrive on July 1.
Leonard has made no public comments about his long-term commitment to the Raptors organization or the city of Toronto. There was a report he had purchased a home out north. He responded, “Didn’t happen yet. No.” When he was asked what winning a championship could mean for the city of Toronto, Leonard replied: “I’m really not sure. I guess you’ve gotta ask somebody on the street or one of our fans ... or somebody that’s been living in Canada for awhile.”
Leonard’s future is as up in the air as a helium balloon. Where could he go this summer? Here are his most logical potential destinations.
The persistent belief is that the L.A. native wants to play at home, but is not interested in being option No. 2 to anyone, including LeBron James. When Leonard first requested a trade from the San Antonio Spurs last summer, one team topped his list of preferred destinations: the Los Angeles Clippers.
“He wants to go to the Clippers,” ESPN Spurs reporter Michael C. Wright said on a July 5, 2018 episode of the Back to Back Podcast with Tom Haberstroh. “He doesn’t want to go and be second fiddle to LeBron.”
The Clippers are coming off an incredible season of their own. They were one of the West’s better teams to start the year, tapered off a little, traded their best player to the Sixers at the deadline, then still scrapped their way to the West’s eighth seed, winning two games against the full-strength Golden State Warriors in the first round. They have also sent scouts to numerous Raptors games, both home and away, presumably to keep an eye on Leonard and his progression.
Imagine adding Leonard to this Clippers mix. Then imagine adding Leonard and another star. The Clippers only have six players with guaranteed salaries on the books for next season: Danilo Gallinari, Lou Williams, Montrezl Harrell, Shai Gilgeous-Alexander, Landry Shamet, and Jerome Robinson. They can easily create enough cap space to afford a second max player.
That means if the Clippers sign Leonard, they can give him a blank contract as an invitation to bring whoever he wants with him.
2. Toronto Raptors
The Raptors did everything they could have to convince Leonard to stay in Toronto. They managed his minutes to limit the risk of re-injury. They ran through the East, made a mockery of the conference-favorite Bucks, and won the first championship in franchise history. They built a great team around Leonard.
Toronto has an opportunity to accomplish something rare: repeat as champions. Every player contributing in these finals — except Leonard and Danny Green — is expected to be under contract next season. If Toronto keeps them, the Raptors will be favorites to win it all again, regardless of whatever anyone else does this summer.
The Raptors can offer him a longer contract that pays $48 million more than other teams, though Leonard could likely make up the difference in off-court endorsements.
But the Raptors’ future becomes tricky after next season, and a 1-plus-1 deal for Leonard makes no sense due to his injury history. Norman Powell is the only player under contact in the 2020-21 season, and Pascal Siakam is due a raise. Toronto won’t be able to retain Leonard, then re-sign everyone next summer.
There’s also this simple fact: Leonard didn’t choose Toronto. He wasn’t drafted by them, nor did he request be traded there. If the Raptors win a championship tonight, it’s job well done for Leonard. He kept a promise he never made. He owes no debts.
Leonard has at least talked with other players about teaming up in Brooklyn this summer. The Toronto Star’s Bruce Arthur mentioned as much last summer, when Leonard had first been traded to Toronto.
Reports out of Toronto about Kawhi Leonard calling other stars to gauge their willingness to join him in free agency — and including Brooklyn on that list — give the Nets fans something to salivate over.
That was before Brooklyn completed its turnaround, making the playoffs for the first time since 2014 and even stealing a Game 1 victory in Philadelphia. The Nets currently have one max slot available, and Kyrie Irving has been the hot topic in recent weeks. It has been reported both Irving and Brooklyn have interest in teaming up.
But the Nets could create a second max spot at the expense of D’Angelo Russell, who becomes a restricted free agent this summer. If Leonard wants to join Irving in Brooklyn, Brooklyn could very well make it happen.
Just like the Nets, Lakers and Clippers, the Knicks are also expected to have enough cap space to pursue two max free agents. They will also have interesting trade chips, including the No. 3 overall pick in this year’s draft (widely expected to be R.J. Barrett), and young players like Kevin Knox, Mitchell Robinson, Dennis Smith Jr., and Allonzo Trier.
That doesn’t sound like a very convincing trade package for a player of Anthony Davis‘s caliber, but Davis has only committed to a long-term future in New York or Los Angeles. If the Pelicans are hellbent on steering clear of a Lakers trade, a deal with the Knicks could be on the horizon.
Kawhi could become part of a legitimate Big 3 if the Knicks land him and another star, be it Davis, Kevin Durant (despite his torn Achilles), or Irving. Maybe a Big 3 and the bright lights of a big city aren’t what Leonard wants. At this point, no one knows except Kawhi himself.
5. Los Angeles Lakers
Who wants to play with LeBron James? That will be the question that dictates the next three seasons in Los Angeles. James has been unable to attract another star thus far, and neither James nor the Lakers can afford a second year of turmoil and dysfunction.
Laker success is tied to who the put on the court, and James has been recruiting max players this season. One of those players was Jimmy Butler, whom Arash Markazi of the Los Angeles Times reported would join the Lakers in a heartbeat if they offered a max contract.
Another was Leonard, whom James visited in Philadelphia during the Sixers’ first-round series against the Nets.
The Sixers wish Leonard made that fading, rim-tap-tap-tap-tapping buzzer-beater for them, not against them in the East Semifinals. Instead, that shot sent them packing, some would say far too soon.
The interesting thing about Philadelphia, though, is they have two free agents who will be max contract candidates this summer: Jimmy Butler and Tobias Harris. If one, or both, leave in free agency, Philly will have cap space to sign anyone they want, Leonard included.
The Sixers don’t appear to be a serious contender for Leonard’s services, but they will be an interesting player in free agency if their two max players sign elsewhere.