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The Clippers’ obvious interest in Kawhi Leonard, explained

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L.A. surely wants Kawhi, who could become a Clipper in July.

Cleveland Cavaliers v Toronto Raptors Photo by Vaughn Ridley/Getty Images

Kawhi Leonard has been linked to the Los Angeles Clippers since the summer, when his trade request from the San Antonio Spurs became public. Originally, he was thought to have wanted to play for the Lakers, according to ESPN’s Adrian Wojnarowski. But that changed when LeBron James signed with Magic Johnson’s team in the weeks following, according to The Athletic’s Shams Charania.

Recently, in November, an ESPN story revealed a survey which showed league executives believe that Leonard to the Clippers was more likely than the Lakers.

Could this really happen?

We’re just two months into the NBA season, and a lot could change between now and when Leonard’s contract expires in July, but the Clippers are building a solid case for Leonard to sign in the offseason. At 17-9, the superstar-less team is one of the biggest surprises in the league, and could draw serious appeal for Leonard rather than merely being the other L.A. choice.

It’s reasonable for Leonard to believe that he could bring the Clips into realistic title contention. The Clippers are already competing in the playoff mix without him.

L.A. will make its first pitch to the two-way star on Tuesday night when the team hosts the Raptors at home.

Why would Leonard join the Clippers?

The Clippers rank No. 9 in the league in adjusted net rating by scoring 2.92 points per 100 possessions more than their opponent, and they’re doing so with middle-tier talent who are mostly under long-term contracts.

Shai Gilgeous-Alexander is a surprise No. 11 pick who’s exceeding expectations as a rookie point guard, and he’ll be with the team as long they want him for the next four seasons. Lou Williams is still one of the league’s best bench scorers, and is under contract until 2020. Montrezl Harrell, an efficient inside scoring presence, is under contract another season. Ditto Danilo Gallinari and Avery Bradley.

A lot of the team’s talent will be here a year from now, meaning there won’t need to be a lot of reconstruction if Leonard joins. (Unless the Clippers want to open up cap space for two max contracts.)

Tobias Harris, the team’s best player right now is the lone exception, and L.A. may retain him as an unrestricted free agent, too. The Clippers are far from the barren wasteland most expected after losing all of their All-Stars.

There are a lot of basketball reasons for Leonard to come to L.A., aside from the obvious life ones.

But the Raptors are rolling right now, and ultimately Kawhi could stay

The team who holds the superstar always has an advantage in keeping him. Management can talk to the player freely, he can get a clear vision for what the team is planning, and build a trust with the organization. We saw that happen with Paul George in Oklahoma City. There’s a chance the Raptors win out on their gamble to send their former star, DeMar DeRozan, out in a trade for Leonard’s soon-to-expire contract.

Toronto is the best team in the East right now, with a 21-7 record. If Leonard values winning, there are few better promises to achieve those goals than what he’s seeing in Canada.

But Leonard is tough to predict. We don’t know what truly motivates him or what he values. And we won’t find out for another seven months.

For now, the Clippers’ interest is obvious. Finding a new identity in the post-Lob City era is crucial. And Kawhi could be the answer.