Kawhi Leonard is known as a man of few words, but he was reportedly the mastermind behind the Los Angeles Clippers’ huge free agency coup in the summer of 2019. Leonard had just led the Toronto Raptors to a shocking NBA championship when he entered free agency in 2019. Leonard sought a return to his native southern California, and had the Los Angeles Lakers and Los Angeles Clippers both vying for him. The mutual interest between Leonard and the Clippers was strong, but Leonard wanted another co-star to go with him.
According to a new report by ESPN’s Ramona Shelburne, a fellow superstar reportedly approached Leonard about joining him in LA: Russell Westbrook. At the time, Westbrook was still playing on the Oklahoma City Thunder, but he also wanted to return to his native Los Angeles and saw an opportunity to hitch himself to Leonard to get there.
Westbrook reportedly put in a call to Leonard to pitch the idea, but he didn’t get an agreement from Kawhi. Instead, Leonard turned around and called Westbrook’s teammate in Oklahoma City — Paul George — and told him about Westbrook’s inquiry. Leonard preferred to play with George over Westbrook, and weeks later George requested a trade to the Clippers. LA’s other team had pulled off one of the most shocking 1-2 punches in free agency in league history.
Shelburne has the details at ESPN:
Kawhi Leonard using Westbrook to get Paul George to LAC is wild— ClipperTalk (@ClipperTalk) August 2, 2021
Westbrook would instead be traded to the Houston Rockets to play with James Harden. A year later, he was sent to the Washington Wizards in exchange for John Wall. Westbrook finally got his wish to play in Los Angeles on the night of the 2021 NBA Draft when the Wizards traded him to the Lakers.
It was a cunning move by Leonard, but his championship aspirations on the Clippers have yet to work out. Leonard and George’s Clippers team blew a 3-1 lead to the Denver Nuggets in the bubble playoffs last season, and then lost to the Phoenix Suns in the Western Conference Finals after Leonard suffered a partial tear of his ACL.
George reportedly wasn’t Leonard’s first choice, either. According to reporting by insider Marc Stein in 2019, Leonard reached out to Jimmy Butler and Kevin Durant about a partnership on the Clippers before George. Here’s Stein’s radio hit transcribed on the details behind the superstar phone calls.
Basically, the whole week of free agency is when he zeroed in on Paul George. Ya know, he didn’t start there. He made a run at Jimmy Butler first, and that was going on even during the playoffs. And he also explored Kevin Durant. ‘Kevin, would you come to the Clippers with me?’ … We’ve known the Clippers have wanted Kawhi for a very long time. But Kawhi wanted to be joined by an elite-level player. And I’m not trying to suggest that Paul was his third choice. They’re obviously friends and he loves Paul George, but Paul George wasn’t gettable. He has three more years on his contract, two before a player option. So you wouldn’t have targeted Paul George first because even Kawhi Leonard wouldn’t have thought he was available.
Leonard is now a free agent again. He is the top player available this summer despite the partially torn ACL that clouds his status for next season. The most recent reports say Leonard is likely to re-sign with the Clippers, but he’s also taking meetings with other teams. Leonard reportedly wants a ‘1+1’ deal from LA, according to Chris Haynes, which would give him a player option after this season and allow him to get back on the open market.
Could Leonard play the Clippers this time by taking their money for next season while he’s injured, and then planning his next move to another franchise? It’s hard to put such a move past him after the way he pulled the proper strings in 2019.