Sports

“Fun Guy” Kawhi Leonard Burns Down NBA

TORONTO, ON - JUNE 17:  Kawhi Leonard #2 of the Toronto Raptors holds the MVP trophy during the Toronto Raptors Victory Parade on June 17, 2019 in Toronto, Canada. The Toronto Raptors beat the Golden State Warriors 4-2 to win the 2019 NBA Finals.  NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading and or using this photograph, User is consenting to the terms and conditions of the Getty Images License Agreement.  (Photo by Vaughn Ridley/Getty Images)
Kawhi Leonard holds the MVP trophy during the Toronto Raptors Victory Parade on June 17, 2019.
Vaughn Ridley/Getty Images

You can count Kawhi Leonard in on the hot summer trend of every notable NBA player switching teams. After having a championship-flavored cup of coffee in Toronto, Leonard has agreed to sign a four-year, $141 million contract with the Los Angeles Clippers. The news broke early Saturday morning, and it came in the form of a double-bombshell, with the Clippers also completing a trade with the Oklahoma City Thunder to bring star forward Paul George to L.A.

As wild and consequential a move as this move is on the surface—Caesars currently lists the Clippers as the favorites to win the 2020 NBA title—the behind-the-scenes drama turns out to have been even crazier. For the past week, everyone in the NBA media has been speculating that Leonard was lost in thought, pondering whether he wanted to stay with the Raptors or join LeBron James and Anthony Davis with the Lakers. The Clippers were barely even an afterthought. Please enjoy this montage:

But according to ESPN’s Ramona Shelburne, Leonard has apparently been set on going to the Clippers for a while now. Rather than spending the last week in monkish solitude, Leonard has been busy bending the NBA to his will, working the phones to convince another star to join him in Los Angeles. Per Shelburne, he originally reached out to Kevin Durant in an attempt to lure the ex-Warrior to the Clippers.

They’d be a great complement to each other, Leonard told Durant. He’d always admired him, and had tremendous respect for him as a competitor.

Durant was flattered and more than a little stunned, according to sources close to the situation. He didn’t know Leonard that well, so getting a recruiting call like that made a real impression.

When Durant chose to go to Brooklyn with Kyrie Irving, Leonard’s next move was to reach out to George. Like Leonard, George grew up in California and has long been rumored to have an interest in returning to his home state. Here’s Shelburne again:

Leonard’s recruiting efforts caught George by surprise.

Said one source close to George, “For a quiet guy, he’s a hell of a recruiter.”

Although George signed a long-term extension with Oklahoma City last year, he couldn’t resist Leonard’s charms. George asked the Thunder for a trade, and unbeknownst to everyone who follows the NBA, the Clippers and OKC got to work on what turned out to be an enormous deal.

It’s hard to argue against Leonard’s importance as a player after he guided Toronto to its first NBA title. His role as the league’s Kasparov-ian grandmaster is a new twist, though. We shouldn’t have laughed at Leonard for saying he’s a “fun guy” during his introductory press conference with the Raptors last summer. I mean, what’s more fun than burning down a multi-billion dollar league and rebuilding it in your image?

I suppose you couldn’t blame the Raptors and Lakers for thinking this isn’t a laugh riot. According to ESPN’s Adrian Wojnarowski, it was a three-team race to sign Leonard … or, at least that’s what Leonard made everyone think. The Raptors, for their part, appear to have been used as leverage to help secure the only outcome that Leonard really wanted.

The Lakers, too, seem to have been nothing more than a bargaining chip.

Perhaps the most impressive part of Leonard’s Machiavellian maneuvering is that he kept it all totally quiet. This was by design, as Leonard reportedly informed teams that any leaks would torpedo their chances to sign him. Leonard may seem like a shy, workaday star. In reality, he has the power to make even Steve Ballmer take a vow of silence.