Kawhi Leonard got what he wanted in the end. He was angling for a move to the Clippers, but under very specific conditions. And if, in the process, he wound up stringing the Lakers and Raptors along until the end of the fifth day of free agency, it was simply because he needed to have both leverage and fallback to see his vision through. His plan worked, to be sure; he was able to latch on to a first-class organization with an outstanding coaching staff and excellent ownership, front office, and back room support, and, most importantly, the second superstar he felt he required to keep chasing success.
Certainly, Leonard deserved to map out his own destiny, and not just because he was fresh off a stellar playoff campaign that netted him a title, not to mention near-universal acknowledgment as first among equals in the National Basketball Association. If anything, the fact that three franchises angled for his services and saw the value in holding otherwise-critical personnel moves in abeyance until he made his decision speaks volumes of his standing as the best of the best. And he went about his business in his own inimitable manner; he demanded total secrecy from all involved. He telegraphed his plans only to the Clippers, whose marching orders were clear from the outset: If they manage to pry Paul George from the Thunder, he will be on board.
Prior to the stunning turns of events that catapulted the Clippers to the top of oddsmakers’ lists of championship contenders, Leonard was seen as a quiet type who preferred to let his playing do the talking. Once more information on how the developments came about became available, however, pundits saw the ruthless side to his competitiveness. It wasn’t that he held everyone hostage with his demands; all difference makers do in one way or another. Rather, it was that he refrained from telling them why they had to wait with bated breath for definitive news from him. Meanwhile, he maneuvered in the sidelines, sounding Kevin Durant out on the possibility of a team-up, and, after being spurned by his first choice, working overtime to recruit George.
All the same, the most positive outcome was worth the risk for the protagonists — even for the Lakers, who already had two marquee names on board, and who could have instead improved their roster with complementary pieces still for the taking when free agency opened. And, ultimately, Leonard deserves no blame for how he handled his controversial stint as the most desirable player on the planet. For all the second-guessing that has followed his decision, the bottom line is that he exercised his right to frame his future in precisely the manner he deemed fit.
Truth has many faces, and it’s fair to see them from other relevant vantage points. For now, though, the winners are clear. Leonard will have a maximum contract with the Clippers, angling for a third ring — and more — alongside George and a decidedly overachieving cast. In so doing, he will not have to deal with the dysfunction of the Lakers and the circus surrounding erstwhile king of the league LeBron James, or with the uncertainty of the Raptors and the difficulties attendant to an aging roster. Indeed, he got what he wanted in the end — serving notice that, on and off the court, he’s a dynasty killer who can talk the talk and who most definitely does walk the walk.
(Tomorrow: The Lakers were trolled, and how.)
Anthony L. Cuaycong has been writing the Courtside since BusinessWorld introduced a Sports section in 1994. He is a consultant on strategic planning, operations and Human Resources management, corporate communications, and business development.