Even in the end, Kawhi Leonard kept everybody guessing. As the most coveted player in free agency, he took his time making a formal decision on where to land, never mind that his heart lay with the Clippers, and that, behind the scenes, he strove to ensure that he would wind up as their marquee superstar. And if the five days he kept all and sundry on #kawhiwatch weren’t enough, yesterday served to underscore his position as master of his fate. The contract he affixed his Hancock to was, indeed, for the maximum salary, but guaranteed only through the 2020-2021 season.
The length of Leonard’s deal effectively keeps all the bargaining chips on his side of the table, and not simply because it allows him to tack on another year based on his preference. Significantly, it coincides with the duration of the terms fellow All-Star Paul George agreed to with the Thunder last year. In other words, he can choose to stay or bolt for greener pastures after two seasons, and with or without his handpicked partner by his side. Perhaps more significantly, it’s also for the same period, and player-centric conditions, Lakers top dog LeBron James is signed to. Which, in a nutshell, means he can, when the time comes, opt to keep playing at Staples Center, but in purple and gold instead of red and blue.
Leonard’s camp doesn’t have a lot of fans for the way it seems to conduct its business, but it has clearly earned its keep. All the criticism notwithstanding, it has delivered on its promise: put its principal in prime position to rule the league in the here and now — and, no less importantly, in the there and then, when James, the most heralded name in pro hoops over the last decade, exits stage left. And it bears noting that he has largely stayed insulated from naysayers’ assessments. For all his maneuverings, he even got praise for resisting the intrinsic lure and allure of forming the most formidable Big Three in history.
True, Leonard’s decision to join the Clippers injects a level of parity not seen since the mid-2000s, when the Celtics hadn’t yet swung the fences for Kevin Garnett and Ray Allen, when the Lakers didn’t yet have Pau Gasol, when James hadn’t yet chosen to take his talents to South Beach, and when the Warriors didn’t yet add human “Get Out of Jail, Free” card Kevin Durant to an already-dynastic run. The aftermath of his free-agency foray figures to get as many as a third of the league harboring legitimate chances for the hardware. No clear-cut favorite, no apparent first among equals, no runaway choice for the first time in a long, long while.
Yet, if unpredictability is slated to become the main ingredient of the 2019-20 season, it isn’t because Leonard pushed for such. In fact, he angled to stack the odds in his — and, by extension, the Clippers’ — favor. And the upshot benefits the NBA because the acquisition of talent is a zero-sum exercise; a loss for the Lakers is a gain for everybody else. But for how long? And at what cost? The answers depend on predisposition, and are, therefore, subject to debate. Meanwhile, he’s being praised for having used the same blueprint that earned James opprobrium. Go figure.
Anthony L. Cuaycong has been writing 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.