The Lakers were decidedly angry in the aftermath of the stunning news that broke the Internet over the weekend. It wasn’t just that Kawhi Leonard, fresh off a sterling playoff stint that culminated in a championship and a Finals Most Valuable Player award, spurned their advances. It was that he deigned to align himself with the little-brother Clippers and, along the way, toyed with them like puppets on a string. He made them think — only too wrongly, as things turned out — that, in fulfillment of his wish to go home to native California, they were frontrunners in the battle for his services, with the prospect of headlining an unparalleled Big Three too enticing to pass up.
Indeed, Leonard allowed the Lakers to wallow in their confidence. It’s fair to argue that he even fueled it. In the previous weekend, his camp called living legend Magic Johnson to get answers on specific queries that sought to validate how much they wanted him. At the same time, he received assurances from resident top dog LeBron James that the new pecking order would feature him at the top. And as late as a couple of hours before he notified them of his decision to align with the Clippers at the end of the fifth day of free agency, he asked them if they could delay the multi-team trade that would formally net them Anthony Davis. Timing-wise, they knew the salary cap space they had would shrink if they didn’t sign him to a contract first.
To be sure, Leonard did want, and get, something from the Lakers: leverage. In using the prospect of spearheading a super squad that would perpetuate the relative irrelevance of the Clippers in Los Angeles and at the Staples Center, he spurred his preferred employers to action. He had them initiate negotiations with the Thunder for the acquisition of Paul George; if you get him, he told them, you get me. And so they moved, and to the point where they were glad to offer a record assembly of assets in exchange. Meanwhile, he had his would-be partner apply pressure on the other end by demanding a trade. And so sly was he that one of his meetings with the six-time All-Star occurred on the same day and in the same area as the scheduled pitch of purple-and-gold stalwarts Jeanie Buss and Rob Pelinka.
Simply put, Leonard needed the Lakers, but not for the reasons he led them to believe. He needed the Raptors, too, if only to keep the Thunder engaged in trade talks for George. And, needless to say, he needed the Clippers most. In the end, everything went according to plan. He got a maximum contract, the opportunity to play in his home state, the security of a second superstar of his choosing, and the breathing room provided by sterling support on and off the court. He even got a nice bonus by weakening the position of his in-arena rivals. In their willingness to give him leeway when they thought he hadn’t yet made up his mind, they held recruitment efforts in abeyance and let otherwise-complementary talents land elsewhere.
True, the Lakers were eager participants in the Leonard sweepstakes. Notwithstanding all the risks, they figured that the rewards were too good to pass up. And they were right; he’s a generational force who can, with Davis, keep them trophy-hunting for years to come. Then again, they could arguably have pulled the plug on their courtship much earlier in the process were he up front on where his sentiments truly lay. Instead, he swore everyone involved to secrecy, no doubt to prevent any part of his maneuverings from leaking.
Creditably, the Lakers were prepared for rejection; as soon as Leonard informed them of his decision, they implemented Plan B and filled their roster with talents-in-waiting. Could they have come out better had they not been strung along for a fool’s errand? Perhaps. That said, there can be no discounting the strides they’ve made in the offseason. For all their “failure,” they have James, they have Davis, and they have, if nothing else, a professional set of players that will keep them competitive.
Under the circumstances, the hope is that James will use the developments as motivation to succeed. Because of his advancing age and the sheer number of miles on his odometer, not a few quarters have seen fit to discount his contributions moving forward. To the contrary, the Lakers know he can still prove them wrong; when he looks Leonard’s way, all he need note is that he has been there and done that. And, certainly, the stage is set for him to do so. As far as they’re concerned, he’s the King, and he’s not dead. Not yet, and not for a while.
(Tomorrow: The Raptors, champions and yet pawns)
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.