As the season for idle NBA rumors gives way to time for real action—the draft is just six days away, after all—it has become increasingly clear that the Clippers have, at least, a concern on their hands when it comes to forward Kawhi Leonard. While no one is taking the plunge and predicting Leonard will opt out of his contract, hit free agency and bolt L.A. altogether, there does appear to be less certainty about his return to the Clippers.
What was once a guarantee could now be a wait-and-see. The Clippers, at least, have to be prepared for the worst, while at least one new team (i.e., not the Knicks or Heat) is prepared to plow ahead in a Leonard pursuit.
On Friday, veteran reporter Marc Stein noted that the Leonard-Clippers bond may be weakening. He wrote:
The most likely scenario, league sources say, remains Leonard opting out to re-sign with the Clippers — or, in (owner) Steve Ballmer’s worst nightmare, to shock the league by signing elsewhere. Leonard’s well-known affinity for Southern California has led various rival front offices to presume that he would have no interest in switching teams for the third time, but the notion that Leonard is unattainable seems to be waning a bit as the August 2 start of free agency nears.
Stein goes on to cite Dallas, which has not been mentioned before, as one team intent on courting Leonard, even if the odds are still stacked in the Clippers’ favor, writing that the Mavs, “will not be dissuaded from pursuing Leonard even if he’s forced to miss all of next season, league sources say.”
NBA Exec: ‘You Never Know’
That is in lockstep with what another veteran reporter, Brad Turner of the L.A. Times, wrote on the subject of Leonard’s free agency this week, which one executive compared to the situation of Chris Paul in Phoenix. Like Leonard, Paul can opt out of a rich final year of his contract ($36 million for Leonard, $44 million for Paul) and is widely viewed as likely to re-sign with his current team.
As Turner quoted a West executive: “Now, no one expects Paul or Leonard to leave their teams if they opt out, but you never know. But there has been enough noise about Paul going to the Knicks. So, one just never knows. And, honestly, that makes this fun. Stressing, but fun.”
Certainly, for a rebuilt Mavericks front office, with new decision-maker Nico Harrison in place, a Leonard pursuit could be fun, especially with the lure of playing alongside dynamic young star Luka Doncic. It’s a less-than-fun thought for the Clippers, though.
Kawhi Leonard Averaged 30.4 Points in the Postseason
Leonard has been with the Clippers since 2019, after he led Toronto to an NBA championship. He had wriggled his way out of San Antonio after he grew frustrated with the franchise over the handling of his persistent quad injury, intent on a trade back to his Southern California home. When the Spurs instead dealt him to the Raptors, Leonard spent a year north of the border before finally signing on in L.A.
The circuitous route he took to get to the Clippers is one reason most assume he will stay put with the team—why go through all the trouble of reaching free agency and signing with the Clippers only to bolt after two seasons?
Complicating matters is the partially torn ACL Leonard suffered in the playoffs, an injury that ended his postseason run four games into the conference semifinals. It is possible that Leonard could miss the entire 2021-22 season as he rehabs from surgery to repair that injury.
Still, we know what Leonard can do when healthy. He averaged 24.8 points with 6.5 rebounds and 5.2 assists this season, earning his fifth All-Star bid. He was in the midst of an epic playoff performance—30.4 points, 57.3% shooting in 11 games—when he suffered the knee injury.
Because of that, even at age 30, Leonard is still in line for a maximum contract. The Clippers can only hope it’s with them.