Ex-Exec Offers Surprising Update on Kawhi Leonard’s Free Agency

Kawhi Leonard spins

Getty Kawhi Leonard spins on Trae Young

For those Los Angeles Clippers fans losing sleep over Kawhi Leonard’s impending free agency, there appear to be several good reasons why they should (maybe) rest easy.

According to The Athletic’s Sam Amick and John Hollinger, it’s widely anticipated by “Clippers sources and rival executives alike” that the two-time Finals MVP will re-sign with the Clippers in the offseason. That’s even if L.A. fails to bring home a title this season, a factor often brought up when discussing Leonard’s upcoming decision. 

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Obviously, there’s no guarantee what Leonard will do until he actually does it. When he left Toronto for L.A. in the summer of 2019, only weeks after leading the Raptors to their first NBA title, the news was simultaneously surprising and not surprising. 

But Amick and Hollinger ultimately believe he will stay put, in part because he wants to remain in L.A. itself (Leonard grew up in Southern California), but also given the talent that is expected to surround Leonard next season and beyond. 

Through Thick and Thin?

When the Clippers signed forward Paul George to a five-year, $226 million max extension last December, they weren’t just trying to make George even richer. They wanted to make Leonard happy, too, and show that he will have a capable running mate for at least another half-decade. In fact, George even consulted with Leonard before taking pen to paper.

“He’s one of the guys that I talked to and kind of wanted to inform, ‘Hey, this is a decision I wanted to make, I want to be here long-term,’” George said shortly after signing. “It’s not putting a gun to Kawhi and telling him, he’s gotta do this or do that. Hopefully, it’s a mutual bond and we both enjoy playing with one another, so. Everybody’s got their own decisions to make and hopefully, me showing my commitment, being here and wanting to play with him long term sticks out.” 

While George and Leonard have certainly made for a formidable duo — together averaging more than 48 points over this season and last, while bringing the stopping power one would expect from a combined 10 All-Defensive selections — there’s no erasing the sting from last season’s playoff debacle when L.A. was eliminated by Denver after being up 3-1 in the Conference Semifinals.

And with other teams like Brooklyn and the Lakers stacking their rosters like never before, a ring this season is far from a sure thing. The Clippers, however, are arguably a better team than they were last season in the bubble. And the improvement of some of their younger players indicates that the arrow may continue pointing upward for years to come. 

Guard Terance Mann has emerged as a force with the second unit and is under contract through 2022-23, as is center Ivica Zubac who has increasingly shown that he can hold his own with some of the league’s top big men.  

But Amick and Hollinger didn’t mention Mann and Zubac in their analysis, instead focusing on the recent acquisition of “savant” Rajon Rondo as another factor that will likely keep Leonard in SoCal.

Rondo Could be the Difference

When Rondo was traded for Lou Williams on March 25, the former Celtic, Maverick, King, Bull, Pelican and Laker was having a career-low year for the Atlanta Hawks. But the Clippers made the move not because they wanted to add the 35-year-old’s 3.9 points and 3.5 assists. They acquired Rondo for his defensive instincts, his history of playoff excellence, and most of all to take some of the pressure off Leonard and George.

Without a traditional point guard to playmake (Patrick Beverley is in the league for his defense and is having trouble staying healthy, while Reggie Jackson is first and foremost a scorer), Leonard and George have been increasingly forced to make their own breaks this season. It’s a situation they’ve both done well with — leading the Clippers to a 34-18 record, sixth-best in the league — but one that is probably not sustainable through a rigorous playoff run.

Rondo, therefore, gives L.A. someone who can distribute and push the tempo, not to mention bring additional top-tier playoff experience via his two NBA rings, first with Boston in 2008 and then the Lakers in 2020. Rondo is also under contract through next season, meaning that if Leonard and the Clippers don’t get it done this year, they will have another shot with essentially the same roster next time around. 

As long as Kawhi believes that’s enough to win the whole thing, it seems safe to assume he won’t be keen on uprooting his life when he already has what he needs in his own backyard. Of course, as Amick and Hollinger point out, NBA fans have learned to expect the unexpected. 

Sleep tight, Clipper Nation. 

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