The path for Kawhi Leonard is clear: Join the Los Angeles Lakers

This is not about what Kawhi Leonard will do.

This is about what Kawhi Leonard should do.

And with the dust settling on a wild opening salvo of NBA free agency, the path for the reigning NBA Finals MVP is clear.

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Join the Los Angeles Lakers.

It wouldn’t be the expected move. It wouldn’t be the popular move. But it would be the absolute correct move for a player with an unprecedented opportunity to build an all-time NBA legacy.

[Free agency updates: Keep track of the moves, rumors, cap space and more]

Kawhi declined free agency meetings Sunday

For much of the lead-up to free agency, the belief has remained that Leonard would stay in Toronto or join the Los Angeles Clippers.

He also reportedly planned meetings with the Lakers and New York Knicks, with league sources telling Yahoo Sports’ Chris Haynes last week that NBA executives believe Toronto was the favorite to sign Leonard to a new deal. He declined to take meetings on Sunday, and —in typical Kawhi fashion — will do things his way.

Re-upping with the Raptors team that he just led to its first NBA championship would be a cool story. But joining forces with LeBron James and Anthony Davis in Los Angeles is a better one — for Kawhi, at least.

The path for Kawhi Leonard is clear. Whether he takes it is not. (Reuters)
The path for Kawhi Leonard is clear. Whether he takes it is not. (Reuters)

He loves L.A.

As with most things Kawhi, little is actually known about where he’s leaning in free agency. It’s widely reported that he yearns for his Southern California roots where he grew up and played college ball at San Diego State.

The Clippers and the Lakers both have the cap space to sign Leonard, but many have speculated that Leonard — fresh off his second NBA Finals MVP — has little desire to share the spotlight and the ball with James. To be fair, it’s hard to imagine Leonard not dominating the basketball.

But even if that would be the case — and even if that is a concern for Leonard — it’s a short-term concern.

Shared spotlight with LeBron wouldn’t last long

Even though it seems like Leonard’s been in the league and winning championships forever, he just turned 28 years old on Saturday. His prime is just getting warmed up.

James will be 35 in December with three years remaining on his Lakers deal on what is most clearly the downside of his career.

If sharing the ball and ego are concerns for Leonard, they wouldn’t be for long. And the short-term counterargument is completing arguably the most imposing trio of NBA talent in NBA history to immediately compete for championships.

Some may criticize him for joining a superteam like Durant did when he left the Oklahoma City Thunder for the Golden State Warriors. But unlike Durant, who left the Thunder to join the team he couldn’t beat, Leonard’s legacy is already secure. He already has two rings and two Finals MVPs.

Also, he doesn’t care what you think.

Upside is with AD

The long-term upside for Leonard is playing through his prime with a 26-year-old Davis on the NBA’s glamour franchise. And doing it at home.

Unlike James, Davis isn’t a ball-dominant star. Leonard and Davis are complementary fits with All-NBA talent just starting to play their best basketball.

Sure, Lakers management is incompetent. But they’re still the Lakers. No other team presents the opportunity of being mentioned alongside Kareem, Magic and Kobe.

It’s massive upside.

Will the feel-good of an NBA championship override Kawhi Leonard's desire to go home? (Getty)
Will the feel-good of an NBA championship override Kawhi Leonard's desire to go home? (Getty)

Clippers whiffed on another top free agent

Meanwhile, the Clippers have opened the summer with a giant dud. Starting free agency with a pair of max contract slots, they’ve managed to re-sign Patrick Beverley. And Leonard is the last max-contract level player on the open market.

Gone is Kevin Durant. Gone is Klay Thompson. Gone is Jimmy Butler.

The Clippers did well to compete last season after clearing their roster and cap space in anticipation of a big summer only to do nothing with it in free agency’s opening, most critical day.

Knicks a non-factor

Leonard’s interest in the Knicks was reportedly tied to playing alongside Durant. But Durant is a Net. And the Knicks had the most disappointing day of free agency, securing the likes of Julius Randle and Taj Gibson instead of Durant and Irving. There’s nothing remaining in New York for Leonard.

Toronto’s case is a good one, but ...

Which leaves the Raptors.

It’s a team he just won a title with in a city that fell in love with him. He could sign with the Raptors and finish his career there without another championship, and his legacy would be secure. He’d be a champion, a team icon and a first-ballot Hall of Famer.

It would be a great story. It would also be selling his opportunity short. Pascal Siakam and Kyle Lowry are nice players and valuable pieces who would give the Raptors an opportunity to continue to compete in the Eastern Conference.

James and Davis are two of the most transcendent talents in the history of the game. And they play in the place that Leonard loves, where the winters are warm and the basketball legacy is unparalleled.

Re-signing with the Raptors would be a great story.

But for Leonard, it would be the wrong one.

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