With one power move, Kawhi Leonard shows he’s his own man and puts Lakers in their place

A few hours after the earth shook near the NBA’s unofficial summer headquarters in Las Vegas, Kawhi Leonard sent massive shockwaves through the league’s foundation by pulling off a coup in the middle of the night, choosing the Los Angeles Clippers for his next destination.

The Lakers had the tradition, the star power and the never-ending drama. The Raptors have the gold, and gratitude from Leonard for rescuing him from San Antonio and allowing him to rehab his body and chipped reputation.

The Clippers had the best combination of what Leonard wanted: a team full of scrappy players, ownership creativity and a stealth approach in acquiring Paul George from the Oklahoma City Thunder. Leonard wanted to be back home near the Southern California area, and for the first time in his career, the choice was his own.

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In one swift move, Leonard both repeated his self-made history as a dynasty killer and turned himself into a king maker. Leonard’s two NBA Finals MVP’s were won against this generation’s preeminent dynasties — LeBron James’ Miami Heat and the Golden State Warriors — and by not joining James’ Lakers, he slayed the giant one more time.

The Lakers would’ve been title favorites by the widest of margins had he chosen to be the second or third wheel alongside James and Anthony Davis, but he’d just spent the month of June proving himself second to none in the NBA Finals.

His decision proves how confident Leonard is in his own skills, which was validated by this title-winning season in Toronto. He needed to re-establish himself as a top player in this league, and didn’t have to be surrounded by two of the five best in order to be on a contender.

In getting George to the Clippers, he turned the NBA’s attention squarely on Los Angeles, albeit in a way the Lakers didn’t expect. Scoring on Leonard and George will be as tough as it was to get a read on Leonard’s plans.

Does Kawhi Leonard run L.A. now? (Photo by Julian Avram/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)
Does Kawhi Leonard run L.A. now? (Photo by Julian Avram/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)

He kept things close to the vest, with any morsel of information turning into the latest and greatest signal of him staying in Toronto or being drawn to the Lakers. But what Leonard wanted was a strong infrastructure, a head coach he could trust in Doc Rivers, ownership willing to do just about anything to win and a running mate worthy of poaching.

Kawhi Leonard, the recruiter? How many of us saw that coming with what we believed we knew about him?

But this is the new NBA, as shocking as it seems. Perhaps it’s the reverberation from James’ actions over the past decade, with players realizing their true power. But it also should be noted there’s one common denominator in the biggest moves of the last four years: Jerry West.

West was with the Warriors when they snatched Kevin Durant away from Oklahoma City and is a trusted adviser to the Clippers’ front office.

Surveying the league’s landscape, Leonard clearly saw an opportunity. Not to overwhelmingly stack the deck but to bring in a similarly skilled player in George, who will take the pressure off him 82 games a year so Leonard can be ready in the months that matter most: May and June.

Leonard is a made man in a way that doesn’t require an alignment with one particular franchise, and choosing the Clippers doesn’t seem to be a surprise considering the feats he’s accomplished in his short but distinguished Hall of Fame-worthy career.

The fact he was able to get George to come along with him speaks to the respect he’s garnered from players, and his secrecy reflects the borderline fear franchises had of breaking his trust in free agency. George was an MVP finalist this past season, and for the last several years, he and Leonard were mentioned as the league’s best two-way players. George wasn’t thought to be the perfect complement to Leonard — too much duplication, perhaps — but this year showed Leonard can take care of his body with the big picture in mind, and George’s strong, healthy segment showed he was capable of carrying a team, especially when Oklahoma City was viewed as a top threat to Golden State for most of the year.

George gets a new lease, a chance to hit the reset button after committing to Oklahoma City last summer. It’s important to remember he didn’t choose to go to Oklahoma City when he wanted out of Indiana in 2017 — he wanted to get back to California, like Leonard.

One has to wonder what soured him on Oklahoma City that made him abandon it in just one season, but clearly his relationship with Leonard was strong enough for Leonard to want him along in the biggest transaction of the offseason.

It’s hard to say the Raptors did anything wrong. They provided the best possible pitch for Leonard to stay with how the franchise conducted itself for the last 12 months. It made sure Leonard was as comfortable as possible, it added a big piece at the deadline in Marc Gasol in an attempt to seize the Eastern Conference and it resulted in a win beyond its wildest dreams.

Raptors president Masai Ujiri showed some gumption by even making the deal, knowing full well it could be a 12-month rental. Yet he still pushed all his chips to the table and won. The Clippers saw what the result could be once Leonard made it known he wanted to come and committed the massive haul for George.

Board Man might bring a ring.

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