An earthquake stopped the NBA’s summer league on Friday night, but that will be a footnote compared to the seismic shift that shook the league a few hours later.
Kawhi Leonard is headed to the L.A. Clippers and so is Paul George. The Clippers reportedly are signing Leonard to a four-year, $141 million deal and netting George in a monster trade. The Clippers reportedly will send Shai Gilgeous-Alexander and Danilo Gallinari to the Oklahoma City Thunder along with a historic boatload of picks, including four unprotected first-rounders, a protected first-round pick and two pick swaps.
It’s a major coup by Doc Rivers and the Clippers franchise, which has lived in the Lakers’ shadow for decades. Led by president of basketball operations Lawrence Frank, general manager Mike Winger and consultant Jerry West, the Clippers have added the best player in the NBA and the best player in franchise history.
Snatching him away from their Staples Center roommates and the defending champion Toronto Raptors is the icing on the cake. Oh, and a runner-up MVP is coming along, too.
So how does this impact the Clippers and the greater NBA? Let’s dive in with three big questions.
1. Does this make the Clippers title favorites?
It better. School textbooks across the world will cite this trade to explain the “a bird in the hand is worth two in the bush” proverb.
If you ranked the Clippers’ top 12 assets heading into free agency, they just tied a bow around nine of them and shipped them over to OKC for a single superstar -- and an injured one at that (we’ll get to that later). They kept Montrezl Harrell and Lou Williams on their team-friendly contracts but gave up just about everything else.
To recap: the Clippers will send away their unprotected 2022, 2024 and 2026 picks, their unprotected 2021 and protected 2023 first-round picks via Miami and the rights to swap picks in 2023 and 2025. That’s the most picks the Clippers can legally send under the collective bargaining agreement, which prohibits teams from selling first-round picks in consecutive years.
On top of that, the Clippers are sending their 2018 first-round pick, Gilgeous-Alexander, who was second-team All-Rookie last season. Wait, there’s more! Gallinari, who averaged 19.8 points last season and has a $22.3 million contract that expires next summer, will be going in the deal, as well.
The price is just astounding. I’m surprised OKC general manager Sam Presti didn’t get a share of Clippers owner Steve Ballmer’s estate as well. Maybe he asked for it.
This has potential to be the NBA’s Herschel Walker trade: Thirty years ago, the Dallas Cowboys traded away Walker to the Minnesota Vikings for a package that included five players and six draft picks. Like the Clippers, the Vikings thought Walker would be the missing piece to a championship run and gave up a king’s ransom to acquire him.
Meanwhile, the Cowboys’ draft haul yielded Emmitt Smith, who became the NFL’s all-time leading rusher, and safety Darren Woodson, who won three Super Bowls and earned five Pro Bowl appearances. In addition, Minneosta’s 1991 pick turned out to be the No. 1 overall pick, and Dallas used it to select defensive tackle Russell Maryland, a Pro Bowler who also won three Super Bowls with the team.
Walker didn’t make the playoffs in the two seasons he was with the Vikings. ESPN later produced a “30 for 30” short film about the deal, titled “The Great Trade Robbery.”
However, that doomsday scenario for the Clippers is unlikely. Leonard going to the Clippers blasted the championship hunt wide open, and adding George, who is still in his prime and just finished in third in MVP voting, will certainly put them in the running for the NBA’s best team.
But it all comes down to player health, a department of the NBA that has undergone a sea change in the last decade. Load management has become NBA parlance. Top sports scientists from as far as Australia have joined the NBA in droves. Fancy new practice facilities basically rival NASA’s astronaut training centers.
The Clippers are a shiny example of this global wave. The Thunder’s former director of sports science during their 2012 Finals run, Mark Simpson, is now running the Clippers’ health department. Simpson, a British performance guru in the cycling world before joining the NBA about a decade ago, joined the Clippers in 2016 as part of the team’s organizational overhaul under Ballmer.
In 2016, in the aftermath of the Donald Sterling era, Doc Rivers told me: “We were just behind. They didn’t spend money before.”
Simpson and long-time head athletic trainer Jasen Powell will have their hands full. The Clippers are title favorites, with one significant caveat -- if Leonard and George are healthy. You could say that about any star duo in the NBA, but Leonard and George in particular have two of the shakiest medical histories in the sport. Leonard missed all of nine games in 2017-18 dealing with a mysterious quad injury.
George missed all but six games in 2014-15 because of a gruesome broken leg, which isn’t the most relevant major injury on his record. This summer, George required surgery on both shoulders to repair damage and may not even be healthy for the start of 2019-20 season.
In early May, George underwent rotator cuff surgery to repair a partially torn tendon in his right shoulder. The recovery from that operation is serious and put George’s readiness for training camp in doubt. A month later, George underwent a second procedure, this time repairing a small labral tear in his left shoulder.
Despite those worrisome procedures, the Thunder did not want to give him up. How do I know? They just got seven draft picks and two really good players for him. Perhaps Presti is genuinely concerned about George’s health and used his powerful leverage to bleed the Clippers dry of their assets. If Leonard’s commitment was truly contingent on George coming, Presti understood his negotiating power. The Clippers weren’t going to walk away because of a pick swap in 2025.
The massive bounty in this deal tells you how much George mattered to the Thunder’s future. We often hear teams say a star player of theirs is untouchable unless they’re blown away with a deal. It’s safe to say the Thunder were blown away with the deal.
Even with the shoulder surgeries, we can pencil George in as a top-10 player in the NBA. Leonard is a top-five player. For now, L.A. boasts a starting lineup of Patrick Beverley, Landry Shamet, Leonard, George and presumably Montrezl Harrell at center. The Clippers can still bring back restricted free agent Ivica Zubac to start at center and continue to bring Harrell off the bench along with Lou Williams and Moe Harkless.
Everything has to break right for the Clippers to win the 2019-20 title. In many ways, that’s what happened in Toronto. The Marc Gasol trade panned out. Kevin Durant and Klay Thompson got hurt, whereas Leonard and the Raptors’ rotation stayed remarkably healthy throughout the postseason. As I wrote after they won the title, the Raptors got some luck along the way -- as does every championship team!
This isn’t the finished product. The Clippers can use the room exception to add another player. The Andre Iguodala sweepstakes will bubble to the surface now that he’s on a rebuilding Memphis team. An Iguodala swap for Harkless and a longer-term asset seems fair for both sides.
The Clippers aren’t heavy title favorites at the moment. I’ll put them on the same tier as the Lakers, Milwaukee, Houston and Philadelphia, with Utah, Portland and Denver just on the outside. If they land Iguodala, the Clippers will rise to outright favorites.
2. What do the Los Angeles Lakers do now?
Leonard’s decision helps the Clippers, but it hurts the other L.A. team more.
The Lakers don’t have a two-way wing star like Leonard. They gutted their roster to acquire Anthony Davis, and the free agency market dried up while Leonard deliberated on his choice of employment.
This was always the risk of waiting on Leonard. Leonard’s top proxy in free agency was 30-year-old Jimmy Butler, but he’s in South Beach. Every other star player is gone.
The Lakers are left with Leonard’s longtime teammate Danny Green, who isn’t nearly the player that Leonard is, but can certainly help the Lakers on the wing. Green finished with the fourth-best plus-minus in the NBA last season behind Stephen Curry, Durant and Giannis Antetokounmpo. That lofty ranking had more to do with his star teammates than himself, but he’s a nice pickup for the Lakers as a 3-and-D consolation.
The Lakers reportedly are also signing JaVale McGee to a two-year deal and Kentavious Caldwell-Pope, a Klutch client, could be following on a two-year, $16 million. Green, McGee and Caldwell-Pope are notably signed on the same timetable as James, expiring in 2021.
Splitting up Leonard’s max slot with three rotation players isn’t a nightmare scenario. They still have LeBron freaking James and Anthony freaking Davis. But this was always the risk of waiting out on Leonard. If the Lakers had sniffed out Leonard’s preference for the Clippers from the outset of free agency, they could have pivoted and prioritized other top free agents.
But Leonard is such a transcendent player that, even with an outside chance at bringing him in, you have to stay at the table. How much of a chance did the Lakers have? Sixty percent? Twenty percent? One percent? Internally, the Lakers’ brass must have had a walk-away percentage. It apparently never got to that point.
Offensively, the Lakers should be fine. It was Leonard’s defense that would have been the most welcomed addition. Leonard spent his postseason neutering All-Star after All-Star on his path to the title. According to NBA.com matchup data, Leonard’s top defensive assignments, in terms of most possessions defended, were Ben Simmons, Antetokounmpo, Aaron Gordon and Middleton -- three of whom were All-Stars.
Using NBA.com’s matchup data, an analysis by NBCSports.com found that Leonard gets matched up against superior scorers than James, who just isn’t the defender he once was. (That’s what happens when you have 56,000 minutes on your NBA odometer.) In the postseason, Leonard’s defensive assignment (the player he guarded) normally scored 23.3 points per 100 possessions on average. But going against a two-time NBA Defensive Player of the Year in Leonard, that scoring rate fell to 16.3 points per 100 possessions, a significant decrease of 7.0 points.
James, on the other hand, defended lesser scorers, with a normal average of 20.4 points per 100 possessions in the regular season -- the equivalent of Jae Crowder and DeMarre Carroll. Against James, their scoring rate dropped to 15.7 points, a decline of 4.7 points. Still a sizable gap, but not quite up to Leonard’s standard.
Without Leonard, James will undoubtedly spend more energy guarding All-Stars than he’d like at this stage of his career. Green will help, but this is a top-heavy roster with one-dimensional counterparts.
We’ll see if the Clippers and Lakers fight over Iguodala. It’s unclear what’s left in the Lakers’ asset chest that will entice Memphis. A sign-and-trade involving Lakers free agent Alex Caruso might do the trick, but their lopsided salaries will make it difficult even if Memphis holds interest in Caruso.
This was the downside of going all-in for Davis. When Leonard doesn’t commit, they’re left to scramble with veteran minimum contracts. Davis and James are good enough to sleepwalk their way to 50 wins, but it remains to be seen how the rest of the roster shakes out.
If the Lakers had a stronger infrastructure in the front office and on the sidelines, I’d pick them to win the West. Frank Vogel, even with his strong resume in Indiana, has never coached inside the Lakers’ pressure cooker that got the best of Luke Walton, Byron Scott, Mike D’Antoni and Mike Brown before him.
3. What happens to Toronto and OKC?
The Raptors should be fine. They’ll grieve Leonard’s departure by fitting themselves for championship rings.
This will sting. The city -- the entire nation of Canada, for that matter -- fell in love with Leonard. Some naysayers may have argued that one year of Leonard isn’t worth losing DeMar DeRozan and Jacob Poeltl and a first-round pick, but flags fly forever. The Raptors are NBA champions, regardless of where Leonard chose.
The Lakers don’t have a two-way stud to fill in for Leonard, but the Raptors can put Pascal Siakam in his place. He’s not Leonard; no one is. Still, the Raptors went 17-5 in the 22 regular season games that Leonard missed, largely because Siakam stepped up on both ends of the floor.
Even without Leonard, this is probably a 50-win team or close to it. It’s not just about losing Leonard; they lost Green, too. Once VanVleet decided he wanted to be Kyrie Irving in the Finals, Green’s starting spot vanished, but he was still a super useful wing for this team. Norman Powell figures to step into the starting spot, though OG Anunoby, who missed the postseason with an emergency appendectomy, might have a say in that.
There’s a nonzero chance that Toronto slides and goes on a fire sale. The Miami Heat won 37 games after James went back to Cleveland and have struggled to emerge out of the pack. Following the 2011 championship, the Dallas Mavericks decided to break up with Tyson Chandler and have the same record as the Washington Wizards since that title run (308-322). Cleveland won just 19 games last season.
With a mix of savvy veterans and promising stars, the Raptors will probably have a smoother transition than all of those post-title teams. The expectation here is that Masai Ujiri honors his contract and stays with the Toronto with a little sweetener (perhaps an MLSE ownership slice?) to keep him away from D.C. or any other suitors.
He’ll have a tough choice to make if Toronto stumbles out of the gate. Lowry ($34.1 million), Gasol ($25.6 million) and Serge Ibaka ($23.3 million) will be on expiring deals. They could just let those run out and then do the full rebuild next summer. But if the season goes south quickly, they’d be wise to pivot like the Clippers did and build for the future around Siakam, who is a restricted free agent next summer and could command a max contract.
As for OKC, I love what they did here. Losing Durant in 2016 for nothing was a haymaker, but Presti has rebounded nicely by moving George in the NBA equivalent of the “Herschel Deal.”
In the short term, Russell Westbrook will probably gun for his fourth straight triple-double season (which is still crazy to type out), and Gallinari will fit in nicely as a stretch four that can soak up the scoring opportunities in George’s void.
But this is all about the future. Putting aside the fact they’ll be essentially picking in the Clippers’ spot for the next half-decade, this deal also makes it more likely they keep their own first-round picks in 2020 and 2022. The 2020 first-rounder goes to Philadelphia (acquired in the Markelle Fultz deal via Orlando) only if OKC is one of the best teams in the NBA because it is top-20 protected. If OKC isn’t a top-10 team after George’s departure this season, it will splinter into two second-round picks.
The 2022 first-rounder headed to Atlanta for taking on Carmelo Anthony last summer is lottery-protected and turns into two second-round picks if it doesn’t convey. There’s a very real chance that OKC is a very different team by then and could be rebuilding with their assets as Westbrook enters his mid-30s.
The Thunder can go two directions here. They can try to maximize the Westbrook-Adams era and rebuild on the fly with the bevy of picks. Or they can recognize they aren’t title contenders anymore and hit the reset button. Westbrook is religion in Oklahoma, and it’s hard to imagine the Thunder trading such a loyal player after KD left. But it’s a legitimate path now that George has left.
Still, expect OKC to spend at least one season rolling with the current core. Don’t be surprised if they check in on Kevin Love and Bradley Beal now that they’ve lost Westbrook’s co-pilot. Myles Turner and 2017 first-round draft pick Domantas Sabonis in Indiana also become more tantalizing as possible OKC targets. The Thunder could be a couple moves away from being contenders again. About half the NBA probably thinks they can win the title next year. What’s one more?