As fears mounted the Los Angeles Lakers had pushed to the cusp of creating an unprecedented Big Three, the LA Clippers made a blockbuster trade for Oklahoma City‘s Paul George — and cleared the path for free agent Kawhi Leonard to sign a four-year, $141 million contract with the Clippers, league sources told ESPN.
The Clippers became the last line of defense for balance of power in the NBA — never mind the fledgling franchise’s own future. The Clippers had come to believe that without a deal for George, Leonard was prepared to sign with the Lakers and create a Staples Center partnership of LeBron James, Anthony Davis and Leonard, sources said.
Leonard leaving for the Lakers would’ve delivered the NBA into a race for runner-up, and perhaps thrust the Clippers back into the franchise’s dark ages. Now, the Clippers are in Western Conference contention shoulder-to-shoulder with the Lakers — as well as the Denver Nuggets, Houston Rockets, Portland Trail Blazers and Utah Jazz.
George and Leonard wanted to play together, and George and his agent, CAA’s Aaron Mintz approached OKC GM Sam Presti in recent days and requested a trade, league sources said. Leonard’s message to owner Steve Ballmer and President Lawrence Frank was essentially this: Get George, and you’ll get me.
Before free agency started, the Clippers knew they needed a second star to lure Leonard — and had no idea whom he wanted. The Clippers inquired on deals for Washington’s Bradley Beal and New Orleans’ Jrue Holiday, but those guards weren’t available in trades. Eventually, Leonard made his intentions known to the Clippers: Paul George.
To Leonard, the cost was immaterial. Leonard wanted to walk into a championship contender, and he believed George represented the co-star that he needed to combat James and Davis, sources said. Leonard wanted to play for coach Doc Rivers, a coach with whom he could feel a kinship that existed with Toronto President Masai Ujiri, sources said.
In a wild night of negotiations, Presti leveraged the Clippers and Raptors off each other, preying on the uncertainties of what the other might be willing to give OKC for the chance to secure Leonard and George — and perhaps the inside track on a championship.
Clippers leadership — Ballmer, Frank and GM Michael Winger — harbored fears that Presti was close to striking a deal with Toronto that would’ve delivered George to Leonard and the NBA champions, sources said.
Had Presti been able to strike a deal for George with the Raptors — and Leonard was willing to stay — George was believed to be willing to join the Raptors too, sources said. Presti pursued a package of Russell Westbrook with George to the Raptors — with the NBA’s Most Improved Player, forward Pascal Siakam as the centerpiece of a deal — and Ujiri balked, league sources said. Ujiri had delivered Leonard everything that he wanted in a franchise: Leadership and trust, championship talent and a medical partnership that preserved and prepared his body. What Ujiri couldn’t give Leonard was out of his control: Geography, weather, and a chance to return to his Southern California roots.
In the end, the Clippers reservoir of draft picks and young players — cultivated in the Blake Griffin trade, and built upon in the flipping of Tobias Harris to Philadelphia — gave the Thunder a return that could Toronto couldn’t match in trade talks, league sources said.
Toronto’s pressure was unmistakable: Allow George to get traded to the Clippers, and risk Leonard walking into Staples Center arm-and-arm with George to take on James and Davis on the Lakers. This was a high-stakes game playing out across the league on Friday night, with only the future balance of power hanging in the balance.
From the time that Leonard demanded his trade in San Antonio in 2018, the Clippers believed that they had to get him. Here was a top 5 player with Southern California roots whose personality maybe didn’t fit with the bright lights and scrutiny that comes with life as a Laker. The Clippers withstood several significant obstacles on the way to a free agent commitment, including a championship with the Raptors and the Lakers landing Davis in a trade.
When it was time to make a decision on sacrificing the franchise’s long-term future with a historical haul of draft picks, Ballmer felt he had no choice: This was LA, the modern NBA, and stars dictate and drive everything. Leonard wanted George, and the Clippers paid an unprecedented price in assets. Now, Staples Center is the NBA’s epicenter, and the Clippers walk Leonard and George into downtown L.A. to stand shoulder to shoulder with James and Davis. The wildest story on the wildest night of free agency.