How much will Leonard’s decision change the shape of the league? What would it mean if he chooses the Toronto Raptors, LA Clippers or Los Angeles Lakers? And what will it say about the future of NBA superteams?
Our NBA experts answer the big questions about Kawhi, including if his next team will be the title favorite no matter what.
1. Fact or fiction: Kawhi’s team is the title favorite for 2020.
Kirk Goldsberry: Fiction. We don’t have enough information to say that regardless of where he ends up. Even if he lands in Lakerland, it’s unclear how the roster will all fall into place. Sure, they’d have three incredible pieces, but without knowing who else is on the roster — let alone how they all play together — it’s too early to call them the favorites. If he goes to the Clippers, they certainly won’t be the favorites.
Kevin Pelton: Part fact, part fiction. Toronto yes, particularly if Danny Green also re-signs. The Lakers would surely be Vegas favorites with three of the league’s top players, though I’d like to see how they fill 10 open roster spots before making that declaration myself. I don’t think the Clippers would be the favorites with Kawhi.
Royce Young: Fiction. The Lakers are the favorite with Leonard, no question. The Raptors and Clippers would be a favorite. That’s sort of what’s at stake with Leonard’s decision — if he doesn’t pick the Lakers, the NBA has no superteam for the first time in almost a decade. There would be balance and parity in both conferences, with the door open for as many as 10 teams to feel as if they could win it all.
Bobby Marks: Part fact, part fiction. Only the Raptors become the favorite if Leonard returns. The Lakers will certainly have a big three, but it is hard to gauge what this roster will look like with only six players under contract.
Jorge Sedano: Fiction. The Lakers will certainly be favorites with Kawhi. You can also make the case for Toronto. But I believe the Clippers would still have some work to do with the roster to reach that distinction. They would be near the top of the list, but I don’t think they’d be in the top two.
2. If Kawhi returns to the Raptors, then …
Marks: Toronto returns the core from last season’s championship team — Kyle Lowry, Marc Gasol, Serge Ibaka, Fred VanVleet, Norman Powell, Pascal Siakam and maybe Danny Green — and becomes immediate 2020 championship favorites.
Sedano: They are still the favorite in the East and possibly the favorite in the NBA. The question then becomes who can challenge them in the East. Can Giannis Antetokounmpo continue to add to his game and propel the Milwaukee Bucks to greater heights? Will the new-look Sixers overcome their presumed deficiency from beyond the 3-point line and get the bounces they need to take down the Raptors? We’d have to see see.
Pelton: Their trade for Leonard last summer goes down as one of the greatest in NBA history. After Toronto won the championship, it’s a great trade either way given how hard it is to win a championship. But if the Raptors also manage to get multiple seasons of Leonard, it becomes historic.
Goldsberry: We have to call them the favorites. They are a very deep team with a great coach, and arguably the best player on the planet. Oh, and they just dethroned the Dubs. Siakam is only getting better, Kawhi is a monster and the supporting cast just showed it can step it up in big moments.
Young: Score another for risk-taking, and betting on yourself. The Oklahoma City Thunder set the precedent by gambling on Paul George. The Raptors took it a step further, not only with a title in hand, but another improbable recruitment of a superstar who otherwise had no interest in playing there. Player power is changing the way superstars approach their contracts, but if Kawhi stays and turns down L.A. the way George did, the counter has been established.
David Jacoby predicts that the longer Kawhi Leonard takes to make his decision, the more he believes Kawhi will end up in Los Angeles with the Lakers.
3. If Kawhi goes to the Clippers, then …
Sedano: They won’t be immediate front-runners, but it allows for a really smart front office, coaching staff and owner to create avenues to possibly become the title favorite. It also makes for unbelievable parity in both conferences. The league would be as wide-open as ever.
Pelton: Much like the Nets landing Kevin Durant and Kyrie Irving, it’s a triumph of team building. The Clippers positioned themselves to appeal to Leonard by skillfully turning Blake Griffin and Chris Paul into a variety of capable role players (Patrick Beverley, Montrezl Harrell and Lou Williams) and promising young players (Shai Gilgeous-Alexander and Landry Shamet) that made them competitive with max-level cap space.
Young: The best-laid plans were executed. The Clippers have invested heavily in preparing to pitch Leonard and to have a team worth joining. From the infrastructure of the front office, the coaching and support staff, the roster and everything else in between, the Clippers set an objective and accomplished it. They’re an instant title contender — and with the Lakers built to be contenders as well — Los Angeles is officially the capital city of the NBA.
Goldsberry: The NBA is wide-open. Not only would the Clippers be a legit contender, but so would the Lakers, Nuggets, Jazz, Rockets and Warriors — and that’s just the West! On the other side, Philadelphia and Milwaukee are strong, plus Indiana and Boston are dark horses. For those of us who love the idea of parity in the NBA, Kawhi to the Clippers could be a dream come true.
Marks: The Clippers jump into the top four in the West. Without Leonard, LA could still become a playoff team, especially with most of their roster returning, but not one that can compete for a championship.
4. If Kawhi goes to the Lakers, then …
Pelton: They’ve had one of the most remarkable summers in NBA history, adding the reigning Finals MVP and a three-time All-NBA first-team pick (Anthony Davis) to LeBron James in a matter of weeks. Given how bleak and chaotic things looked for the Lakers after Magic Johnson’s departure from the organization, it would be an incredible turnaround.
Marks: The real work for Rob Pelinka and the front office begins. The downside of this big three is what is left to spend in free agency. With most of the key free agents off the board and only with the $4.8 million room and minimum exceptions available, Los Angeles will need to go bargain shopping. They’ll hope players such as Avery Bradley, Andre Iguodala, Kyle Korver and possibly JR Smith are bought out of their contracts, giving the Lakers an opportunity to add veterans with championship pedigree.
Sedano: They become arguably the most formidable trio in NBA history. LeBron has been part of some great big threes, including one in Miami that won a pair of titles with three top-15 players on the roster. This would be three players in the top seven. Yes, there’s work to do with the supporting cast, but it allows LeBron to age and win much like Kareem Abdul-Jabbar did with Magic Johnson and James Worthy. For the crowd that would yell, “It’s not fair!”, this league has thrived with dynasties before and will continue to thrive with them moving forward.
Young: Every day things change but basically stay the same. Eventually, the league always tilts back to the Lakers and their irresistible draw. Leonard has the hometown connection, and the Clippers did everything to take advantage of that and make a case. But if the Lakers sign him regardless, even with the superteam element that would seem to dissuade Leonard, it’s just the NBA returning to its normal condition.
Goldsberry: You and your friends have to stop making Rob Pelinka jokes. If the Lakers acquire LeBron James, Anthony Davis and Kawhi Leonard within a 12-month period, that wouldn’t just be the best front-office performance of recent years, it would compete with Golden State and Miami for the most impressive performance of this decade. If Kawhi goes to the Lakers, then folks around the NBA will have to find a new front office to make fun of. There’s always the Knicks.
5. Fact or fiction: The NBA superteam era is just getting started.
Goldsberry: Fiction. I grew up watching Jordan, Pippen and Rodman. The Showtime Lakers had Kareem, Worthy and Magic. Bill Russell‘s Celtics were loaded. The only thing new about superteams is the word superteam itself.
Sedano: Fact. It’s a star-driven league, with success predicated on dynasties and the interest in player mobility. There’s no reason to believe that will change in the foreseeable future.
Young: Fiction. You can build a superteam, but it’s hard to maintain one. The Warriors seemed destined to rule the league for a decade, but it lasted three years. There are cap mechanisms that make it difficult to invest financially in more than three stars, and it was a unique one-time situation that allowed the Warriors to sign Kevin Durant anyway. Even if Leonard joins the Lakers, there’s a timetable on that superteam with LeBron’s age.
Marks: Fiction. This summer was the perfect storm when it came to All-NBA players available either in trades (Anthony Davis) or free agency (Kyrie Irving and Kevin Durant). With an average-at-best market of free agents next summer and the noise dormant on what superstar wants out next, the superteam era should be in a holding pattern for a bit.
Pelton: Fact, depending how we define it. As long as stars have the right to choose their teams in free agency and are willing to exercise that right, they’re going to want to play with other stars to maximize their chances of winning championships. I don’t see that changing unless the rules do. But the slight increase in maximum salaries in the current collective bargaining agreement will make it a little more difficult to build competitive teams around three stars, so superteams dominating the league might not be as common going forward.