How Kawhi Leonard signing, Paul George trade created real rivalry in Los Angeles

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There’s a real rivalry between the Lakers and Clippers now.

The Lakers were incredibly confident internally in recent days that they would be the new home of Kawhi Leonard. They had the history, the brand, and LeBron James and Magic Johnson helping make their pitch. The Lakers were selling the best big three the NBA had ever seen: LeBron, Anthony Davis, and Leonard.

What the Clippers had — after a year-long pursuit of Leonard — was both his interest in playing for them (not in the brighter spotlight of the Lakers) and inside information: Leonard wanted to play with Paul George, and George wanted out in Oklahoma City. The Clippers also understood what it would look like if the Lakers landed Leonard — a dominant superteam in the same building, casting them again deep into the shadows in Los Angeles. That gave the Clippers both the appropriate fear to get the deal done and an opening, and they ran right through it agreeing to sign Leonard and trading for George.

It’s now LeBron James and Anthony Davis vs. Kawhi Leonard and Paul George in the hallway series in Los Angeles. Lakers fans were stunned and angered by the news that their “little brother” just stole their star free agent and grabbed the guy they thought was a lock to be theirs a couple years ago. The Lakers finished 11 games back of the Clippers last season, landed Anthony Davis, and still lost ground.

The Clippers are now legit title contenders because they landed two guys the Lakers wanted.

Leonard was always an enigma who teams could not predict, but it was the trade for George that blindsided the Lakers and everyone else in the NBA.

The rumors of some tension between Russell Westbrook and George after just two seasons had bubbled up a little around the league in recent days (reminiscent to a degree of the things said about the Kevin Durant and Westbrook relationship in years past), but it seemed more smoke than substance.

Leonard helped make it become real and solid.

George sat down with Leonard in Los Angeles this week — before Leonard met with any teams — and they hatched this plan. If George’s relationship with Westbrook were ideal, if George thought the Thunder were contenders, Leonard’s request may have fallen on deaf ears. It didn’t, but George came to Westbrook’s defense on Twitter.

The bottom line is George and his agent asked for a trade. That blindsided the Thunder organization.

This was the same Paul George that a few years ago was forcing his way out of Indiana and had his people telling every suitor that would listen not to sign him because he would head to the Lakers as a free agent in a year. In large part because they believed they would land him as a free agent, the Lakers didn’t go all in trying to trade for George from Indiana. That lack of a serious effort to trade for George, plus a good first season with Westbrook, had George deciding to stay in OKC and signing a new contract just one year ago.

However, George’s relationship with Westbrook evolved, as did his understanding of how far the partnership in OKC could really go. How much of George’s decision was that and how much was Leonard’s pitch, we will never quite know. What we know is combined that was enough for George to ask out.

The Clippers gave up a TON to get George, but to them it was worth it because it is really getting two stars — Leonard would not be a Clipper either without this trade. If the Clippers want to compete with the Lakers on the court for a title, if they want to compete off the court in Los Angeles for fans to fill the expensive seats and for team sponsors, if owner Steve Ballmer wants to get a new building approved and built for the Clippers in Inglewood, it was going to take star power. This trade is worth it for them, but the price was high.

For most rivalries to gain real traction, the teams have to meet in the playoffs with a lot on the line. This is the exception because the Clippers got two players the Lakers wanted and now stand, at the very least, on equal footing with them in the West. The Clippers are actually little ahead because of the depth of roster around their stars (Lou Williams, Patrick Beverley, Montrezl Harrell, etc.).

The history and legacy of the franchises are not near the same. The Lakers remain by far the more popular team in Southern California, they have the 16 titles, they are the franchise where fathers pass on their love of the team to their sons and daughters. That, however, is ancient history to players. If you have been in the NBA for the last five years, what do you know about the Clippers? They went to the playoffs every year, they have a coach that everyone loves to play for in Doc Rivers, they were the excitement of Lob City, they rebuilt on the fly to a team that was clearly having fun playing together last season and got along, they have Jerry West as part of a smart front office, and they have a competitive owner worth $50 billion who is not afraid to spend it. The brand? Chris Paul and Blake Griffin were not hurting for major national endorsements as Clippers.

What have you seen from the Lakers the past five seasons?

Clippers vs. Lakers games at Staples Center next season are going to be intense.