Raptors were reportedly working on trade for Paul George that might have kept Kawhi Leonard

Zach Beeker/NBAE via Getty Images
15 Comments

The Los Angeles Clippers won the Kawhil Leonard sweepstakes — and they got Paul George in the process.

That process cost Los Angeles a lot, too. To get George, the Clippers had to send Oklahoma City Shai Gilgeous-Alexander (who the Clippers are very high on and didn’t want to trade), Danilo Gallinari, four unprotected first-round picks (three of their own, plus Miami’s in 2021), one lottery-protected first-round pick, and the right to two pick swaps with the Clippers. It was a haul for the Thunder.

Los Angeles had to throw all of that in the deal because Toronto, under team president Masai Ujiri, was making a push to trade for George themselves and bringing Leonard back to Toronto, reports Adrian Wojnarowski of ESPN. Thunder GM/President Sam Presti was playing the Raptors off Clippers president Lawrence Frank and team.

Clippers’ leadership — [owner Steve] 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…

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.

The Raptors were never going to go that kind of all in on this trade because, unlike the Clippers, Toronto was not given assurances that if they traded for George that Leonard would come back, according to sources. That didn’t matter to Presti, he just needed the leverage to get more out of the Clippers. It worked.

For the Clippers, it was a lot to put in the trade. However, if being in Los Angeles — and watching the Lakers with even a diminished Kobe Bryant dominate the local landscape — taught Ballmer one thing it was that star power wins out in the modern NBA. On the court, elite stars are needed to win titles. Off the court, stars are what draws fans to the expensive seats and sells sponsorships. It’s also star power that can help Ballmer get a new building for the Clippers built in Inglewood.

The Clippers had to have this trade, whatever the cost that may come back to bite them. It’s the same calculus the Lakers used to land Anthony Davis (although there were not real suitors going against the Lakers in that overpay).

The Raptors now have a decision to make: Compete this season as a second- or third-tier team in the East (they are not a threat to Milwaukee or Philadelphia anymore), or start trading away players for picks and young assets to start the rebuild around Pascal Siakam. Kyle Lowry, Marc Gasol, Serge Ibaka, and Fred VanVleet are all in the final year of their contracts. This is going to be a year of change north of the border — but they have a title to celebrate through it all.

The Clippers are hoping Leonard can bring the same to them.