For months (maybe a year), the conventional wisdom around the league has been that Kawhi Leonard would opt out of the final year of his contract with the Clippers, then turn around and re-sign with them (for more money and, if he wants, years). The theory was Leonard had worked too hard to get home to Southern California, he pushed to get Paul Goerge there (and George extended with the Clippers), Leonard wasn’t leaving.
Leonard did decline his player option, as expected.
While he likely still re-signs with the Clippers, he will listen to offers from other teams, reports Chris Haynes of Yahoo Sports/TNT.
— NBA TV (@NBATV) August 2, 2021
There have been whispers of Leonard’s frustrations with the Clippers medical staff, it’s unclear if that is behind this, or if it’s something else, or if he just wants to be recruited a little. Good luck trying to get into Leonard’s head, he’s not on social media and his face is expressionless on the court.
The fact that Leonard will miss most or all of next season following ACL surgery for an injury that kept in out of the final eight playoff games for the Clippers is not going to scare any team off. Much like Kevin Durant after his torn Achilles, teams will pay Leonard.
The Knicks would be at the top of that list. They have the cap space to sign Leonard to a max contract, they have an up-and-coming team with Julius Randle and R.J. Barrett, and they have the lure of playing in Madison Square Garden. The Knicks will draw a big star in the coming few years, and they will take a swing at Leonard.
The Dallas Mavericks also will be in the mix, although they would need to shed another $7-$8 million in salary or find a sign-and-trade that works for the Clippers. Leonard next to Luka Doncic would be a top two who could hang with any other pair in the NBA, and the Mavericks are the draw of a very player-friendly organization. As a side note, the Mavericks picked up their $4.1 million team option on Willie Cauley-Stein earlier in the day, not a move a team makes if they are looking to clear cap space.
Miami had been mentioned before as well, and Leonard with Jimmy Butler and Bam Adebayo would be a contender in the East. However, with the Heat advancing toward a sign-and-trade deal with Toronto to bring Kyle Lowry to Miami, they are not acting like a franchise that sees itself in the mix to seriously land Leonard.
Other teams could try to jump in with sign-and-trade offers. Still, the most likely result of all this is Leonard re-signs with the Clippers, and they hope he can return for the playoffs next season.