Forget that little bit of shaking in Las Vegas, this was the earthquake that shook the NBA Friday night:
Kawhi Leonard chose the Clippers and convinced Paul George to force the Thunder to trade him to Los Angeles as well. They formed their own superteam just down the hall from LeBron James and Anthony Davis — and the Clippers have a far better supporting cast. The rivalry is on in Los Angeles.
Who won and who lost in the big moves? Let’s break it all down.
First, one quick note: The Toronto Raptors are not on the list below. After this I can’t exactly call them winners, they just lost the best basketball player walking the face of the Earth and got nothing back. However, they aren’t losers, either — they won an NBA title with him. This was the gamble team president Masai Ujiri made: They could do everything right and still lose Leonard. That’s exactly what happened, and now they likely start down a path retooling around Pascal Siakam. But losers? They took a chance and won a title, that’s still the biggest win in the NBA.
Winner: Kawhi Leonard
Remember when we thought Leonard was just a basketball-playing robot devoid of human emotions or ambition outside of winning titles? A player custom-designed for Gregg Popovich and the Spurs. That seems a very, very long time ago now.
Leonard has taken charge of everything. On the court in these playoffs, he staked his claim as the best player in the world, leading Toronto to a title.
Now he’s taken charge of his career off the court in an “I’m a superstar and I can do what I want” kind of way. He forced his way out of San Antonio. After a season in Toronto, he tried to recruit Kevin Durant to join him on the Clippers (but KD, Kyrie Irving, and DeAndre Jordan were already all but headed to Brooklyn). So Leonard convinced Paul George to go into the Thunder offices, a year after he signed a max contract to stay there, and demand a trade to the Clippers. Then Leonard told the Clippers he would only sign with them if they landed George.
That is a superstar getting what he wants. That’s a winner.
Winner: Los Angeles Clippers
This win isn’t just about being title contenders, although the Clippers are certainly that now. This is a win about perception for the Clippers.
Talk to a basketball fan over age 28 about the Clippers and the images that come to mind are Donald Sterling’s comments and racism, drafting Michael Olowokandi, and Elgin Baylor as a caretaker GM not spending money. This was the organization that Lamar Odom begged not to bring him back.
That is not these Clippers. It hasn’t been for a while, but it takes time for perceptions to change. Ask a 24-year-old, fifth-year NBA player what he knows of the Clippers and he will say they make the playoffs every year, have a coach in Doc Rivers everyone wants to play for, they used to be Lob City, last season they had a scrappy team that looked like fun to play on, they have the logo in the front office, and they have an owner in Steve Ballmer worth $50 billion and he’s not afraid to spend it. The Clippers of recent years have been one of the best-run organizations in the NBA.
Now everyone will see that because they are contenders.
Loser: Los Angles Lakers
The Lakers — and Los Angeles as a city on some level — are a star-driven culture. Showtime was Magic and Kareem and Worthy. Then came Shaq and Kobe. Then Kobe and Pau (although Gasol was never quite pure Los Angeles in terms of showmanship and brand). It is in the franchise’s DNA to chase stars.
So there really wasn’t a choice for Laker GM Rob Pelika and company: Chase Leonard as their third star. Sure, there were risks, but they had to do it — and it was the right move. They came close to landing Leonard and having the greatest “big three” the NBA had ever seen.
But the nearly six days it took for Leonard to make his call — he was basically stalling for time so the Clippers could pull off the George trade, but he needed the leverage to get the Clippers to go all-in — left Los Angels with a much weaker field of rotation players to add to the roster. Guys who had been likely targets such as J.J. Redick, Trevor Ariza, Brook Lopez, Patrick Beverley, and more were off the board. The Lakers did well to land Danny Green, and DeMarcus Cousins can play a role, but the pickings got slim on the Lakers. Pelinka still has a lot of work to do on this roster if they are going to be a serious title threat.
Winner: NBA Fans: There is no superteam
This is Adam Silver’s favorite thing about the trade.
There are right now, by my (maybe conservative) estimate, eight NBA teams who can go into next season with the thought they have a shot at an NBA title. That is as close to parity as the NBA will ever get. The race is wide open. If Leonard had chosen the Lakers the NBA would have been back to the start of the last two seasons, just with Los Angeles taking Golden State’s place — there was one dominant team to beat and it was going to take a lot of things to go right to knock them off. Now, we get to see how team chemistry, healthy, and a plethora of other factors play into an open race, rather than seeing if some team can shock the world.
This isn’t a “he’s a bad teammate” rant, in part because there are plenty of guys who would like to play with Westbrook, and in part because Paul George said that’s not the issue.
Instead, Westbrook is a loser because his world just got turned upside down. Westbrook thought he had a true partner in crime, but his man ran off to Los Angeles with some guy who has cornrows driving a 1997 Chevy Tahoe. The Thunder, as constructed, will be a borderline playoff team in the West. That means another year of Westbrook against the world, or the Thunder trade him, too. Which is likely the path everyone decides to go down, but finding a good team to take on the four years, nearly $170 million still on Westbrook’s contract (counting his option year) is not going to be easy.
Winner: Thunder GM Sam Presti
One year ago, Presti was validated. Oklahoma City had gambled on trading for Paul George when the people around the star tried to warn everyone off because he wanted to be a Laker, but after a year in OKC George signed up for four more.
This week, George walked into Presti’s office and demanded a trade to the Clippers. It was a punch to the gut on a lot of levels, a blow to the culture the Thunder thought they had built.
Presti recovered and got a haul equal to what the Pelicans got for Anthony Davis. OKC receives Shai Gilgeous-Alexander (second-team All-Rookie and a promising player), Danilo Gallinari, five first-round picks (the Clippers first-round pick unprotected in 2022, 2024 and 2026, the Miami Heat’s unprotected 2021 pick and Miami’s lottery-protected 2023 first-round pick) plus the right to swap picks with the Clippers in 2023 and 2025.
Whatever direction the Thunder go now, they have a lot of assets and options.
Winner: Milwaukee Bucks and Philadelphia 76ers
Kawhi Leonard is out of the East and now the path to the Finals just got a whole lot easier. The Bucks and 76ers are two clear favorites to come out of the conference, and one fewer hurdle stands in their way.