Nobody knows what Kawhi Leonard wants. All we have right now are a few bread crumbs and a whole lot of guessing. According to Ryen Russillo, teams don’t even feel like they can get “bad information” on Kawhi. So, if you’re looking for good information, good luck. This is how we end up with terrible billboards and reports about how Kawhi will meet with the Sixers as well as reports about how he won’t meet with the Sixers. Meanwhile, the reigning Finals MVP is just drinking wine and eating cheesecake, picking up moving boxes at Home Depot, and waiting until he can put this all to rest with a pen and a signature.
So instead of trying to figure out the impossible, let’s assess what we know. Here’s what each team rumored to be angling for Kawhi’s services has to offer the soon-to-be free agent:
Chris Haynes of Yahoo Sports reported on Sunday that Kawhi will decline his $21.3 million player option for next season and become a free agent, and that he is “seriously considering” re-signing with the defending champions. Kawhi has said he wants to win, and doing so this season even led our favorite Fun Guy to show a little personality. “I had so much fun this season, probably the most fun I’ve ever had in a basketball season,” Leonard said on NBA TV after winning it all. A few teams can offer Kawhi a realistic shot at a title, but none of them have all the pieces already in place like the Raptors. With Toronto, Kawhi has proof he can contend for a title as soon as he re-signs.
Toronto has a financial advantage, too. The Raptors can offer Leonard a five-year, $190 million deal—every other team can offer him, at most, only four years and $141 million. Kawhi’s other option, if he isn’t interested in locking in a long-term deal, is to take a two-year, $70 million deal with a player option for the second year. Kawhi would be able to make that deal with any team in the league, and it would allow him to make more money in the long run, but without the security of a four- or five-year contract.
Related: Kawhi has mentioned that staying healthy is at the top of his priorities and it is clear that he and the Raptors are on the same page. Toronto can point to the resting plan it instituted this season (Kawhi played only 60 games, and didn’t play both games in any back-to-backs) and to director of sports science Alex McKechnie, who developed a relationship with Kawhi and should be considered a Toronto celebrity by now. The blueprint is there and so are the results; according to ESPN’s Adrian Wojnarowski, Toronto’s successes this season “closed the gap” between the Raptors and the Clippers. If it’s a straight-up basketball choice, it’s hard to argue with The North.
Los Angeles Clippers
OK, let’s talk about the billboards.
When has this ever worked? And do we really think a player—especially one who has no interest in attention—will see these driving down the freeway, or on Twitter, and be compelled to sign with the associated team? The billboards are not the Clippers’ doing, according to the L.A. Times. And some friendly advice to whoever did put these up: As someone who has lived in Los Angeles for 15 years now, there is no greater appeal than the weather; so if you’re hell-bent on putting up billboards, just list the average winter temperatures of Toronto and Los Angeles on billboards side by side and call it a day.
L.A. is home for Kawhi. That has to hold some value. The question is how much? L.A. was reportedly Kawhi’s original preferred destination when he asked out of San Antonio. And unlike the Lakers, who may not be able to offer the max depending on the timing of the Anthony Davis trade (more on that in a bit), the Clippers are a fresh canvas. They are run, much like Toronto, by steady decision-makers. The Clippers have the ability to create two max slots and already have a balanced mix of young players like Shai Gilgeous-Alexander and proven veterans like Lou Williams. Unlike some teams in free agency, the Clippers aren’t handcuffed to a specific scenario or title window. They can provide the longest view in the room while also having an opportunity to win immediately. Above all, they can promise Kawhi that he’s going to be The Guy for a franchise that has yet to truly have a savior.
New York Knicks
The only reason we have to consider the Knicks is because multiple reports have suggested that Kawhi will meet with them when free agency opens. This feels like a “LeBron gives the Sixers a meeting” situation. Maybe Kawhi has never been to New York and wants to sightsee, eat at Hudson Yards, and go to the Met on James Dolan’s dime. I can’t think of any other reason the Knicks would be attractive to him unless Kevin Durant comes to town (Andre Iguodala says no one is coming) and lets Kawhi run the team for a season while he recovers. Sorry, R.J. Barrett.
The Knicks have cap space, and if Kawhi wants to recruit someone else to play with him this would allow him to bring someone else on board. It’s like when J.R. Smith made the Knicks pay $2 million to acquire his brother Chris Smith and then stash him on their G League team, except a thousand times better.
Anyway, New York is cool and all, but if you’re willing to put up with the freezing temperatures, why not just stay in Toronto? I hope we find out during this process that Kawhi just has a thing for New York bagels. “The water is different here, man, it just is.”
All of these teams seem to be on the outside looking in, if they’re even being considered at all. The Nets make more sense than the Knicks once you strip away New York’s history, but Brooklyn seems to be focused on a Kyrie Irving–Kevin Durant duo. Kawhi would be a perfect fit on the Sixers, but this is the team he single-handedly beat with one of the most iconic shots in playoff basketball history. The Lakers should be more appealing than they seem to be. They have the location, the legacy, and the chance to play for a title next season with Anthony Davis and LeBron James. But they have shown little proof that they know how to build a championship team, as evidenced by the uncertainty surrounding how much money they may actually have and whether they can afford to add a third max player. Depending on when the Davis deal gets done, and whether they can offload even more contracts, like those of Moe Wagner and Isaac Bonga, that number could fluctuate between $23.7 million and $32.5 million. The Lakers’ top-end talent counts for something, but their stars won’t be able to win a title if the team can’t play more than four guys come May and June. And Kawhi just had a front-row seat to how valuable depth can be on a title contender. Kawhi also doesn’t seem like the type to join a superteam.
And yet, allow me to counterpoint myself: Don’t put too much of a stake in your intuitions, because, as far as Kawhi’s future goes, it seems that nobody knows anything.