After a grueling season in which he defeated the odds, the Los Angeles Lakers might be Kawhi Leonard’s easiest path back to the Finals.
June 30 is a big day for dollar signs.
While the last day of the sixth month is prime time to make holiday plans, it’s also the start of a new fiscal year. The NBA has been prepping for this day for some time — the 2019 free agent class has been under a microscope for at least the last calendar year — and few have incurred more speculation than Kawhi Leonard.
At 6 p.m. this Sunday, Leonard will be a free agent. He’ll hold his NBA future in his massive hands as he decides where to lend his basketball services. We’ll undoubtedly hear some of his particularly vocal family members offer their two cents, but for the first time in his career, Leonard is spoiled for choice in where he can choose to play.
Already set on meeting with the Los Angeles Lakers, Clippers and Toronto Raptors, Leonard may also hold court with the New York Knicks before he pens a deal. And while the Raptors are rumored to be among the favorites, Leonard’s ties to Southern California could make compelling arguments for the currently wayward star.
The Lakers are, of course, the noisiest of the bunch. They recently made headlines (when aren’t they?) after future Laker Anthony Davis decided to waive his $4 million trade kicker. That decision changed the Lakers lot; the team, now fielding $32 million in cap space, can now afford to sign a third max contract player.
Signing with the Lakers might be Leonard’s safest bet to return to the NBA Finals. If he leaves the Raptors, the Association will be without an incumbent, Finals experienced team. The safe to the Larry O.B. will be completely unguarded. Next season could be the start of a brand-new dynasty.
But for the player branded as a “dynasty killer” teaming with the Lakers is the antithesis of his M.O.
Kawhi Leonard has been defying the odds since he entered the San Antonio Spurs starting lineup. After dropping Games 6 and 7 of the 2013 NBA Finals, the Spurs didn’t retool or revamp their roster around the 6-foot-7 wing. Instead, they dug their boots deeper into the arid, Texan soil, running back the second-place team for another shot at glory.
It shouldn’t have worked. Tim Duncan, Tony Parker and Manu Ginobili were all a year older in their thirties. So was Gregg Popovich, though his mind for the game was as sharp as ever. Meanwhile the rest of the league was getting younger. The Oklahoma City Thunder fielded a pair of 25-year-olds in Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook. The Portland Trailblazers were fully invested in roster of 20-somethings that was loaded with talent. Every team west of the Mississippi was getting younger, faster and stretchier while the Spurs went double or nothing with their balding roster.
However, none of that mattered to Leonard, who earned his first Finals MVP after slaying the Miami Heat. If fact, he applauded his old heads. Leonard turned the Spurs’ rusting Chevy Caprice into a roaring Camero. He proved that his engine was enough to elevate the status quo for one of the league’s oldest teams. Until 2013, the Spurs had never dropped an NBA Finals. The next season, the onus fell on Leonard to lead San Antonio back to the Finals and win.
“They just told me I gotta keep being aggressive every night for us to win this series,” Leonard said, referring to the Spurs’ Big Three of Parker, Duncan and Ginobili in 2014. “They all pushed me, coach Pop pushed me, the fans pushed me, and I just want to thank God and my parents and everybody.”
Leonard’s 2014 Finals MVP was his introduction as a league changing player. He supported that classification in the first half of Game 1 of the 2017 Western Conference Finals we he looked capable of leading the Duncan-less spurs past the reigning champion Golden State Warriors. Injury impeded that run, but this season he’s cemented his own legacy, at least in the short term, buy dismantling the Warriors with Toronto.
Everything about Leonard’s career suggests the Lakers need him, absolutely. 2018 aside, Kawhi is the perfect teammate. He consoled Kyle Lowry after the Raptors traded his best friend in DeMar DeRozan. He eased first time head coach Nick Nurse’s apprehensions about coaching an all-world talent. Leonard is the stabilizer the Lakers need to keep when the season inevitably goes belly up.
But make no mistake, the Lakers need Leonard. He doesn’t need them.