After the Clippers pulled off this NBA offseason’s most startling move by signing Kawhi Leonard and acquiring Paul George, it was tempting to view Leonard as some devious, silent puppet master.
Leonard appeared to be the only superstar who didn’t have his plans pre-tampered and ready to go once free agency struck; he was evidently taking his time to figure something out. Because he’s famously understated and discreet, nobody had any idea what he was up to, even if many pretended to. So once news of the Clippers’ coup broke, I wanted to believe that Leonard had been spending that time carefully setting his Staples Center scheme into motion, assembling a brand-new contender while bleeding out the Lakers’ free agency options. It’s funny to visualize this stone-faced mastermind cackling tunelessly as his plot came to fruition.
But according to a new Los Angeles Times tick-tock of the Clippers’ summer moves, the reality was much simpler, if also funny: The Clippers showed Kawhi a list of names, and then Kawhi picked one, waited for them to figure it out, and that was it. Here’s Arash Markazi:
It was a franchise-altering case of good news and bad news: Leonard wanted to be a Clipper but wouldn’t make the jump unless the team was able to get him a running mate to make them championship contenders.
“We actually had a list of guys, which was a mistake, but we got lucky,” [Clippers coach Doc] Rivers said. “We shouldn’t have had a list, because then he got to choose who he wanted to play with and the assumption was that we could get them. We didn’t know if we could get anybody. We just showed him guys that we thought would match him and when he saw Paul George’s name he said, ‘I want to play with him.’
“We showed him everybody else and he didn’t want to hear it. He just stayed on Paul George, so after the meeting we sat down and I said, ‘We got to get Paul George. I don’t know how we are going to do it, but we have to do it.’ We did know that Oklahoma City wanted to break their team up, so that helped, but we didn’t know if we could get him.”
In fact, per Rivers, as late as noon on the day of the trade, the Clippers were out of the running, and Leonard was picking between the Lakers and Raptors. Then the Paul George trade was back on at 4:00 p.m., then it fell through again at 5:00 p.m., and by 6:00 p.m. a dejected Rivers was pulling up to a Nobu in Malibu assuming all was lost.
As ESPN reported back in July, Leonard had spent the week “meeting, calling and texting with George, trying to convince him to find a way out of Oklahoma City.” To hear Rivers retell it here, OKC was already planning to blow it up and other teams were aware of that intent, which might have eased the recruitment.
As appealing as the whole Keyser Söze image was, this vision of Leonard is working for me too: You showed me some guys, so I pointed to one guy, now you guys go figure that out how to get that guy while I leave the whole basketball universe in stasis. Yeah, that’s definitely Kawhi Leonard.