In the midst of a busy sports summer that includes Wimbledon and the Women’s World Cup, it was once again the National Basketball Association (NBA) that stole the show over the weekend.
NBA free agency took center stage as nearly one-third of the league’s 195 listed free agents signed new contracts within the first 36 hours of Sunday’s 6 p.m. opening. League officials curiously must have looked the other way as players and teams were openly negotiating with one another in the months leading up to July 1. It seemed at times late Sunday that the 6 p.m. start time might have actually signaled the end of free agency instead of the beginning since media members had already leaked where marquee names like Kevin Durant were headed before team meetings were even allowed to be scheduled.
So now the sports world’s attention turns to the last undecided superstar free agent left on the market, Kawhi Leonard, who is expected to choose later this week whether to stay on the Toronto Raptors and chase back-to-back championships or whether to go home to his native Southern California to sign with either the Los Angeles Lakers or their Staples Center neighbors, the Los Angeles Clippers.
Leonard’s decision will have lasting repercussions on the next half decade, and possibly the history, of the NBA. If Leonard stays in Toronto, the Raptors are well-positioned to repeat as champions in 2020 with their recent Finals’ opponent, the Golden State Warriors, hampered by injury. After 2020, the Raptors will have decisions to make on some key veteran players like Marc Gasol and Kyle Lowry, but Leonard’s presence would keep Toronto among the league’s elite for years to come. But if Leonard leaves the Raptors, it might be time for a mini-fire sale of the Raptors’ supporting cast in a league in which it’s better to break teams up too soon rather than too late.
Leonard’s decision will also have a huge impact on the Clippers’ franchise. Long the ugly stepsister to the Lakers’ beauty queen, the Clippers have elevated themselves above the Lakers on the court over the past half-decade. With a hungry owner in Steve Ballmer, who spent over $2 billion to buy the Clippers in 2014, and a stable front office headed by the great Jerry West, the Clips have been positioning themselves to be an attractive spot for a major free agent. Leonard, who grew up in nearby Moreno Valley and attended college at San Diego State, has long been expected to be the guy to put the Clips on the map. If Leonard does join the Clippers, he will take a No. 8 seed with a solid collection of role players and immediately make them title contenders. But if he doesn’t sign with the Clippers, then the summer of 2019 has to be considered a failure for the Clips’ front office.
As for the Lakers, the impact is obvious and immediate. With a collection of stars that already includes LeBron James and Anthony Davis, Leonard’s presence would make the Lakers the league’s championship favorite for the entire length of his four-year contract. It would almost guarantee several more rings for Leonard and James. But does the famously reticent Leonard want the day-to-day media and fan scrutiny that comes with being a Laker and does he want to exist in the constant shadow of King James. If Leonard joins the Lakers, the league will once again have a team to fill the role of villainous superpower that the Miami Heat and Golden State Warriors, respectively, occupied over the past decade.
Having written several weeks ago about the financial windfall that dynasties can create for leagues, I have a feeling I know which way the NBA brass wants this thing to go. We’ll find out soon if the league’s quietest star joins the Lakers and makes the loudest move of all.