Paul Oberjuerge header image 2

Kawhi Leonard and the Players Seize Control of the NBA

July 6th, 2019 · No Comments · NBA

When I was working as sports editor for The National newspaper in Abu Dhabi, our No. 1 topic was soccer. Football. I expected that; soccer clearly is the preferred sport of the citizens of the United Arab Emirates, as well as the preferred sport of many expatriates who live and work in the UAE.

That, I could understand.

What it took quite some time to figure out was how the relationship between stars and clubs was different in international club soccer than it was in American team sports.

Eventually, I grasped that players had much more say over their situations, regardless of contract status, than I was conditioned to seeing.

A player with a suitor could simply inform his current club that he wanted to leave, and in nearly all occasions that player was allowed to join a new team. That puzzled me. Why didn’t clubs tell players they had to play out the contract they had agreed to?

Why? Because they feared the player would not give his full attention to the team he wanted to leave, to the on-field detriment of that club. So, yes, the players held the upper hand.

What we saw in the past few days was stars seizing control of another sport, this one the National Basketball Association.

This has been a gradual process, going back to 2010 when LeBron James and two pals he had made on the U.S. Olympic team agreed to become free agents ahead of the 2010-11 season and all sign with the Miami Heat. That would be James joining up with the two guys already there — Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh. In four seasons, they won two NBA titles. Players noticed.

It became clear that elite players recognized they needed a second star with them to give them a better chance of competing for a championship. They began aiding clubs in recruiting that second star. Eventually, they took control of the process themselves, particularly this year.

Kevin Durant abandoned the stars at Golden State this summer but immediately hooked up with Kyrie Irving with the Brooklyn Nets, who could be a serious contender a year from now, when Durant has recovered from a snapped Achilles.

LeBron James picked out the star he wanted to join the Lakers, Anthony Davis, previously center for the New Orleans Pelicans. The Lakers attempted to complete the deal during the recent season. It didn’t work out; too complicated. But clearly James and his agent were leading the negotiations.

They reopened channels with New Orleans last month, and Anthony Davis deal happened. LeBron got his superstar wingman. The Lakers? They appeared to be observers to their star’s preferences and machinations.

Kahwi Leonard took it to another level. The former Spurs forward fell out with San Antonio during the 2017-18 season, apparently over how a thigh injury was treated. He said a year ago he would test free agency after the 2018-19 season. The Spurs, trying to avoid losing a star without getting one toreplace him, traded Leonard to the Toronto Raptors for DeMar DeRozan, and then Leonard had one of the great seasons in recent NBA history, leading the Raptors to the NBA Finals and a six-game series victory over the Warriors.

Now he was a free agent, and he took control of the process in a way that even LeBron probably thought was a bit bold.

Leonard went off the grid, as deals began to fly. For a week, no one knew what he was up to. Various people suggested sightings, never confirmed. About all that was known was that he was speaking to the Lakers, the Clippers and the Raptors.

Now we know what happened. Leonard looked at the Lakers and didn’t like the vibe he got from club officials. Plus, he ran the risk of being one of two sidekicks to LeBron, and Leonard had just proven, in the playoffs, that he was no one’s sidekick.

The Raptors? Leonard was being polite and making the Lakers and Clippers sweat. He won a championship for Canada’s team without another true superstar on the roster. It can be done, but it’s a hell of a lot of work and he apparently had no plans to try it again in Toronto. So, the Raptors out.

That left the Clippers who, turns out, were better prepared than anyone. They understood their role perfectly — to stand aside and do Leonard’s bidding, since he and his small inner circle had taken control.

Leonard picked out his own preferred star wingman, Paul George of the Oklahoma City Thunder, despite the fact that George had years left on his contract, and then talked him around.

It is believed he told George something like this: Tell Thunder executives you want to be traded, and to one team and one team only — the Los Angeles Clippers, and you and I will get busy.

It happened. Apparently, pretty much as Leonard (and his people) planned it. The Clippers were informed what Leonard planned to do, and apparently said, “Sure! Go for it!” George told the Thunder he wanted to be traded (they must have been gobsmacked, considering George had pledged his loyalty to the Thunder and to OKC star Russell Westbrook only a year ago), and recommended they call the Clippers and make a deal happen.

We finally found out about it all late last night, through the efforts of a handful of connected journalists, led by ESPN’s Adrian Wojnarowski, but also because Leonard was ready for the world to know.

The Clippers sent a five first-round picks to Oklahoma City along with a couple of solid players (Danilo Gallinari and Shai Gilgeous-Alexander) … and Leonard had the team he wanted.

The Clippers must be fine with how this has gone, given that for a time there it looked like they were going to whiff on the “major free agent” front, and now they have the reigning Finals MVP as well as Paul George, who may have just had his best season. OK, they have no first-round draft picks through 2025, but the Clippers already have most of a pretty solid supporting cast, led by Lou Williams.

Looking back, we can see NBA players becoming more involved in where they go and what they do when they get there. The elite NBA guys have lots and lots of issues and jobs, from choosing a shoe company to protecting their brand — and doing superstar-ish things in big games.

It never really made sense for the players to try to do some or most of that through the clubs, who liked control as long as they had it. But now, the worm has turned. When we talk about the Clippers as “Kawhi’s team” … well, it is. Even owner Steve Ballmer likely would agree with that.

Tags: ·

0 responses so far ↓

  • There are no comments yet...Kick things off by filling out the form below.

Leave a Comment