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Kawhi Leonard, Paul George And The Clippers Stun The NBA

One of the most seismic moves in Los Angeles basketball history came early Saturday morning when reports emerged that superstar Kawhi Leonard would not only sign with the Clippers, but he would also be joined by Paul George, who will pack his bags in Oklahoma City to team up with Leonard as part of a blockbuster trade.

The Clippers will surrender an enormous haul for George, a six-time All-Star: five first-round draft picks (four of which will be unprotected), a solid player in forward Danilo Gallinari and a budding star in guard Shai Gilgeous-Alexander.

But make no mistake: The Leonard-George team-up altered the NBA landscape again (the fourth huge reshuffle in the past month). And it immediately puts the Clippers — one of the league’s most long-suffering and hard-luck franchises — in the conversation for an NBA title.

The Los Angeles Lakers were desperately hoping to land Leonard and pair him with LeBron James and Anthony Davis, forming a true superteam and becoming the odds-on favorite to win the title now that the Golden State Warriors are hobbling into the season short-handed. The Lakers gambled by taking a slow approach to free agency — basically holding off on signing any key players in hopes of getting Leonard, who would have required every bit of the team’s max salary-cap space.

So, in two or three different ways, this was the worst-case scenario for the Lakers. Aside from whiffing on Leonard and missing out on a number of other difference-makers they could have gotten had they known he wasn’t going to sign,1 they watched Kawhi sign with the team that shares their arena. And they watched him stealthily lure George — a Laker target from the summer before — ensuring that the Clippers will have just as much firepower as the Lakers and likely more longevity. (Davis is 26, but James turns 35 later this year. Leonard and George are 28 and 29, respectively.)

Even after having tasted their first championship, the Raptors will obviously feel a bit gutted by this experience. With things as open as they were, Toronto envisioned the possibility of another title run or two with Leonard, who has arguably become the world’s best player. They made a trade last summer to get Kawhi, and no one in their right mind would question that move now. But Toronto’s inability to replace Leonard’s star power now likely turns the Raptors into a mid-tier playoff team in the East and nothing more. (The Sixers and Bucks, in particular, have to be thrilled with this outcome.)

And there will also be all sorts of questions raised about the future of the Thunder now. We all know that Sam Presti can make fantastic use of draft picks. But Russell Westbrook — one of the fiercest and most competitive athletes in the sport — is the lone star in Oklahoma City now, and on the front end of a five-year, $206 million contract. He’ll want to win now, but OKC may be on a different timeline after the George trade.

The reason: Oklahoma City got a massive return on George as far as future draft picks are concerned. The Clippers will send their unprotected 2022, 2024 and 2026 first-round picks to the Thunder, as well as an unprotected first-rounder in 2021 from Miami and a protected first-rounder from the Heat in 2023. (OKC will also get the right to swap picks with the Clippers in 2023 and 2025.) The Thunder should still be competitive and be a threat to reach the playoffs with this roster. Gallinari had a career year last season, averaging 20 points per game on highly efficient shooting. Gilgeous-Alexander, meanwhile, will help now and in the future with his skill on defense. But this is still a gut punch for Oklahoma City, which last summer thought it would get George for the long haul after he signed a long-term deal to stay with the Thunder. The obvious conundrum without George is that Westbrook may not be capable of leading a team to a title as its best player.

While Westbrook has remained the face of the organization, George seemed to overtake him as the team’s best player — and as the franchise’s most sure-handed talent on both sides of the ball. Westbrook’s past season was shaky in a number of ways, and in light of OKC’s third-straight first-round exit, the level of scrutiny on the point guard only figures to intensify as time goes on. And the Thunder may not continue to show patience in finding out whether it’s possible to successfully build a contender around Westbrook.

Of course, this trade wasn’t something the Thunder wanted to do — not until the club was backed into a corner. ESPN’s Adrian Wojnarowski reported that Leonard met with fellow Southern California native George this week and implored him to force his way to the Clippers so that the two could team up. Short of that happening, Leonard almost certainly would not have signed with the Clippers on a four-year max deal.2

Now that it has happened, though, Doc Rivers and the Clippers figure to be a force out West. (A crazy turn of events, since we all thought that the Clips had already waved the white flag on landing a second star this summer, with their involvement in the Jimmy Butler sign-and-trade.) They were a No. 8 seed last season, and they earned the respect of fans and foes alike because of how they competed against the Warriors before bowing out in six games during a first-round playoff loss.

They have one of the more tenacious defensive guards in Patrick Beverley. Landry Shamet looks as if he’ll be one of the league’s premier shooters for years to come. Lou Williams was the best bench scorer in the league, and Montrezl Harrell, his pick-and-roll partner, is an even more well-rounded reserve than Williams is. Kawhi and George will obviously add a ton of ball-handling and scoring punch, but perhaps even more important, the Clippers will have an incredible amount of defensive length. With these two, the team now has two of the NBA’s three best defensive wing players.3

But while we know this team has the potential to be lethal, the beauty of this move is that it leaves us with no clue which NBA club will be having a parade next June. All we know, for now, is that basketball in Los Angeles should be a blast, with two superstars on either side of the city’s rivalry.

Footnotes

  1. Early Saturday, the Lakers did get Danny Green, Leonard’s longtime teammate, for two years and $30 million. They also agreed to re-sign shot-blocker JaVale McGee and guard Kentavious Caldwell-Pope.

  2. In fact, the Clippers might have felt even more compelled to do the deal just to ensure that Kawhi didn’t end up with the Lakers instead.

  3. Giannis Antetokounmpo being the other.

Chris Herring is a senior sportswriter for FiveThirtyEight.

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