So, it’s over. The wait, that is. Kawhi Leonard is a Los Angeles Clipper for at least the next three years, though a fourth is a possibility (and, literally, an option). He’s $176.3 million richer, and, metaphorically, the Clippers are, too. The franchise’s future, never an immediate concern but certainly a cagey long-term situation given the unpredictability of Kawhi, is now locked in place. It’s different; it’s nice.
It’s also simultaneously expected and far from predictable. At least in terms of the contract’s length, it’s an indication that the Clippers had a considerable amount of leverage in negotiations with their star, or that Leonard simply had a legitimate interest in staying put in Los Angeles long-term, or both.
Going back to the idea of the unpredictability of Kawhi: although it felt like his return to the Clippers had been telegraphed since the offseason began — or sooner, like when he injured his ACL in the team’s second-round series against the Utah Jazz — you just… you never know. There was a time that, because of his demeanor and silence, people thought Kawhi would follow the Tim Duncan formula, therefore remaining a Spur for life. Instead, he’s played for two teams since, winning a championship with Toronto. And now he’s committed to at least three more years with the Clippers; ideally, they become the third team to reap the benefits of his services.
Odds are they won’t be able to this season — the aforementioned ACL injury will keep him out for much of, if not the entirety of the regular season. If he does return for the playoffs, there's always the chance that he’ll be held to a minutes restriction, or hold himself to one (that unpredictability doesn’t just evaporate all at once, you know). But there’s a light at the end of the tunnel now, and the tunnel is even longer than it seemed to be before.
What the Clippers have done by ensuring that they locked Leonard into a long-term deal, as opposed to the ever-popular deals that see stars sign for two years with an option in the second, is secure relative roster consistency for the better part of the 2020s. Most of those short-term deals invariably result in an offseason move or an in-season demand to move; there’s always been a concern, no matter the team, that Kawhi would be one to subscribe to that plan of attack.
It appears Leonard has bought into that idea, too, and that the Clippers were able to work out an attractive enough situation to get him to agree to this three (or four) year contract. It’s not as if a deal of this sort for a player coming off a serious injury is unheard of. Both Kevin Durant and Klay Thompson, players who have had some of the worst luck with the injury bug in recent memory, signed humongous deals with their teams directly on the heels of those injuries.
How negotiations likely went for the recently injured Leonard seems to be a similar story to that of his All-Star contemporaries. Neither the Warriors nor the Nets appeared interested in signing Durant or Thompson to short-term contracts; why bother paying your star for a year just for him not to play if they were to opt out come year two? The Clippers, it seems, took a similar approach, ensuring that at least two good years of Leonard were a guarantee. Teams would be smart to use these situations as benchmarks moving forward. What’s the point of giving a player leverage to skip town if one of two years is bound to be spent in street clothes, and year two is merely an audition for other suitors with max slots begging to be filled?
Leonard and the Clippers seem uninterested in leaving that door open, and their other offseason moves prove it. Lawrence Frank and Co. made running it back their offseason goal, with Kawhi as their obvious cornerstone, never mind the fact this his return took the longest to lock in. Serge Ibaka, who spent the better part of 2021 injured, opted into the second year of his contract. Nicolas Batum then re-signed, as did Reggie Jackson. The team then signed Justise Winslow, a nice sweetener who adds depth while Terance Mann handles starter’s minutes and Leonard sits on the bench, or up in a suite.
It’s rather clear that the front office saw last season’s Kawhi-less playoff run as a solid indication not just that the team could do damage in the playoffs, but that, with a healthy main rotation, could feasibly win a title. Perhaps Kawhi sees that, too. It’d be a shock if he didn’t; given Paul George’s relatively consistent star turns late in the 2021 playoffs, Reggie Jackson’s (hopefully steady) ascendance, and the development/involvement of Mann, Luke Kennard, and rookies Keon Johnson, Jason Preston, and Brandon Boston Jr., there’s a foundation built and, dare I say it, a tradition brewing.
Yeah, that’s a bit of a yucky word. But that’s what a contract like Leonard’s tends to inspire in prognosticators. The Lob City teams arguably never had this much hope linked to their playoff dreams. And once Chris Paul and Blake Griffin either departed or fell off, the Clippers left behind were young talents or journeyman projects. This roster, though? With Kawhi Leonard, Paul George, and the rest of last year’s cast all locked in for a couple more seasons? It feels far from unpredictable. It’s different; it’s nice.