Eight questions in the aftermath of Kawhi Leonard and Paul George choosing the Los Angeles Clippers
Plenty has transpired following the colossal moves the Clippers have made. Let's try to make sense of all this
The entire NBA is experiencing aftershock from a seismic event, and I don't mean the earthquake that halted play at summer league. In what must be the most significant Friday night news dump in league history, the Los Angeles Clippers signed Finals MVP Kawhi Leonard and traded for superstar Paul George, who had reportedly requested a trade from the Oklahoma City Thunder at Leonard's urging.
As a result, the Thunder have a plethora of draft picks and a pathway to a bright, if uncertain future, assuming that they trade their extremely well-compensated franchise player. The Los Angeles Lakers have assembled a team that is a hybrid of last year's Lakers and the 2017-18 New Orleans Pelicans, plus Danny Green, whose departure from the Toronto Raptors leaves the NBA champions extremely thin on the wing.
Here are eight questions about the teams that chased Leonard and the league at large:
1. Is there an overriding lesson to learn from Leonard's decision?
Aside from the pointlessness of trying to predict what a famously inscrutable superstar is going to do in free agency? That's a big one. I also believe, however, that this should teach us about the value of certainty, at least when it comes to elite players. In joining the Clippers with George, Leonard knows that he has a co-star who he can trust to perform in the playoffs, take the pressure off him in the regular season and complement him on both ends. Leonard knows that, as long as they both stay healthy, they will be able to compete for championships, and he has no reason to doubt the front office's ability to set them up with a solid supporting cast.
Without making the George trade, the Clippers would have been a sensible destination for Leonard. They likely tried to sell him on their young players, their smart signings and their impressive collection of draft picks, and how they would be in great position to add another star in the next few years. Leonard, however, reportedly wanted to team up with Kevin Durant or Jimmy Butler or George. And he wanted it now.
Since the season ended, Toronto felt like Leonard's safest option, as the organization already proved it could put him in a position to win a title. There was uncertainty, though, about how long that would last. Kyle Lowry, Marc Gasol, Fred VanVleet and Serge Ibaka will be unrestricted free agents a year from now. The resulting flexibility could have given Masai Ujiri's front office an opportunity to build something entirely new around Leonard, but there was no guarantee it would be able to acquire a player like George. The 2020 free-agent class, by the way, is not strong.
The Lakers offered Leonard a chance to be a part of a Gargantuan 3, but, according to the Toronto Star's Bruce Arthur, he was not inclined to join a super-team and was concerned about the dysfunction of the organization. There is also the unavoidable fact that LeBron James will turn 35 in December; eventually the team will need to find another perimeter playmaker to replace him.
I would have considered any of the three teams who had a chance the title favorite next season with Leonard on the roster. The Raptors and Lakers, however, would have had more long-term question marks than the situation he orchestrated.
2. Can the Lakers pass this chemistry test?
The Lakers made things way too hard on themselves last season by undervaluing shooting, and they were doomed by chemistry problems. Next year's team will be more talented, thanks to the addition of Anthony Davis, but chasing Leonard meant that they gave up their chance to sign all sorts of free agents who didn't wait for him to make his decision.
After Leonard chose the Clippers, the Lakers quickly agreed to terms with:
- Danny Green (two years, $30 million)
- DeMarcus Cousins (one year, $3.5 million)
- Kentavious Caldwell-Pope (two years, $16 million)
- Quinn Cook (two years, $6 million)
- JaVale McGee (two years, $8.2 million)
- Alex Caruso (two years, $5.5 million)
- Rajon Rondo (two years, minimum)
They had already one-year minimum deals with veteran glue guy Jared Dudley and sharpshooter Troy Daniels. As such, their rotation looks something like this, including the heretofore unmentioned Kyle Kuzma and second-round draft pick Talen Horton-Tucker:
- PG: Rondo, Cook, Caruso
- SG: Green, Caldwell-Pope, Daniels, Horton-Tucker
- SF: James, Dudley
- PF: Davis, Kuzma
- C: Cousins, McGee
The Lakers have a couple of roster spots left, and, yes, they could theoretically use them on Carmelo Anthony and J.R. Smith, a pair of players in the LeBronverse, but I don't think they should. Of the additions, Green is the one who fits best. Last season he finished second in 3-point percentage and probably should have made All-Defense. I also like that they brought back Caruso, a 6-foot-5 combo guard who isn't quite the shooter that his 48-percent mark in limited minutes last season would suggest, but is good enough because he's a far better defender than Rondo and Cook.
Spacing should not be as big of an issue as it was in 2018-19, but opposing teams are not about to start respecting Rondo's range. Cousins, too, will likely be ignored on the perimeter, at least until he proves that last year's awful shooting was an aberration. The bigger issue is that coach Frank Vogel will have to balance shooting with playmaking and manage the rotation in such a way that egos aren't damaged. This roster is just weird -- Los Angeles doesn't have much playmaking in the backcourt or on the wing, but it has a bunch of guys in the frontcourt who like to have the ball in their hands.
It is easy to look at this roster and say that Rondo should only share the floor with shooters and play most of his minutes with James on the bench. It's also easy to say that Los Angeles' best look will feature Davis at center and James at power forward. In reality, though, finding cohesion won't be simple. If I were the Lakers, I'd have load-management plans for James, Davis, Cousins and Rondo. This would allow the coaching staff to look at different lineups and keep everybody involved. (I'd also already be trying to sell Kuzma or Cousins on going for Sixth Man of the Year.)
Opposing teams will relentlessly target Cousins and McGee in pick-and-rolls. When Cousins and Davis played together for the New Orleans Pelicans, they were destroyed on defense whenever Davis went to the bench. Cousins is less mobile now than he was back then, and, as skilled as he is offensively, I'm not sure he makes more sense for the Lakers than a defensive-minded big man would have. No one knows if he will ever approach his pre-Achilles-injury form. But hey, he only cost $3.5 million.
A few more questions: Will Kuzma improve on defense? Will they have an offensive system beyond LeBron directing everybody around? How creative will Vogel be with lineups? There is real upside here, but they'll need to be more than the sum of their parts in the playoffs.
3. Should we be talking about a different Clippers trade?
Whenever the landscape of the league changes like this, I like to think about all the different decisions that led to it. In this case, the list of relevant transactions and non-transactions is almost dizzying. The Lakers were unwilling to go all-in on trades for George in 2017 and Leonard in 2018. The Indiana Pacers drafted George and Leonard in consecutive years, but the Leonard pick was made for the San Antonio Spurs in a trade for George Hill. One of the reasons that the Clippers were so attractive is that they acquired Lou Williams, Montrezl Harrell and Patrick Beverley when Chris Paul decided he wanted to play for the Houston Rockets. The move I'd like to focus on, though, happened five months ago, and it's worth wondering whether or not the Clippers' pursuit of Leonard would have been successful without it.
On Feb. 6, Los Angeles traded Tobias Harris, Mike Scott and Boban Marjanovic to the Philadelphia 76ers. In return, it received Landry Shamet, Wilson Chandler, Mike Muscala, the Sixers' protected 2020 first-round pick, the Heat's unprotected 2021 first-round pick and the Detroit Pistons' 2021 and 2023 second-round picks. At the time, Harris was playing the best basketball of his career as the Clippers' No. 1 option, and they were the eighth seed in the West. There was some speculation that they might be trying to tank their way out of the playoffs so they could keep their first-round pick, which was owed to the Boston Celtics if it fell outside of the lottery.
The Clippers actually improved after trading Harris (and, separately, acquiring Ivica Zubac and JaMychal Green). Shamet, who was picked No. 26 in the 2018 draft, will be on one of the most team-friendly contracts in the NBA until 2021-22. The most significant thing here, though, is that they were able to convince Philadelphia to include the unprotected Miami pick. Given that Harris was headed toward free agency anyway, this made the deal a home run. It now looks more like a grand slam, as that pick was a significant part of the trade for George, which to them was really a trade for George and Leonard.
4. Did the champs even have a chance?
The most rational way to look at this from a Toronto perspective: The franchise did everything it could during the season, but Leonard simply wanted to go home. The Clippers spent more than a year laying groundwork and, in crunch time, found a way to offer him a championship-ready roster. The Raptors' title will last forever. Time to move on.
And yet, questions remain about whether or not there was a realistic path toward re-signing the best player Toronto has ever had. According to ESPN, the Thunder talked to the Raptors about a potential George trade. According to the Toronto Star, Leonard's camp also asked them to investigate adding Bradley Beal. The OKC talks reportedly never got serious, and Toronto's front office couldn't be confident that it was anything more than a ploy to gain leverage. The Star reported that the Thunder wanted Pascal Siakam, VanVleet, four first-round picks and more. It is unclear what, if anything, happened on the Beal front.
Let's say the Raptors had put Siakam, VanVleet, Serge Ibaka, four of their own first-round picks and a couple of pick swaps on the table for George. Is that better than the Clippers' package? That likely depends on your opinions of Siakam and Shai Gilgeous-Alexander, and how likely you think it is that Miami will struggle in the 2020-21 season, so, who knows. I am not convinced that Toronto was necessarily capable of winning the bidding war, and I'm not even certain that that Leonard's camp assured Ujiri that acquiring George would lock him in. (I am also confused about which team the Clippers were worried about. The Star reported that they told people on Thursday that they thought Leonard would re-sign with the champs; ESPN reported that they believed their George trade stopped Leonard from going to the Lakers.)
Here's a ridiculous hypothetical: What if Toronto had made a monster offer for Anthony Davis before the trade deadline instead of acquiring Gasol? Something like Siakam, VanVleet, O.G. Anunoby, Jonas Valanciunas, Delon Wright and a bunch of unprotected picks for Davis and the remainder of Solomon Hill's contract. Could the Raptors have still won the title? Would Leonard and Davis have wanted to stay together? I have my doubts, but crazier things have happened. The thing that just happened was full-on bonkers.
5. What does Toronto do now?
As things stand, the Raptors' wings are Norman Powell, Anunoby, Stanley Johnson, Matt Thomas and Malcolm Miller. You do not have to be a capologist to figure out that Lowry, Gasol and Ibaka will all come up in trade talks between now and February. If Toronto doesn't find any suitable deals for them before the start of the season, there's nothing wrong with running the rest of this group back and seeing what happens in between then and the trade deadline. In that scenario, Lowry and Gasol would naturally see a bump in usage. In any scenario, Siakam will be given room to keep growing.
Assuming that the Raptors used their bi-annual exception on Johnson, they still have about $8.4 million of their mid-level exception to use in free agency, presumably on another wing or stretch forward. The list of remaining free agents is pretty bleak, but Trey Lyles and Justin Holiday stand out to me. More important than all this is the question of when, exactly, the front office hopes to be a contender again. It would surprise me if Toronto entered full-blown tank mode, and winning and developing players simultaneously is a tightrope the franchise has walked before. I would guess that they don't think much of the free agency class of 2020, but would like to be competitive enough in 2020-21 to be an attractive destination the following summer.
6. Can we stop and think about what OKC acquired?
Pelicans VP David Griffin has been praised over and over (including by me!) for exploiting the Lakers' desperation and in the Davis deal. Thunder general manager Sam Presti deserves credit for extracting even more from an even more desperate team, in the form of a staggering amount of draft-pick compensation, Gilgeous-Alexander and Danilo Gallinari.
I have no idea if Gallinari will ever play for OKC, but the man averaged 19.8 points with a 63.3 percent true shooting percentage last season. While Gilgeous-Alexander looks like he'll develop into a star, Gallinari is a fringe star right now. If Presti moves his expiring contract, the Thunder's war chest will look even more impressive.
The funny thing is that, had this trade preceded the Davis trade, the haul would have been seen as more mind-blowing. The timing meant that five first-round picks, two pick swaps and two high-quality players seemed somewhat reasonable because we knew what Davis cost and understood that this wasn't a normal George trade.
George is an awesome player, but he would never have commanded this kind of return if he wasn't bringing arguably the best player in the league with him. Now it's up to Presti to figure out what the next version of the Thunder will look like, which brings us to …
7. Who wants Westbrook?
The Thunder might trade Russell Westbrook, , and my colleague Brad Botkin listed the Miami Heat, Minnesota Timberwolves and Orlando Magic as potential destinations. Of those three, only the Heat really make sense to me, as they are star-hunting and can easily offer Oklahoma City salary-cap relief. I also wonder if the Charlotte Hornets might be interested, given the Jordan Brand connection and their collection of expiring contracts. I don't think the Hornets are even close to good enough to justify such a move, and they just paid Terry Rozier $58 million over three years to be their starting point guard, but, again, crazier things have happened.
8. Is this it?
Barring a Westbrook deal and a Toronto teardown, it feels like the offseason is essentially over. Two years ago, though, Kyrie Irving was traded in August. It would be premature to say there will be no more fireworks. I am curious about the trade market when it comes to the following players: Beal (especially if packaged with John Wall), Steven Adams, Kevin Love, Domantas Sabonis, Myles Turner, DeMar DeRozan, LaMarcus Aldridge, Andrew Wiggins and almost all of the Rockets' rotation. I also feel the need to mention Draymond Green, who I would prefer to see play with Stephen Curry for the rest of his career but will be a free agent next summer. He is going to be expensive, and the Warriors' addition of D'Angelo Russell on a max contract has made their payroll pretty intimidating.
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