Kawhi Leonard had to sit on the sideline while the Los Angeles Clippers were eliminated by the Phoenix Suns in six games in the Western Conference finals, and now the star forward has a decision to make regarding his future with the franchise. It was less than two years ago that Leonard signed with the Clippers in free agency, but he already has an option to become a free agent again over the offseason.
Leonard has a player option worth $36 million for the 2021-22 season that he could turn down in favor of entering unrestricted free agency. If he does that, he will have no shortage of suitors. Among those suitors will be the Dallas Mavericks, Miami Heat and New York Knicks, with the Mavs considered by some league executives as the biggest threat to potentially land Leonard, according to Kevin O'Connor of The Ringer. O'Connor points to the ascendant star that is Luka Doncic, along with the presence of Dallas' new general manager Nico Harrison as the main reason that the Mavericks are in the running.
From The Ringer:
The Mavericks and Heat plan to make a hard push to acquire Leonard, league sources say. The Knicks will also pursue any superstar that becomes available, and a long list of other suitors would at least make an attempt if he hits the market. Who wouldn't want a 30-year-old two-time Finals MVP still performing at an All-NBA level?
Dallas is considered by some executives to be the most serious threat to land Kawhi because of Luka Doncic's presence and the front office's ability to create maximum cap space or work out a sign-and-trade. During Leonard's years with Nike, he also developed a good relationship with Nico Harrison, the Mavs' new general manager and a former longtime executive at the company.
Leonard tried to recruit Jimmy Butler to the Clippers before George was acquired, so Miami could offer Kawhi an enticing chance to play with him. Though the Heat can't create max cap space, they could always work out a sign-and-trade just like they did to acquire Butler from the Sixers in 2019.
It's worth pointing out that just because these teams are interested in Leonard, that doesn't mean that the feeling is mutual. Leonard could still potentially pick up his player option for the upcoming season and delay his free agency decision until next offseason. Even if Leonard does opt-out of his current contract, he could sign a new, longer deal with the Clippers in free agency.
Leonard deciding to stay with the Clippers is very possible, even likely. He picked them two years ago largely based on location, and last time I checked, they still play in L.A. Plus, the team finished two wins away from their first NBA Finals appearance without having Leonard's services for the final games of the semifinals and entirety of the conference finals. If Leonard were healthy, the Clippers would have had a great chance to win the title. That will have to factor into his decision.
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It's possible that Leonard hasn't even decided what he wants to do yet, as he still has several weeks before the start of free agency. In the meantime, there will be no shortage of speculation about his future.