July 5, 2019 - 11:40 pm
Updated July 6, 2019 - 7:15 am
LAS VEGAS — The Los Angeles Clippers made a huge decision.
That meant Kawhi Leonard could finally make his.
The Clippers will be landing Leonard as a free agent after they acquire Paul George from the Oklahoma City Thunder in a massive trade for players and draft picks, a person familiar with the negotiations said.
George will be traded for at least four first-round picks, according to the person who spoke to The Associated Press on condition of anonymity early Saturday because none of the moves have been finalized. And Leonard made his decision to sign with the Clippers after the team swung the deal to land George, the person said.
ESPN, which first reported the trade, also said the Thunder were getting Shai Gilgeous-Alexander and Danilo Gallinari from the Clippers.
Leonard going to the Clippers means that for the first time, a reigning NBA Finals MVP will be changing teams before the following season. Leonard was also being pursued by the Los Angeles Lakers and the Toronto Raptors, the team he led to last season’s NBA title.
The most the Clippers can offer Leonard is $142 million over four years, which is the deal he is expected to sign. Players can sign with new teams as early as noon Eastern on Saturday.
“New adventure in OKC,” Gallinari tweeted.
Leonard is entering his ninth NBA season, is a three-time All-Star, a two-time champion and one of only three players in league history to win the NBA Finals MVP award with multiple franchises.
Notoriously a man of few words, at least publicly, Leonard is generally considered to be the best two-way player in the NBA — dominant on the offensive end, airtight on the defensive end.
His game-winning, four-bounce-off-the-rim jumper to beat the buzzer in Game 7 of the Eastern Conference semifinals against Philadelphia was perhaps the signature moment of this past season’s playoffs.
And he just turned 28 last week — still very much in his prime.
So, too, is George.
The 29-year-old — who is owed roughly $105 million for the next three seasons — spent the last two years alongside Russell Westbrook in Oklahoma City. George averaged a career-best 28 points last season even while dealing with shoulder issues that required surgery, and the Thunder couldn’t get out of the first round in either of those seasons.
He was a finalist for both NBA MVP and Defensive Player of the Year last season, when he led the league with 2.21 steals per contest.
A California native, going to the Clippers and pairing with Leonard means he’ll have a real chance of being on a title contender.
The Lakers didn’t wait long before starting to move on from their quest for Leonard. Danny Green announced that he is signing a two-year deal with the Lakers, meaning he, too, is leaving Toronto.
“Kawhi has made his decision. Seems like the announcement is out,” Green said in a video he posted to his social media accounts. “It’s time for me to make my announcement … I will be teaming up with new teammates in LA, the Los Angeles Lakers.”
Green said he enjoyed Toronto and that it was unfortunate how free agency turned out for that city, the Raptors and for Canada.
“LA, here I come,” Green said.
Here comes Leonard — a Southern California native.
Even President Donald Trump liked the move, tweeting early Saturday: “Great Coach, Great Guy!” and providing a link to a story noting Clippers coach Doc Rivers was a big winner landing Leonard and George.
Leonard was, by far, the biggest name left on the free agent market. The other marquee names in this class like Kevin Durant, Kyrie Irving, Klay Thompson and Kemba Walker all made their decisions known relatively quickly.
And like Durant, Irving and Walker, he’s changing addresses.
His lone season in Toronto was the best of his career, answering every question about his health after a leg issue limited him to only nine games with San Antonio in 2017-18. Leonard averaged a career-high 26.6 points in the regular season — and was even better in the playoffs, averaging 30.5 points for the Raptors in their run to the title.
“Last year, a lot of people were doubting me,” Leonard said after the NBA Finals. “They thought I was either faking an injury or didn’t want to play for a team. That was disappointing to me that that was out in the media, because I love the game of basketball.”
The Raptors took a major chance in acquiring Leonard last summer, since they weren’t on his original list of preferred teams when he told the Spurs that he wanted to be moved elsewhere after spending his first seven seasons with them and helping them win the 2014 NBA title. DeMar DeRozan was the biggest piece that Toronto gave up in that deal, with Raptors President Masai Ujiri making the biggest move of his career.
It delivered a title. But that wasn’t enough to make Leonard stay in Canada for the long haul.
“He’s the best two-way player in the NBA,” Ujiri said during the NBA Finals.
Leonard was simply dominant in the postseason, posting 14 games of 30 or more points. Only Michael Jordan, Hakeem Olajuwon and Kobe Bryant had postseasons with more 30-point games — Jordan had 16 of them in 1992, Olajuwon had 16 in 1995 and Bryant had 15 in 2009.
The Raptors made clear: They considered Leonard the top player in the game, and he performed at a level worthy of that moniker.
“Obviously, we have the best player in the league and the best player in these playoffs in Kawhi Leonard,” Raptors forward Pascal Siakam said after Toronto won the title.
They’ll have to defend the title without him.
It’s a massive blow to Toronto’s chances of back-to-back titles, and obviously puts a damper on the Lakers’ offseason quest as well — even though they will finalize a trade Saturday to bring in Anthony Davis from New Orleans and landed the sort of shooter than LeBron James craves by adding Green.
“I’m going to come out and play the right way,” Leonard said last month. “I’m not trying to make headlines.”
Try or not, he’s part of the summer’s biggest headline now.
And he may be about to make the Clippers contenders as well.
AP Sports Writer Cliff Brunt in Oklahoma City contributed to this report.
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