By George, at least it wasn’t the Lakers.
As Kawhi Leonard dawdled, deciding whether to re-sign with Toronto (you know, where he just won a championship) or join the Lakers or the Clippers, all kinds of craziness had been breaking out throughout the league.
But a wave of insanity swelled even larger behind the scenes, darn-near unbeknownst to anyone on the outside.
Turned out, Leonard wasn’t dawdling at all, he was delaying. He was waiting, not only targeting the Clippers, but also pushing for Paul George to leave Russell Westbrook in Oklahoma City, asking him to request/demand a trade to the Clips, so he could line up alongside Kawhi.
The delay happened, and so did the deal.
The cost of George’s frack to Leonard’s frick for the Clippers is heavy, and under the circumstances, the Thunder did the best they could for giving up their star. OKC will get a fistful of first-round picks from the Clippers, as well as forward Danilo Gallinari, a player the Jazz had interest in, and guard Shai Gilgeous-Alexander.
The question that arises with this kind of move is one that has emerged before … Who exactly has the power in the modern NBA? It most definitely is the star player. Twice now, in dramatic recent moves, the Lakers got Anthony Davis because he wanted out of New Orleans, regardless of what the Pelicans wanted, and the Clippers get Leonard as a free agent and George, too, because George wanted to play with Kawhi on the Clips.
Earlier, George had forced his way out of Indiana and Jimmy Butler had forced his way out of Minnesota, with time remaining on their contracts. Leonard had done the same thing to San Antonio, ending up in Toronto.
Here’s the way it is: If a megastar demands that sort of scenario, teams are pretty much compelled to comply on account that no team can use a great player who doesn’t want to be there. There’s no future in it. So, teams try to get what they can and move on. Contracts are written, indeed, on flimsy paper.
Raptors fans are beside themselves, having been spun collectively into a kind of frenzy, having faced the prospects of losing their MVP and now actually losing him. They had gathered recently in a crowd outside the hotel where Leonard was meeting with team executives. Leonard had previously been offered free gourmet meals for the rest of his life by Toronto restaurants and a penthouse suite.
It wasn’t enough.
In L.A., billboards had popped up, put there by Clippers fans, attempting to lure Leonard back to his hometown. The Clippers claimed they knew nothing about the billboards. Already coach Doc Rivers had been fined $50,000 for tampering, after he made comments comparing Leonard to Michael Jordan.
Well. Leonard, signing a four-year, $142 million deal, is Rivers’ Jordan now.
Pity the poor Lakers.
Lakers fan Snoop Dogg, as well as a musician named Bazzi, each tried bringing Leonard to their team with a new song, singing to the tune of Michael Jackson’s Human Nature, “Kawhi, Kawhi, tell me that you’ll be a Laker. Kawhi, Kawhi, come back to L.A.”
He came to L.A., all right, but the other L.A.
That wasn’t the only craziness. Authentic cuckoo-for-Cocoa Puffs stuff was going on in front offices around the NBA, among people who compile players and teams for a living. They were more interested in Leonard’s decision than anyone else because it would severely affect their livelihoods.
If Leonard had chosen the Lakers, playing alongside LeBron James and Anthony Davis, that not only would have given the Lakers three of the top six or seven players in the entire NBA, it would upset a rare burgeoning balance of power in a league that rarely has real balance.
With the way the Warriors had dominated the top of the league, until a weird plague of injuries had struck them this postseason, and the way the Cavs and Heat and Lakers and Spurs and, long before that, the Bulls, and before that, the Pistons and Lakers and Celtics had controlled things, it seemed as though 2019-20 might be different. It might be a scramble to the top. For the first time in a long time, predicting who would hoist Larry O’Brien’s trophy next June would be an absolute crapshoot.
If Kawhi stayed in Toronto, there would have been six or seven teams in the West with a decent chance at ascending, and at least four in the East. Had Leonard joined in with the other two Lakers stars, it would simply be more of the same, just in different combination.
Now, as is, the Clippers will enjoy a lofty view.
It’s the nature of basketball that a player or two or three can make such a difference in who wins a championship. The sheer numbers in other sports make those endeavors more variable. But in the NBA, there has been a fruitlessness, at least a feeling of that, among teams who do things the right way, who draft smart, who develop players well, who make crafty trades to bolster their rosters. But then, all of that amounts to nothing in terms of an authentic shot at a title when a marquee club swoops in and signs a couple of stars, difference-makers, erasing any number of mistakes its management might have made in recent years, wiping out the efforts of so many other teams who have tried to build from the ground up.
That’s why Leonard’s decision was such a big deal, not because fans in Toronto wanted him, not because fans of both teams in Los Angeles wanted him, but because basketball executives and experts and fans everywhere else wanted him to stay a Raptor.
In that case, everyone would be back in the pool. Not everyone, but maybe 10 teams, including the Jazz.
Utah is in as good a shape as any of the others.
And the Jazz, just like teams in Denver and Houston and Portland and Milwaukee and Philly and Toronto, and more, had a chance at winning it all, without necessarily the extra boost the Raptors got this past postseason by way of a few timely twists and turns and blows to joints. The effects of the Warriors losing Klay Thompson for much of the coming season, and the departure of Kevin Durant, as he heals in Brooklyn, are obvious.
Now, the Jazz and the rest of the West and, ultimately, every other team faces a most formidable Clippers team, with the addition of the two-time Finals MVP and another of the league’s best players. Already, without either, the Clips had been a playoff team.
It’s still better than Leonard simply joining up with LeBron and Davis on the Lakers. But it creates, on this occasion conjured by the affected players themselves, a problem everyone else will have to battle, a problem the NBA has faced for decades — that imbalance of power. This time, tilted by stars coming to a franchise that for many years was a laughingstock.
The bad news is the sudden loss of a greater leveling of an environment that hasn’t been fairly competitive for too, too long.
The good news is the sudden emergence of an evil empire, formed in quiet conspiracy, teams like the Jazz can target and attack.
GORDON MONSON hosts “The Big Show” with Jake Scott weekdays from 3-7 p.m. on 97.5 FM and 1280 AM The Zone.