The flurry of activity Sunday and Monday affected Leonard’s three finalists: the Los Angeles Lakers, the Los Angeles Clippers and the Toronto Raptors. Here’s a look at where all three organizations stand as they prepare their final pitches for the 2019 Finals MVP.
Los Angeles Lakers
One by one, possible Lakers targets have made other plans. Irving opted to form a new partnership with Durant rather than pursue a reunion with LeBron James. Jimmy Butler steered himself to the Miami Heat. D’Angelo Russell shockingly landed on the Golden State Warriors. If General Manager Rob Pelinka is going to fill out his third maximum salary slot with a star, Leonard is the only free agent left who fits the bill.
The Lakers’ pitch to Leonard is layered and goes beyond his Southern California roots. With James and Anthony Davis already in place, the team should sell Leonard on the best of both worlds: He gets the opportunity to compete for a championship for the foreseeable future without overtaxing his body during the regular season or dealing with the brunt of the media scrutiny. James can point to his past “Big 3″ partnerships with the Miami Heat and Cleveland Cavaliers as proof that James, Leonard and Davis would be able to compete for titles, even if their supporting casts were undermanned.
James’s star power will provide cover off the court, and L.A.’s “Big 3” can share the heavy lifting and pace itself during the regular season to suit Leonard’s load management program. Leonard has also become an increasingly visible pitchman for New Balance, and from a sales and marketing perspective, joining a star-studded Lakers roster would easily trump a Raptors return or a run as the face of the Clippers. Leonard, of course, would also claim something approaching a four-year, $140 million max contract.
L.A.’s roster has been stripped to the bones, with only James, Davis and Kyle Kuzma in place as major pieces. Adding Leonard could trigger a domino effect in which the Lakers might target Raptors guard Danny Green, Cavaliers guard J.R. Smith and any other low-cost veterans eager to hop aboard a championship bandwagon.
Many of the second- and third-tier role players have been snapped up elsewhere, so Leonard would be joining a top-heavy roster no matter what. He would also need to get a read on Coach Frank Vogel, whose lack of championship experience and mild-mannered personality put him at a disadvantage compared to the Clippers’ Doc Rivers and the Raptors’ Nick Nurse.
One last sticking point: James must convincingly state that he is prepared to cede control of the offense and late-game opportunities to Leonard, who thrived under such circumstances in Toronto and has every reason to expect that treatment wherever he lands.
Los Angeles Clippers
The Clippers’ dream scenarios went poof Sunday night. They had hoped to pair Leonard with Durant or Butler in a splashy duo that could have rivaled the Lakers’ James and Davis. Now they must enter the backup-plan stage of their recruitment.
Lawrence Frank, Jerry West and company can point to a balanced roster that is one max-level star small forward away from potentially winning the Western Conference. Defensive-minded guard Patrick Beverley landed a new three-year, $40 million contract, and Danilo Gallinari, Lou Williams, Shai Gilgeous-Alexander, Landry Shamet and Montrezl Harrell are among the key returning pieces from a 48-win team. While plugging Leonard into that mix would give the Clippers a shot at winning 55 games, there’s enough depth on hand where he could pace himself like he did in Toronto.
Other crucial aspects of the Clippers’ pitch would include their upgraded organizational infrastructure, owner Steve Ballmer’s commitment to winning and an expanded medical staff. More than that, the Clippers offer the opportunity for Leonard to return home while also being his own star and his own brand, rivaling James rather than running alongside him. They also offer an all-business, no-drama approach, a clear contrast with the Lakers.
Toronto’s pitch might as well be a YouTube reel of Leonard’s postseason triumphs and another round of champagne baths and photos with the Larry O’Brien trophy. President Masai Ujiri can tell Leonard, “I was the one who believed in you last summer, I was the one who aggressively reconfigured my roster to make it title-ready, I was the one who greenlighted the load management approach with respected trainer Alex McKechnie, and I was the one who sang your praises publicly at every step of the 2019 playoffs. And, by the way, I’m the only person who can offer a five-year, $190 million contract.”
The Raptors have understandably been quiet in free agency, given that Kyle Lowry, Marc Gasol, Pascal Siakam, Serge Ibaka, Fred VanVleet, Norman Powell and OG Anunoby are under contract for next season. For Leonard, Toronto offers familiar faces and certainty: He knows this group, and no major adjustments are needed.
While there were numerous headlining moves involving all of the East’s major teams Sunday, including the Milwaukee Bucks, Philadelphia 76ers and Boston Celtics, Toronto can confidently sell Leonard on the idea that he would be returning to the conference favorite if he re-signs. If winning remains his priority, as he stressed throughout the past season, Toronto still has a clear path. Of course, Leonard would need to be convinced that the Raptors, who faced tough challenges from the 76ers and Bucks in the playoffs, would be able to capture lightning in a bottle again.
The Raptors’ weak spots are unavoidable: Canada is not Leonard’s home, and Toronto, while a strong and underrated platform, does not maximize his branding opportunities and earning potential. Leonard also left no unfinished business; if he leaves, he would be making a clean exit.