One of the better Kawhi Leonard anecdotes of the season, not surprisingly, involves the team that will be trying as hard as any to steal him from the Toronto Raptors after the N.B.A. finals.
The Los Angeles Clippers are said to have quietly looked into the feasibility of purchasing the portion of the rights to Leonard’s “Klaw” logo that is still owned by Nike. The Clippers did not immediately respond to a request for comment Wednesday, but such an acquisition would theoretically enable them to bestow full control of the logo upon Leonard as part of their anticipated free-agency pitch meeting with the Toronto superstar.
Forget for a moment that the financial outlay necessary to complete this kind of purchase, by any team, would most likely be considered a salary-cap violation. Let’s also briefly tune out that Nike, as emphasized to me recently by a top official from the sportswear giant, is intent on rebuffing all approaches and retaining its rights to that logo for as long as it can — to assure that it would not appear on gear made by Leonard’s new contract partners at New Balance.
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As Leonard leads the Raptors into the finals for the first time in franchise history, it’s not questions about the viability of those maneuvers that make the story memorable. It’s that the league insiders who passed along the information found it completely normal — natural, even — for the Clippers to consider hatching such a scheme.
Because these are the sorts of lengths you go to in the N.B.A., or at least explore, for the chance to acquire a difference-maker like Kawhi Anthony Leonard.
The Raptors know this as well as anyone. After finding out that Leonard, 27, wanted out of San Antonio following a season lost almost entirely to injury, Toronto traded away an All-Star and fan favorite under a long-term contract (DeMar DeRozan), a recent top-10 draft pick (Jakob Poeltl) and an additional first-round pick to get him. The Raptors did all of that, remember, amid questions about Leonard’s long-term health and with no assurance that they would enjoy more than one season of his famously massive mitts and the havoc they wreak.
Yet the gamble is now regarded as so profoundly wise that — despite the fact that Toronto facing the risk of losing Leonard in a month without further compensation — the Raptors’ team president, Masai Ujiri, is a prime contender to win the N.B.A. Executive of the Year Award in a vote by his peers that will be revealed in June.
Even with the Warriors’ Kevin Durant unable to play because of a strained right calf, Golden State could still have multiple future Hall of Famers on the floor for Thursday night’s Game 1 at Scotiabank Arena: Stephen Curry, Klay Thompson and Draymond Green will all be contenders for enshrinement one day. And Leonard is generating more buzz than all of them after hauling the Raptors into the championship series — and past all of their irrational fears about being cursed by the rapper Drake — for the first time in the club’s 24-year history.
“Looks like the trade worked out for them,” Shaun Livingston, Golden State’s veteran guard, said this week.
Long before Leonard outplayed Milwaukee’s Giannis Antetokounmpo in the conference finals — and, yes, long before Leonard eliminated the Philadelphia 76ers in Game 7 of the previous round with a buzzer-beater that smooched the rim four times — talk of the Clippers’ plotting to persuade Leonard to come home to Southern California had been percolating throughout the league.
It’s something the Raptors have lived with pretty much since they traded for him on July 18, 2018.
On a playoff preview show Tuesday night on ESPN, Clippers Coach Doc Rivers put Leonard in the same sentence with the legendary Michael Jordan. Rivers raved about Leonard’s big hands, post play, leaping ability, defensive prowess, midrange scoring touch, sheer strength and 3-point range.
“He’s the most like Jordan that we’ve seen,” Rivers said.
As a playoff spectator for the first time in 14 years, LeBron James of the Los Angeles Lakers also is said to have gotten an early start on recruiting Leonard, presumably hoping that personal pleas from the game’s biggest name can convince the league’s most understated superstar of the Lakers’ potential — despite the team’s dysfunction.
But there will be plenty of time to laser in on Leonard’s future.
Here are three things we know now about Leonard — who was named the most valuable player of the 2014 N.B.A. finals because of the disruption he inflicted in a five-game demolition of James and the Miami Heat — as he confronts a dynastic opponent seeking its fourth championship in five years:
The Warriors, I’m told, unequivocally regard Leonard as a bigger individual problem than Houston’s James Harden because of Leonard’s impact at both ends.
The Raptors believe they have done everything possible to build the sort of trust with Leonard that the player’s primary adviser, Dennis Robertson, told Yahoo Sports on Sunday had been irretrievably broken last season in San Antonio. Most notably: Toronto granted Leonard the freedom to sit out 22 regular-season games (under this season’s go-to heading of “load management”) after he was able to appear in just nine games in 2017-18 and, according to Robertson, felt pressured by Spurs officials to return before he was ready.
While the ever-private Spurs aren’t talking about any of this, it is clear they’re still grieving and healing from the loss of Leonard, even after what ranked, by most accounts, as a fine bounce-back season without him.
Although the Kawhi-less Spurs won 48 games to extend their league-record run of playoff appearances to 22 seasons in a row, then pushed the second-seeded Denver Nuggets to seven games in the first round, rest assured that they remain crestfallen over Leonard’s departure.
Spurs Coach Gregg Popovich, in all of his 25 years in charge in San Antonio alongside his trusted front-office ace, R.C. Buford, has had only two players ask out. The first, LaMarcus Aldridge, canceled his request after a face-to-face meeting with Popovich smoothed over any concerns. With Leonard, Popovich tried a similar meeting, only to concede shortly thereafter that the Spurs — after so many years making player comfort an organizational priority — had no choice but to heed Leonard’s insistence on being traded and get the most in return that they could rather than lose him outright in free agency.
While Leonard’s mother, Kim, decided to keep living in San Antonio, Kawhi headed north of the border and promptly rediscovered his all-world form. Leonard has reclaimed consensus top-five status despite his well-chronicled hesitations about moving to a cold-weather climate, without another current All-N.B.A. selection among his teammates and, as usual, while saying almost nothing along the way.
Raptors Coach Nick Nurse, though, insisted that Leonard was “very coachable” and lauded the behind-the-scenes engagement Toronto gets from him in the locker room, in film sessions and in bench huddles.
“All he talks about is winning, and it’s been that way since I met him,” Nurse told me by phone Tuesday.
The Warriors haven’t forgotten the problems they had with Leonard when they last saw him in the playoffs. In Game 1 of the 2017 Western Conference finals, Leonard’s 26 points helped San Antonio surge to a 23-point lead before a tangle on the perimeter with then-Warrior Zaza Pachulia left Leonard with an ankle injury that sidelined him for the rest of those playoffs.
More worrisome to Golden State is the knowledge that Leonard, while supposedly hampered by a mysterious leg injury against the Bucks, has been playing at an even higher level now. No defense seems able to ruffle or rush him. Repeatedly flashing poise and patience, Leonard has posted 11 30-point games this postseason, one shy of Hakeem Olajuwon’s record of 12 heading into the 1995 finals.
“He plays at his own pace really well,” Curry said.
One suspects that, no matter what the Clippers or others try, Leonard will make his free agency choices much the way he has dominated this postseason — at his speed and on his terms. In the meantime, enjoy watching The Klaw grapple with Golden State’s starry lineup, as well as the reporters from around the world who will undoubtedly be pressing Leonard to finally reveal something about himself.
Who knows? If Durant can’t shake his nagging injury, the Warriors may start to miss King James, after dueling with LeBron at this stage four years in a row. Or, worse, if this Kawhi is here to stay.