Looking around Oracle Arena after the clinching Game 6 in this year’s NBA Finals, Kawhi Leonard, with a fresh cap on his head and his teammates buzzing around him, took everything in. He held the Larry O’Brien trophy with the delicateness of a new born, and gushed over it adoringly. Leading the Toronto Raptors to their first ever NBA title at the franchise’s first attempt, Leonard felt vindicated. A difficult final season with the San Antonio Spurs led to a trade with the Raptors, as Leonard believed he was not appreciated or treated the way he deserved having been criticised for taking extended time out to recover from a quad injury.
The Raptors sent one of their own All-Stars in DeMar DeRozan and a first round pick to the Spurs to acquire Leonard, taking a massive risk on a player in the final year of his contract and with no guarantee he would hang around after the season. They had mortgaged their future in the hopes of getting over the top, knowing LeBron James had released his grip on the Eastern Conference following his departure for the Los Angeles Lakers. It paid off in spades, the city of Toronto did its best all season to persuade Leonard to stay long-term. Come July 1st, the NBA world will know if it worked. But until then, we can speculate on who Leonard may join if he chooses to leave The North. There are three teams in particular that may pique his interest.
The Clippers proved to be the best team in L.A. this season. They reached the playoffs comfortably and pushed the Golden State Warriors to six games in the first round before eventually falling to the champions. Los Angeles were dogged defensively, with Patrick Beverley in particular doing his best to frustrate the Warriors.
They seem like a team on the rise, with improving players in Lou Williams and Montrezl Harrell. Solid rookie seasons from Shai Gilgeous-Alexander and Landry Shamet, and Doc Rivers in the coaching seat will only make the lesser-known team in Los Angeles even more appealing. The fans also want him, with billboards being erected to plead with him to come to L.A.
The Clippers location is also an advantage as Leonard is from California. A former player at San Diego State, Leonard loves Southern California and may want to move back home. From a weather standpoint alone, Toronto and Los Angeles seem worlds apart. What’s more, the Clippers could potentially sign another superstar to pair with Leonard. Trading Danilo Gallinari before July 1st would open up another $22.6m with which they could provide Leonard a right-hand man.
Additionally, there is the temptation of overshadowing LeBron in Los Angeles. Leonard can confirm his place as the best player in the league. While this doesn’t seem to be in line with Leonard’s personality, facing LeBron and Anthony Davis would be an exciting challenge for a player of his competitive nature.
At first look, the situation in New York doesn’t seem to fit Leonard. His more reserved personality wouldn’t exactly be as appreciated in the Big Apple, given the relentless media attention that the biggest sports stars in the city face (see: Odell Beckham Jr). Adding to that, the Knicks look far from a contender, having finished with the worst record in the NBA last season and missed out on the Zion Williamson lottery. With fans in revolt against owner James Dolan, the atmosphere in Madison Square Garden has been tense in recent years.
Despite this, the Knicks feature on this list with the cross-town Brooklyn Nets. When people think of basketball in New York, the first team that normally comes to mind are the Knicks.
Madison Square Garden is still the Mecca of the sport. The significance from a brand perspective of playing in a Knicks jersey is worth millions. Leonard can sell his brand and easily make back the salary he would forfeit from choosing the Knicks over the Raptors. His less outspoken behaviour is similar to that of Sam Darnold. The New York Jets Quarterback has dealt very well with the pressure of the New York media so far.
On the court, Leonard can be excited by a young core with huge potential.
Drafting R.J. Barrett was the first correct decision in a big offseason for the Knicks. With Dennis Smith Jr. and Kevin Knox also on the books, Leonard can lead this young team to contention and speed up any rebuild.
Like the Nets, the Knicks have two max contract slots. They can fill out their line-up with another top player to become contenders in the space of one off-season. The opportunity to be ‘The Guy’ in New York and lead the Knicks back to relevance would also suit Leonard. He would relish a new challenge to strengthen his Hall of Fame credentials.
The Barclays Center. A young, hungry roster that outperformed expectations. Cap space. The Nets are ready to contend.
They have finally recovered from the shambolic trade they made with the Celtics for Paul Pierce and Kevin Garnett in 2013. This trade was horrific in every sense, trading away first round picks in 2014, 2016, and 2018, and giving the Celtics the right to swap picks in 2017. Brooklyn also moved five players, all for the ageing stars and Jason Terry. Those picks ended up being Marcus Smart, Jaylen Brown, and Jayson Tatum, while one was also used to acquire Kyrie Irving from the Cavaliers in a trade.
Leonard can come to Brooklyn knowing this team is ready to be relevant. D’Angelo Russell had an All-Star year last season and have cap space to add another top player. The Nets could put the entire league on notice with two big free agency signings. The brand opportunities of New York would also be available with the Nets, and the media scrutiny that comes with leading Brooklyn would be less stifling than with the Knicks.
However with the lost draft picks Brooklyn may have less depth behind the leading cast, so maybe the second max slot could be better utilized to add depth around Leonard and Russell in much the same way as the Raptors built around Kawhi and Kyle Lowry. In any case, Brooklyn have the flexibility to make any decision that they believe Leonard would be most interested in.
Perhaps Leonard will leave Toronto and tip the balance of power to another part of the NBA. Maybe he’ll stay and avail of the free house and food on offer in Canada. It’s going to be fun to see the chaos his decision could create.