Fifteen months ago, Kawhi Leonard engineered the most cunning player-instigated move in sports history.
He played three teams – the Raptors, the Lakers and the Clippers – off one another in protracted negotiations. He convinced his preferred teammate, Paul George, to demand a trade from a fourth team.
He strong-armed his eventual choice, the Clippers, into forfeiting their future for his preferred present, trading five first-round picks for George. Then he signed a deal that includes an escape clause after the second season.
When we talk about who’s ‘won’ a sports transaction, we typically mean which franchise came out best while giving up the least. This was the rare case in which the only clear winner was a single player. Everyone else lost to some degree. Only Leonard got everything he wanted.
The Leonard deal could only be properly judged once the NBA season was done. It ended Sunday night. Now we know the Leonard deal was a bust.
The Los Angeles Lakers won the title on Sunday. They were far and away the best team in the playoffs. It is frightening to think how good they might have been with Leonard in the lineup.
Had he chosen the other, better L.A., we would now be talking about the beginning of a middle-aged, mini-dynasty, with Leonard due to take over whenever LeBron James starts to slow down (in 2036, or whenever).
If Leonard had chosen Toronto, we can guesstimate that Raptors team would have beaten the Celtics, had a better-than-decent chance against Miami and been a 50/50 proposition against the Lakers in the final.
But Leonard chose the Clippers, and cash. Paul George folded up like a lawn chair in the bubble. The rest of the Clippers hid behind Leonard’s legs.
That left the main man trying to one-man-gang the team to competence. This time, he couldn’t manage it. The Clippers – a team designed at ruinous expense to win immediately – didn’t make it out of the second round.
Afterward, the Clippers did what all truly disappointed teams do – they fired the coach. Because, yes, it’s Doc Rivers’s fault George and his US$33-million salary can’t buy you a bucket when it matters.
Rivers lost in the end because Leonard won too much in the beginning. Someone had to pay for this embarrassment. And it wasn’t going to be the guy to whom you just signed over the deed to your house.
Were this situation as simple as L.A. wanting Leonard and hiring him, he could not be faulted. He has delivered the performance goods he promised. Where Leonard failed was as a team-builder, a job he appointed himself to.
Leonard had succeeded previously in systems that allowed him to do only one thing – play basketball. Other experts – R.C. Buford in San Antonio; Masai Ujiri in Toronto – were tasked with creating an environment in which his talent could thrive.
Leonard didn’t have to answer for his teammates because he hadn’t signed them. He didn’t have to check-mark the coach because he hadn’t approved him. Most important, he didn’t have to do his least favourite thing of all – public speaking – because he wasn’t the guy in charge.
A large part of Leonard’s charm in Toronto was watching him become the biggest celebrity in the city, while remaining totally anonymous. Whenever people got too interested in him, Drake would pop up in front of the camera and begin waving his arms, drawing the media pack off in another direction.
In L.A., that proved strategy was flipped on its head. Leonard arrived as a sort of player-executive. What else would you call the guy who’s dictating trades and terms?
He was all of a sudden talking a bunch. Not enough for L.A. types, but by his own previous standard he became a regular Winston Churchill.
Leonard’s conundrum was that he hadn’t just joined the Clippers. In a very real sense, he had invented them. And when it comes to talking about exciting, new things, people are most interested in hearing from the inventor.
The Clippers never did turn into the superteam Leonard had presumably envisioned. They were instead just another very good team in a league full of them. For all his talent, George turned out to be a terrible choice as sidekick. Leonard was great, but no one’s great enough to do it alone.
After they’d collapsed against Denver, blowing a 3-1 series lead, Leonard was asked what was next for the Clippers.
“Just gotta build. Build some chemistry. We gotta get smarter.”
But he built this team. The “chemistry” is on him. And if the team isn’t all that “smart,” whose fault would that be?
“We were close,” Leonard said.
No. Evidently, they weren’t.
Of course, the Clippers could win it next year and all this hassle will be put down to our old athletic friend, “adversity.” In that case, Leonard is vindicated.
But winning a title is hard and other people want to do it as well, so it is more likely this season becomes a cautionary tale. Not for players. You can’t blame Leonard for asking for something and getting it. Every player in every sport in his position is going to leverage their negotiating advantage to the absolute maximum.
But there is a reason the system has checks that discourage this sort of unhindered pillage. It’s not to protect owners from players. It’s to protect owners from themselves. A true sweepstakes for an elite player brings out the most self-destructive instincts in desperate franchises.
Therefore, while Leonard is to blame for razing the Clippers' organization, the Clippers are far more to blame for letting him do it.
In a nice example of the real world intersecting with the fantasy one of sports, two Stanford economists won the Nobel Prize on Monday. Their work is on auction theory and, in particular, a concept called the “winner’s curse.”
This is a situation in which a bidder pays well more than the fair-market price for goods at auction. The “curse” is the realization that, in your zeal to win, you’ve managed to cheat yourself.
Whenever the next Kawhi arrives at free-agent auction – and it may very well be the actual Kawhi in a few months – teams ought to think less about winning and more about the curse.