It’s not yet known whether Los Angeles Clippers superstar Kawhi Leonard will return during the Western Conference Semifinals against the Phoenix Suns after sustaining a knee injury in the previous round.
Initial reports indicated that Leonard was dealing with some sort of an ACL injury, words that neither a player or his team wants to see come up. Since then, there’s been very little updates on Leonard’s status outside of him being sidelined indefinitely.
The backdrop here is Leonard’s status as a likely free agent this summer should the two-time NBA Finals MVP decline is $36 million option for the 2021-22 season. Previously, reports concluded that Leonard was likely to opt out of said contract and re-sign with the Clippers.
Now, it appears things could be more up in the air.
“The buzz around the league is consistent; expect a return to the Clippers. But Leonard is not exactly the most communicative superstar in the NBA,” Eric Pincus of Bleacher Report noted recently.
Pincus went on to list the Golden State Warriors, Dallas Mavericks, Miami Heat and New York Knicks as potential destinations for Kawhi Leonard should he opt out and leave the Clippers after two seasons. All four are expected to be extremely active during the summer.
A lot of that will depend on his knee injury and whether teams are willing to give the superstar a max contract even if he has to undergo surgery. One can also conclude that it will also depend on how the Clippers perform in the Western Conference Finals after a premature exit from the playoffs a season ago. They are down 2-0 to the Suns following a brutal Game 2 loss in Phoenix. In any event, let’s look at the four teams mentioned here and how realistic they are as potential landing spots.
Kawhi Leonard to the Golden State Warriors: Not happening
Fans in Northern California would love to envision a scenario in which Leonard opts out of his contract and joins forces with Stephen Curry and Klay Thompson. It would set up another dynastic run for an organization that is just a couple years removed from earning five consecutive NBA Finals appearances.
Unfortunately, a lot would have to happen if this were to come to fruition. Primarily, the Clippers would have to agree to a sign-and-trade with their longtime Pacific Division rivals given that the Warriors are capped out and well over the luxury tax. Even with Jerry West’s built-in relationship with the Warriors’ front office, that doesn’t seem to be in the cards. It’s also not known if Los Angeles would accept a package surrounding Andrew Wiggins, James Wiseman and picks in order to make the contracts work.
Kawhi Leonard to the Dallas Mavericks: It’s a reasonable possibility
Dallas is in the midst of a franchise-altering moment following the firing of general manager Donnie Nelson and resignation of longtime head coach Rick Carlisle. Simply put, Mark Cuban’s squad must ace the hiring process here and ultimately find a better supporting cast for star guard Luka Doncic.
The good news? Dallas could potentially sign Leonard outright should he opt out of his contract. Right now, the team is slated to have north of $20 million to spend in free agency. If the Mavericks can sell off the contracts of Dwight Powell and Maxi Kleber, they would have just enough room to sign Leonard to a max contract. For the future first ballot Hall of Famer, this might be the best fit. Teaming up with Doncic would form an immediate championship contender. That’s for sure.
Kawhi Leonard to the Miami Heat: Perhaps, the best fit
Heat front office head Pat Riley is not going to sit back and be inactive this summer. He can create a ton of cap room for the underperforming Heat by declining the 2021-22 options on the contracts of Goran Dragic and Andre Iguodala. If the Heat were to do that, they’d have roughly $32 million to spend under the cap. A few more moves, and that would be enough to sign Leonard outright.
As for a potential fit here, Kawhi teaming up with Jimmy Butler and Bam Adebayo would rival the Brooklyn Nets’ big three back east. South Beach is always an intriguing destination for top-end free agents. Given the Heat’s culture and the fact that they are one season removed from being in the NBA Finals, it’s an ideal fit for Kawhi Leonard.
Kawhi Leonard to the New York Knicks: It could happen
Those of us who grew up in the 90’s remember the iconic line from JP on “Angels in the Outfield,” simply stating “it could happen.” For a Knicks team that is coming off a strong season, there’s now some optimism that attracting top-end free agents could be in the cards over the next two offseasons. It’s going to be all about what president Leon Rose decides to do.
What we do know is that New York will have the most cap room in the NBA this offseason at a projected $55.1 million. Technically, the team could sign Leonard outright and add another max-contract player, via either trade or the free-agent market. That would require moving off the contracts of Kevin Knox and Obi Toppin — potentially forming a big three of Leonard, Julius Randle and another top-end unnamed player.