Kawhi Leonard to hit NBA free agency after declining player option

Once NBA free agency opens on Monday, two-time NBA Finals MVP Kawhi Leonard will be the top prize for teams.

Chris Haynes of Yahoo! Sports reported on Sunday that Leonard has declined his $36 million player option for the 2021-22 season and will hit the open market.

“Leonard is eligible for a starting salary of 35% of the salary cap, or $39 million, which made the decision an easy one for one of the game’s most coveted players, even if he may not be able to play at all next season,” Haynes reported. “Clippers owner Steve Ballmer will pay whatever it takes to keep Leonard, considering the investment the multi-billionaire made to pair Leonard with fellow perennial All-Star Paul George just two summers ago.”

Even after suffering a partially torn ACL during the 2021 NBA Playoffs, it seemed to be a foregone conclusion that Kawhi Leonard would decline the aforementioned option. As Haynes noted, Leonard might have to sit out the entire 2021-22 season depending on how his recovery from surgery goes.

This is not too much different than the Kevin Durant situation leading up to free agency back in 2019. He suffered a torn Achilles in the NBA Finals that year, only to sign a max contract with the Brooklyn Nets despite it being a foregone conclusion that he’d have to sit out the entire 2019-20 season.

Kawhi Leonard hits NBA free agency

3 reasons Kawhi Leonard will sign with Dallas Mavericks
May 30, 2021; Dallas, Texas, USA; LA Clippers forward Kawhi Leonard (2) looks to score as Dallas Mavericks forward Maxi Kleber (42) defends during the second quarter in game four in the first round of the 2021 NBA Playoffs at American Airlines Center. Mandatory Credit: Kevin Jairaj-USA TODAY Sports

The question now becomes whether Leonard will remain with the Clippers or look to sign with another team after two seasons in Los Angeles. Reports over the past several months indicated that it was a foregone conclusion he’d return to the Clippers. Right now, that is not a certainty.

“It would not be out of the question for Leonard to envision a brighter basketball-playing future elsewhere, but L.A. is his home, he will be rehabbing all season, and he can make more money from the Clippers than anybody else next summer. The decision seems clear, but no one in the NBA is more opaque than Leonard,” Haynes noted.

Leonard, 30, averaged 24.8 points, 6.5 rebounds and 5.2 assists per game a season ago. He remains one of the top two-way players in the game.