Kawhi Leonard to the Clippers: A surprising move that was long in the making

Doc Rivers was talking to me, and we were the only ones in the room — but he was actually speaking to Kawhi Leonard, even back then in November of last year.

I’d suggested to Rivers, during an interview in his office at the Los Angeles Clippers training facility, that his team had become the better-looking superstar landing spot in the city, and one of the best in the league.

“We’ve got a lot of good things going on,” Rivers said, leaning forward and tapping his index finger on the other palm to emphasize the point. “That’s what I would think if I was a free agent. Coming to the Clippers and turning them into a team that wins a title? It hasn’t been done.

“It is the chance to go to a franchise and ‘be the man.’”

It wasn’t just words. The Clippers brass had decided that the route to challenging for the NBA title hinged solely on getting one of the finest players in basketball to lead the charge. So everything they did, particularly when it came to Leonard, was essentially a sales pitch.

They turned up at Toronto Raptors games — not intrusively, or initiating any contact that would lead to a sanction from the league. Yet virtually every time Leonard stepped onto the court for the Raptors, a Clippers employee was in the building.

It didn’t always go well. One time, early in the season, Leonard walked past Clippers president of basketball operations Lawrence Frank without a word and admitted later to The Athletic’s Sam Amick that he hadn’t known who Frank was. He knows now.

When team owner Steve Ballmer sought to double down on the Clippers intentions by appearing at a Raptors game, Leonard essentially said he didn’t care.

Even Bruce Bowen’s deal as a color commentator on Clippers games was not renewed after critical comments about Leonard.

During all this, they set the table for Leonard, without any guarantee that he would take a seat at it.

Tobias Harris was sent to Philadelphia to open up even more cap space, enough for not only Leonard but also possibly Kevin Durant. When the KD option first became unlikely and then disappeared entirely, the cap room and money and a haul of trade pieces and draft picks was used for the counterfoil of Leonard’s direct choosing – Paul George.

During the season, the Clippers also kept winning, enough to comfortably clinch a playoff spot in the loaded Western Conference and sufficient even to give the Golden State Warriors a few jitters in a first-round series.

The modern superstar free agent, it seems, has a fairly defined set of parameters. A truckload of money, yes, but also a star tandem rather than a Big 3, and, importantly, a team that isn’t tanking. Putting forward a clear and defined indication that they are committed to the player and respect his value doesn’t hurt either.

The Clippers did all of it. Payoff has now arrived. They gave up quite a bit – a super-promising point guard in Shai Gilgeous-Alexander and a veteran, Danilo Gallinari, who was excellent last season.

But they got Kawhi Leonard, which is all you need to know. In tandem with George, he makes the Clippers instantly relevant and immediately dangerous.

“Kawhi to the Lakers” chatter might have picked up over the past week, but don’t be fooled into thinking this was a last-minute change of heart. Leonard is not a typical NBA player, not just because he’s a two-time Finals MVP, but because he is averse to hoopla and doesn’t need to feel like a celebrity.

The chance to lead a team that gets attention when – and only when – it is good, has perhaps been the perfect fit all along. Rivers knew it last year and he gets to live it now.

Whether you were surprised or not by Leonard’s decision, know this: it was no accident, and it was a long time in the making.