This summer, the Lakers tried to build a Big-3 core by adding Kawhi Leonard to their duo of superstars, but the famously mysterious forward choose the crosstown rivals, the Clippers, instead. This development defies history, as it was typically the Lakers who were prying elite players away from their teams while the Clippers toiled on the bottom of the league. With this in mind, it’s fair to ask why Leonard decided to have his homecoming in a Clippers jersey – was it the Lakers’ fault, or was it just a product of factors outside of team control.
To answer this question, we need to look at several separate issues that likely affected Kawhi’s decision-making process:
Basketball fit – Kawhi wants the ball in his hands
A few months ago, Leonard won his second NBA ring and second NBA Finals MVP award. As opposed to his win with San Antonio, with the Raptors he was undoubtedly the alpha-dog, keeping the ball in his hands for as long as he wanted. Surprise, surprise – he liked it! After that experience, the prospect of sharing the court with LeBron and standing in the corner waiting for an outlet pass didn’t appeal to Leonard. On the Clippers, he will be allowed to be the primary creator for long stretches, but he will also have Paul George to help carry this burden. From a purely basketball standpoint, Leonard’s decision can be understood as a bid to build his legacy on his own terms, rather than chase the maximum number of championships at any price.
Underdog mentality – Kawhi isn’t your typical superstar
Kawhi Leonard is legendary for his guarded attitude towards the media and laconic answers to most reporters’ questions. In other words, he isn’t exactly the type of person that craves the bright lights of Hollywood or basks in the glory of a public celebrity lifestyle. He doesn’t have the megawatt smile of Magic Johnson or the polarizing intensity of Kobe Bryant – he just plays ball, and that’s about it. While there are precedents of atypical superstars thriving in purple and gold (Kareem Abdul Jabbar was never a media darling, for one), Leonard simply doesn’t fit the mold of a true Laker. It’s not hard to understand why he would feel more comfortable as a relative underdog wearing a Clippers jersey, a challenger rather than heir to the Lakers’ historical dynasty. By joining the Lakers’ rivals, he still gets to play in his hometown, only without having to stay in the eye of the media storm for 24 hours a day.
The corporate factor – Kawhi didn’t like the Lakers’ chaos
The aforementioned Magic Johnson abruptly left his post of President of Basketball Operations for the LA Lakers just a few months ahead of the free agency, with rumors of internal dysfunction leaking from many sources. According to the media, most decisions during the summer were made by a small circle of personal confidants of the Lakers owner, from chasing top free agents to signing two-way players. On the other hand, the Clippers under Steve Ballmer represent a model of stability by NBA standards, keeping the same infrastructure in place for multiple years and resolving tough issues between principal contributors in a very professional manner. The groundwork laid by the corporate soldiers may have ended up influencing the outcomes of free agency, and the Lakers should learn from this situation and pay more attention to running their franchise more transparently and diligently.
Picking his teammate – Kawhi wanted to play with Paul George
In today’s NBA, elite players can choose who they want to play with, and Kawhi simply picked a guy he felt most at ease with. Apparently, he made a brief attempt to recruit Kevin Durant, then quickly turned his attention to another all-world forward in Paul George. The Clippers were simply the only team that had the prerequisite resources to trade for George, as the Lakers had already expended nearly all of their assets to snatch Davis from the Pelicans. Teams are increasingly becoming just vehicles for multi-star ventures, while the real power to decide rests with the players, so in a way it would be wrong to blame the Lakers for missing out on Kawhi. It would be more accurate to say they were already committed to one power broker (LeBron), so they couldn’t accommodate the requirements of another who had different preferences regarding his choice of teammates.