Weeks removed from surgery on his partially torn right ACL, two-time NBA Finals MVP Kawhi Leonard declined his $36 million option with the Los Angeles Clippers for the 2021-22 season, entering free agency, league sources told Yahoo Sports’ Chris Haynes. Leonard and the Clippers are expected to reach a new deal to keep him in Los Angeles, sources said.
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. 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.
Fresh off an Achilles injury in the 2019 playoffs, Kevin Durant left the Golden State Warriors for a four-year, $164 million deal from the Brooklyn Nets, who knew full well the former MVP would not play the first season of his contract. Leonard is in a similar situation, and L.A. also runs the risk of losing him to free agency.
“Right now our focus, like Kawhi, like his is, is on his health,” Clippers president of basketball operations Lawrence Frank told inquiring reporters following his team’s productive draft on Thursday. “He had major surgery. He tore his ACL. That’s going to require a great deal of time and we want to support him in that.”
Leonard is now eligible for a contract worth as much as $175 million over the next four years. If he were to re-sign for $39 million in L.A. this season and reenter free agency next summer, when the Clippers would own his full Bird rights, Leonard could command a five-year maximum contract approaching $250 million.
Prior to this past season, the ever-cagey Leonard told reporters, “Not saying I’m going anywhere else or staying here, but I’m just focused on the season. Obviously, if I’m healthy, the best decision is to decline the player option, but that doesn’t mean I’m leaving or staying.” He is not healthy, and it may not matter.
The Clippers traded rising star Shai Gilgeous-Alexander and their first-round draft rights from 2022-26 to the Oklahoma City Thunder for George in 2019. It was a move to satisfy Leonard’s desire for a star partner in L.A., if he were to leave a Toronto Raptors team he had just led to the title. It also tied the Clippers’ hopes for the foreseeable future to Leonard and George’s willingness to remain in L.A. beyond this summer.
George signed an extension in December that will pay him $190 million over the next four years.
The tenures of Leonard and George on the Clippers have not yielded the expected results. They blew a 3-1 series lead to the Denver Nuggets in the 2020 Western Conference semifinals, resulting in their coach’s firing and a reshaped roster around their two stars. Leonard’s injury in Game 4 of their second-round series against the Phoenix Suns this past season ended any serious hope of avenging their failure in the bubble.
Leonard averaged 24.8 points (on 51/40/89 shooting splits), 6.5 rebounds and 5.2 assists in 34.1 minutes over 52 games last season, often requiring rest for the chronic tendinopathy in his right knee quadriceps.
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.
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