What could possibly compel a player who just won an NBA championship and a Finals MVP award to ditch his existing team?
For the LA Clippers, who have been eyeing Kawhi Leonard since his exodus from the San Antonio Spurs to the Toronto Raptors nearly a year ago and even sent senior basketball officials to observe him at Raptors games this season, this is the riddle they must solve. As a rule, challengers looking to unseat incumbents during good times typically face long odds; people looking for prosperity and stability aren’t inclined to switch things up when times are prosperous and stable.
Had the Raptors flamed out against the Philadelphia 76ers or even in the Eastern Conference finals versus the Milwaukee Bucks, the Clippers could have approached Leonard with the proposition that there’s a natural ceiling to what he can accomplish in Toronto. But with the Raptors writing a storybook ending to their Season of Kawhi, the Clippers have a much more daunting task than they did even two months ago convincing Leonard to change course.
Fortunately for the Clippers, two of the most compelling selling points haven’t changed: the latitude and longitude of Los Angeles, California.
The Clippers are well aware that Leonard has already priced his love of the region into the equation. Leonard grew up in Southern California’s Inland Empire, before heading off to San Diego, where he played his college ball at San Diego State. Extremely protective of his private life, he keeps close quarters with a tight circle of family and dear friends — many of them located in Southern California. Those who have spent time with him in San Diego say that the impassive Leonard is a different person when he’s in his natural habitat. They describe someone who is a portrait of perfect contentment when he’s having dinner during the offseason at George’s at the Cove overlooking La Jolla Bay, or relaxing in North County with people close to him.
Perhaps the Clippers’ proximity to the places Leonard feels most at home will be enough. The informed belief that Leonard had every intention of signing in Los Angeles in 2019 was the determining factor for both the 76ers and Boston Celtics in not accepting more robust proposals by the San Antonio Spurs for Leonard last summer, according to sources with each team who were close to those negotiations.
But if love of Southern California is one of Leonard’s defining features, so is an insistence on structure and professionalism. Those who have observed Leonard during his one season as a Raptor describe an athlete who moves with uncommon precision through a full day at the training facility, and expects it to run like clockwork — no matter which postal code that facility sits in. By every account, Leonard already has that in Toronto and would demand it with the Clippers.
One of the cardinal virtues of the Clippers’ current brass is the belief that they should never have to use the market as a selling point for prospective free agents. Although they appreciate that NBA players are drawn to the region, the Clippers feel it is imperative to become the kind of organization that wins recruiting battles based on the quality of their management, culture and infrastructure. In this regard, the Clippers think they have a compelling pitch to Leonard as an organization that has spent the past two seasons sculpting itself into the kind of workplace that appeals to Leonard’s sensibilities.
A perennial laughingstock for decades under the ownership of Donald T. Sterling, the Clippers spent recent seasons climbing their way up from the ranks of the NBA’s dregs. It took years to rebrand the franchise in the imaginations of players and agents and to build the infrastructure to catch up with the rest of the league. (There are still plenty of NBA players who were active when the Clippers practiced in a health club in El Segundo.)
The 2019 Clippers bear little resemblance to their namesake of a decade ago. Sterling has been replaced by Steve Ballmer, the wealthiest owner in North American sports. Ballmer has invested significant resources into accelerating the Clippers’ makeover, including a massive renovation to the training facility currently underway, with the most advanced arena in the NBA to follow in five years.
A front office that less than a decade ago could have fit into a compact SUV is now one of the NBA’s deeper basketball operations departments. It’s a thoughtful, forward-thinking group that has already demonstrated an ability to evaluate talent, build and refine systems, and identify the kind of NBA organization it wants the Clippers to be. They can point proudly to Shai Gilgeous-Alexander, the process that acquired him in a draft-day trade last June, the Kawhi-ish manner in which he comports himself, and the quality of his development over the course of his first-team All-Rookie season.
In many ways, this is the essence of the Clippers’ “anti-pitch.” Yes, the Clippers have a deep-pocketed owner who is materially committed to a first-class operation, and yes, they have a medical program they believe will provide Leonard with the kind of elite care and guidance he enjoyed in Toronto. But the Clippers can’t sell Leonard on accomplishments, because there aren’t any to speak of. They can’t speak to many specifics, because Leonard is a total stranger and, as NBA players go, inscrutable.
What the Clippers can do is articulate what they’re about — explanation more than persuasion. The Clippers see themselves as an authentic group. There will likely be no flashy light shows with high production value, none of the theatrics that defined the Clippers pitch to re-sign Blake Griffin a couple of summers back, which included staffers wearing T-shirts that placed Griffin’s image alongside Nelson Mandela and Albert Einstein.
The Clippers hope the subtext of their self-image will be clear to Leonard: We are the Kawhi of franchises, a bunch of humble people who will gladly yield the noise, spotlight and meaningless narratives to neighboring teams who lap it up. Let them have the divas while we build a team with high-character, competitive players who are committed to the craft. We have a plan in place to have sustainable roster turnover over your prime seasons, in which we will have depth, talent and the financial flexibility to improve as needs arise. Many of those carrying the load on our roster are on the ascent — Alexander, Landry Shamet, Montrezl Harrell, Ivica Zubac — and we are capable of winning right away with you.
The Clippers might also pose questions to Leonard that signal what they believe to be points of alignment between player and team: Apart from winning, what are the things most important to you when you’re on the floor? When you’re in practice? When you’re away from home on a long trip? When you’re rehabbing from injury? When you look back at your career in 15 years, what most do you want to see? That you were the best player of your generation? That you won multiple championships? That you played without major injury after 2018? That you played in a specific city?
More generally, do you want to look back at your prime seasons and feel you had the best experience of your career? That going to work during those six or seven years were the halcyon days, guided by both professionalism and possibility? The Clippers can ask this question of Leonard knowing that combination defines the current vibe inside the organization. It’s why a few of their top executives elected to stay, despite receiving invitations to work and interview elsewhere in more senior positions this spring. It’s largely why Doc Rivers has never enjoyed the job more and is a Coach of the Year finalist less than two years following the end of the Lob City era.
This optimism might be perhaps the Clippers’ strongest case apart from their geographic coordinates: As much as any team in the league this side of Brooklyn, the Clippers are a blank slate, a vacuum that can be filled by the imagination of a superstar free agent. The qualities Leonard appreciates that exist in the Raptors’ organization that can be imported, and whatever is missing can be cultivated.
The Clippers will undoubtedly need to be careful about saying anything to minimize what Leonard and the Raptors accomplished this season. Yet they will also need to instill in Leonard that the takeaway from his Raptors championship should not be that he can’t replicate it anywhere else, but precisely the opposite: Leonard is a player who can lead any number of teams to a title, so long as the organization has the requisite talent and values the right things — and the Clippers feel they do.