As the rest of the NBA hurried to make its free-agency decisions, Kawhi Leonard took his time.
For the Clippers, the wait was more than worth it.
Not only did the Clippers land Leonard, the reigning NBA Finals most valuable player and the most coveted free agent this summer, late Friday night, but they also added a second star in one fell swoop by agreeing to trade for Oklahoma City’s Paul George, according to people not authorized to speak publicly.
The one-two punch shocked the NBA, which waited for days with few details about Leonard’s preferred destination, and turned the Clippers into an overnight favorite to win the Western Conference.
Leonard and George have wished to play together for some time, another person said. Both forwards grew up in Southern California and, after years competing against one another, envisioned forming perhaps the NBA’s best all-around duo.
To acquire George, who was third in the NBA’s MVP voting this season, the Clippers will pay a heavy price. They agreed to send forward Danilo Gallinari and point guard Shai Gilgeous-Alexander, fresh off an all-rookie season, to Oklahoma City. In addition, the Clippers will send the Thunder four unprotected first-round draft picks, a protected first-round pick and two pick swaps, the people confirmed.
The Clippers stockpiled draft picks, tradeable contracts and promising young players in recent seasons, and many thought that if the team struck out on Leonard, it could use those assets to acquire a star through a trade. But with their striking deal for George, the Clippers moved up that timeline far earlier than anyone anticipated while also landing Leonard.
A presentation by the Clippers this week, including an extremely strong pitch by coach Doc Rivers, helped sell Leonard on joining the team, according to the people. In choosing the Clippers, Leonard spurned the Lakers and Toronto Raptors, whom he led to an NBA championship less than three weeks ago.
Leonard is expected to sign a four-year contract worth the maximum $142 million. Contracts can be signed Saturday starting at 3 p.m. PDT.
He and George give the Clippers star power unlike the franchise has ever known — and at an opportune time. With Kevin Durant leaving Golden State for Brooklyn in free agency and Warriors star Klay Thompson likely out for much of next season with a knee injury, the West appears wide open. The rival Lakers appeared to position themselves as a favorite in recent weeks by agreeing to a trade for Anthony Davis, who will be paired with LeBron James.
Yet with both Leonard and George arriving amid a destabilized West, the Clippers rapidly turned from an eight-seed that advanced to this season’s first round of the playoffs into a team that will operate in the spotlight .
Leonard, a 28-year-old Moreno Valley native who played at San Diego State, represents the most important free-agent signing in the history of a franchise that, in contrast to its crosstown rival, never has been a destination for top stars in their prime.
The Clippers sought to change that through planning that began in earnest a year ago, from the moment Leonard was traded from San Antonio, where he’d experienced a falling-out over the handling of a quadriceps injury, to Toronto.
That plan paid off Friday with Leonard’s decision, which was shrouded in speculation not only since the beginning of free agency last weekend, but all season. Famously reserved, Leonard allowed few, if any, details about his interest in his suitors to emerge publicly.
In Leonard, the Clippers are receiving a player widely regarded as the best all-around star playing. He averaged 26.6 points, 7.3 rebounds and 3.3 assists last season with Toronto and reached another level in the postseason, averaging 30.5 points, 9.1 rebounds and 3.9 assists while shooting 49% from the field.
George averaged 28 points, 8.2 rebounds and 4.1 assists for the Thunder. The Palmdale native has said he grew up a Clippers fan, and now he joins the team at its height.
The Clippers will surround Leonard and George with a core of returning players who helped push Golden State, the team Leonard and the Raptors defeated in the finals, to six games during the first round of the postseason. That includes Patrick Beverley, who agreed Sunday to re-sign on a three-year contract worth $40 million. On Monday, the Clipper added small forward Maurice Harkless as part of a four-team trade.
Gallinari was about to enter the last year of a contract that will pay him $22.6 million, and that salary helped the team acquire George. Gilgeous-Alexander is coming off a promising first NBA season, and the team believed he could become a star in the years to come.
By trading him, however, the Clippers helped add two stars, already in their prime.
Staff Writer Broderick Turner contributed to this report.