If the Clippers exhaled, following a pursuit that was both months in the making and a frantic, late push, it was only briefly.
Now begins their work of keeping both in the fold for the long term.
Leonard signed a three-year contract worth $103 million, with a player option for the final season in 2021-22, according to a person with knowledge of the deal who was not authorized to speak publicly and requested anonymity.
The player option creates the possibility that not only could Leonard reenter free agency again after two seasons in a Clippers uniform, but the other half of the team’s superstar pairing could join him. George, a six-time all-star forward whose trade from Oklahoma City to the Clippers also became official Wednesday, also holds a player option for the 2021-22 season.
Leonard’s motivation for opting out in 2021 would be financial. By that time he will have finished his 10th NBA season, a threshold that allows players to sign contracts worth the maximum 35% of a team’s salary cap. By not signing a long-term contract now, there is some risk for Leonard to stay healthy. But one lesson of 2019 NBA free agency, as demonstrated by the cases of Kevin Durant and Klay Thompson, is that stars of the highest caliber can command maximum-salary, long-term contracts, even if injured.
But concerns about the ultimate length of their Clippers tenures were mostly put aside Wednesday as the team realized its long-held goal of pairing Leonard with another star in the prime of his career.
In a statement, Clippers president of basketball operations Lawrence Frank hailed the signing as a “historic moment.” The franchise has never before landed a free agent with the credentials of the two-time most valuable player of the NBA Finals.
“Having him on our side is a tremendous privilege and a massive responsibility,” Frank said, “one we will take very seriously.”
The 28-year-old Leonard, who grew up in Moreno Valley and starred at Riverside King High School and San Diego State, is a three-time all-star, two-time defensive player of the year and two-time NBA champion. He had always been the top target of the Clippers, long before their meeting with Leonard and his representatives in Malibu on July 1. Clippers representatives conspicuously traveled to watch Leonard play in person with Toronto on multiple occasions last season.
They watched as Leonard dragged Toronto to its first NBA title and justified their belief in him as a franchise-changing talent.
The Clippers are one of only three NBA franchises never to advance to a conference final, but by landing the duo of Leonard and George, the Clippers have become among the betting favorites to win the 2020 championship.
“He wins everywhere he goes, and he always has, from King High School to San Diego State to the NBA,” Frank said. “His expectation, and ours, is to contend for championships.”
Leonard last week helped recruit George to request a trade from Oklahoma City. The two had developed a mutual respect. Both rose from under-recruited stars in the Los Angeles exurbs to rank among the NBA’s most feared all-around players. George was excited about pairing up.
To pry George away from Oklahoma City – and, in the process, persuade Leonard they were serious about pursuing championships immediately — the Clippers sent the Thunder four future unprotected draft picks, one protected pick and will swap picks with Oklahoma City in 2023 and 2025. In addition, all-rookie point guard Shai Gilgeous-Alexander and forward Danilo Gallinari were traded.
“From the time that Paul and his representation made us aware of what had been transpiring and their subsequent request, our focus as an organization was identifying the best paths for our future,” Thunder general manager Sam Presti said in a statement.
Presti added that Paul “should be remembered fondly.”
The Clippers considered the trade costly but worth it.
Paul, 29, who has said he grew up a Clippers fan in Palmdale, finished third in the most valuable player voting last season and was called “one of the greatest two-way players in our game” by Frank.
“When you have the opportunity to acquire a contributor of his caliber,” Frank said, “you do what it takes to bring him home.”
Leonard and George are expected to be formally introduced next week.