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Kawhi Leonard’s decision to return was a two-year process for Clippers

Clippers forward Kawhi Leonard (2) drives the baseline against Utah.
Clippers forward Kawhi Leonard drives the baseline against Utah.
(Gina Ferazzi / Los Angeles Times)

NBA free agency was 4 days old when Kawhi Leonard decided Friday to re-sign with the Clippers, but his decision, confirmed by a person with knowledge of the superstar forward’s communication with the team, was two years in the making.

Since Leonard signed as a free agent in 2019, the clock began counting down toward his next opportunity to leave. The two guaranteed seasons the team had with the two-time NBA Finals most valuable player were viewed as both the start of a budding partnership while also a high-stakes audition to impress and ensure it would continue.

While the Clippers entered free agency long considered the favorite to retain their leading scorer because of the lengths taken to acquire and accommodate him, along with the proximity to his family in Southern California, their confidence in keeping Leonard didn’t waver after he became an unrestricted free agent Sunday. They believed he was in step with their two-fold offseason plan: Retain the veteran core that fueled so much of last season’s run to the franchise’s first conference finals appearance while surrounding them with younger talent to fill the roster’s gaps of speed and athleticism.

Earning Leonard’s commitment addressed the first need.

The terms of Leonard’s contract were still being discussed Friday afternoon, two people familiar with the negotiations said. He is eligible to sign for up to four years and $176 million now. A two-year contract with an option for the second season would afford Leonard both leverage again next offseason and the possibility of maximizing his money by adding a five-year extension worth around $230 million.

His decision came hours after point guard Reggie Jackson, a breakout star of the playoffs after making nearly 41% of his three-pointers, agreed to a two-year, $22-million deal, and that followed center Serge Ibaka’s decision to exercise his option for next season and forward Nicolas Batum’s agreement to return on a two-year deal, with a player option for 2022-23.

The Clippers and guard Reggie Jackson, who had a standout postseason this spring, have agreed to a two-year deal worth $22 million.

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Signing Justise Winslow, the 25-year-old former lottery pick, is a bet on achieving the second priority.

His two-year deal will utilize the team’s taxpayer mid-level exception, a person familiar with the terms said, and doesn’t include an option for the second season. The 10th overall pick in the 2015 draft, the 6-foot-6, 222-pound Winslow was evaluated as a fit in part because his age is along the same timeline as the Clippers’ younger contributors, including Ivica Zubac, Luke Kennard and Terance Mann, and his versatility to guard multiple positions was seen as another option to play the kind of aggressive, switch-everything defense that spurred postseason comebacks against Dallas and Utah.

Utilizing Winslow on the court will require him to be healthy and a factor offensively, too. Injuries, which included surgery in 2020 to replace a hip, limited him to just 37 games combined over the last two seasons, a span in which he made only 41% of his shots inside the arc and 19% of his three-pointers. The Clippers, however, believe his passing and end-to-end speed can create easier opportunities for an oft-plodding team that ranked 26th in fast-break points last season.

Leonard’s recovery after undergoing surgery July 13 to repair what the team called a partially torn anterior cruciate ligament in his right knee will “require a great deal of time,” team president Lawrence Frank said last week, perhaps undercuts their immediate title aspirations. Orthopedic surgeons say most ACL injuries typically carry a recovery time of nine months to one year. The Clippers hope that the example of Brooklyn’s Kevin Durant last season is proof that a 30-year-old superstar coming off a major injury can rebound to his previous form after recovery.

Leonard had averaged 30.4 points, 7.7 rebounds and 4.4 assists while shooting 57% from the field during the last postseason, including 39% on three-pointers, before injuring his knee in the fourth game of the second-round playoff series against Utah. He missed the Clippers’ final eight playoff games.

His recovery time also creates openings for others to earn more playing time, and while Winslow is expected to reap most of those extra repetitions as a big wing like Leonard, the additions of first-round pick and off-guard Keon Johnson, point guard Jason Preston and wing Brandon Boston represent more chances to develop another player like Mann — a young, raw talent who, with polish and time, could become a member of a future playoff rotation.

A few years ago Jason Preston was a longshot to make the NBA. Soon he’ll be with Clippers teammates showing their potential in summer league games.

For many reasons, next season’s most important progress could happen behind the scenes — a medical staff tasked with helping Leonard recover and a player development staff charged with sanding the rough edges of their young players’ games.

Paul George, Leonard’s fellow All-Star, celebrated with an Instagram post upon the midday news that Leonard and Jackson, one of his closest friends, had agreed to return.

The few teams with enough cap space to court Leonard and add the maximum-contract deal he would command — even while recovering from a knee injury that could cost him most of next season — operated as though he wasn’t realistically going anywhere, and spent their money quickly in recent days.

Leonard was always the team’s top priority. Their other roster decisions so far this summer have also highlighted the areas that the team felt it must improve in order to maximize that potential once he is again healthy.


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