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Column: Clippers going all-in with Kawhi Leonard might be wrong move

The Clippers' Kawhi Leonard drives against the Orlando Magic on March 30, 2021.
The Clippers’ Kawhi Leonard drives against the Orlando Magic on March 30, 2021, in Los Angeles.
(Ringo H.W. Chiu / Associated Press)

Amid loud fanfare and much relief, the Clippers officially retained their best player Thursday by signing the great and powerful Kawhi Leonard.

Whatever.

In a deal that surely sent celebratory waves through much of Clipper Nation, the free-agent Leonard will return to a team with a four-year contract worth $176 million.

Whoopee.

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Sorry, but it’s hard to get too excited about a presence that comes with so much fine print.

Sure, Leonard is one of the NBA’s true superstars, a two-time NBA champion and Finals MVP, a five-time All-Star and a renowned defender.

Could Clippers star Kawhi Leonard make it back before the end of next season? Spencer Dinwiddie returned from a partially torn ACL in seven months.

But the fine print … he could miss next season after undergoing knee surgery, which means they’re basically giving him millions to sit on the bench with no certainty of a full recovery. The Brooklyn Nets did the same with Kevin Durant a couple of years ago after his Achilles tendon surgery, and that worked out tremendously, but Leonard is more frail and more cautious.

Certainly, Leonard’s numbers with the Clippers have been impressive, as he is the only NBA player over the last two seasons to average at least 26 points, 6.8 rebounds, 5 assists and 1.7 steals.

But the fine print … how many of those numbers have accounted for impact Clippers victories?

In his first season here, aside from his infamous load management, Leonard was best known for helping to blow what might have been the Clippers’ best chance for an NBA title. He made only six of 22 shots and scored just 14 points in that Game 7 collapse in the second round to the Denver Nuggets.

In his second season, he absolutely saved them with 45 points in a near-perfect Game 6 of the first round against the Dallas Mavericks this summer, then totaled 65 points in two wins to tie the second-round series against the Utah Jazz.

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But then he got hurt. And the Clippers won those final two games against the Jazz without him. Yet the Paul George-led team with a couple of breaks could have beaten the Phoenix Suns in the Western Conference finals without him.

As the Clippers forged their identity as an emotional group filled with an unselfish energy and unrelenting work ethic — garnering hordes of new fans even in their largely hostile hometown — Leonard just didn’t seem to fit.

Clippers stars Kawhi Leonard and Paul George grew as teammates and leaders under coach Tyronn Lue, which could bode well in keeping the pair together.

Assuming he doesn’t opt out of the final year of this new contract and hold the Clippers hostage again — a big assumption — Leonard will now be the face of the franchise as it makes the monumental move into its new Inglewood arena in 2024.

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But the real heart and soul of the Clippers can be found elsewhere.

They are the portrait of a team. Leonard stands alone. Their new leader George fiercely plays until he drops. Leonard is a quiet wingman who watches his minutes. They are brilliantly run by one of the league’s top five coaches in Tyronn Lue. Leonard has his own agenda.

Appropriately, the most glaring and compelling recent example of Leonard’s presence was his absence. When he was injured during the recent playoffs, he rarely sat on their bench, preferring to keep his wisdom and inspiration locked upstairs in a suite.

Just as the Clippers are emerging from local anonymity and headed toward a new brand with a generous owner and limitless possibilities, was it really smart to continue maintaining a cornerstone who doesn’t really seem to anchor anyone but himself?

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“This agreement marks another important moment for our franchise and our fans, as we strive to create a championship-caliber organization, where players find the success and fulfillment they seek,” said Lawrence Frank, Clippers president of basketball operations, in a signing statement. “We’re eager to continue building with Kawhi.”

To be honest, they’ve created a championship-caliber organization while tiptoeing around Leonard, and they could have continued building without him. There were no good free-agent options this year, but couldn’t they have gutted it out without Leonard next year — they’re going to have to do that anyway — and then forged ahead with someone else?

Clippers stars Kawhi Leonard, left, and Paul George on the court.
The Clippers have rebuilt the team this offseason around All-Star forwards Kawhi Leonard (2) and Paul George (13).
(Luis Sinco / Los Angeles Times)

This is, first and foremost, PG13’s team. Despite great and mocking criticism this postseason, George proved to be a force worthy of being at least a leading piece of a championship effort.

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The Clippers have surrounded George this summer with energy and inspiration, smartly re-signing Reggie Jackson and Nicolas Batum, adding solid wing defender Justise Winslow, and then watching Serge Ibaka opt back in. Ivica Zubac is an emerging talent. Marcus Morris is steady. Terance Mann is explosive. Luke Kennard can still shoot. Patrick Beverley is a hoot.

This was never going to be a title team without another superstar, but if they didn’t re-sign Leonard and held the vacancy, it could have been an attractive destination next summer for any number of trade possibilities or potential free agents like Chicago’s Zach LaVine.

Leonard might be one of the league’s best players, but he’s just not the Clippers’ best fit. They have basically gone all-in on a guy who has never seemed to go all-in on them.

In the words of Steve Ballmer, “Hardcore baby!”

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In the current reality, buyer beware.


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