From Magic Johnson to Charles Barkley, from to Mark Jackson to Chauncey Billups, all four NBA greats hold Kawhi Leonard in high esteem for the shrewd and stealthy manner by which he chose his Clippers co-star in Paul George.
For Johnson, the five-time NBA champion with the Lakers and the team’s former president of basketball operations, there was “disappointment” that Leonard decided against playing with the Lakers to form what could have been a super team with LeBron James and Anthony Davis.
When Leonard and his camp called Johnson before the All-Star forward met with Lakers owner Jeanie Buss and general manager Rob Pelinka last week, Johnson had high hopes Leonard would pick the Lakers.
“Everybody tried. That’s all you can do,” Johnson said. “I’m a Laker, man. I was hoping all day. But for the league, it turned out great. And for this town, it’s the king of basketball. You got LeBron and AD with the Lakers and Paul George and Kawhi with the Clippers.
“You got to say to Jerry West, Doc Rivers and [Steve] Ballmer, congratulations,” he said. “For the Lakers, there’s disappointment but joy too, because we pivoted and got some great players in free agency and we still have LeBron and AD. In a perfect world, you’d love to have Kawhi. But, hey, the Lakers ain’t going anywhere.”
Few knew that Leonard, who led the Toronto Raptors to their first NBA championship and was selected the Finals most valuable player, had been silently negotiating his own deal to steal George away from the Thunder.
When the Clippers traded promising rookie guard Shai Gilgeous-Alexander, veteran sharpshooter Danilo Gallinari and an NBA-record five first-round draft picks to the Thunder, Leonard had secured his running partner, and then he agreed to a four-year deal for $142 million.
Leonard is known for being reticent, a man of few words with the media.
But obviously he talks to his NBA brothers and said more than enough to bring two Southern California basketball products — Leonard is from Moreno Valley and George from Palmdale — home together.
“It’s the quiet ones that get you,” Jackson, an analyst for ESPN/ABC, said laughing. “So he’s quiet on his own terms. When it comes time of handling his business and securing his legacy, obviously he took the ball and ran with it. Whether it be either a meeting, whether it be having a conversation with George or what have you, he took his decision serious and realized that his legacy was tied to it.”
Billups sees a victory for not only the Clippers, but also the NBA after Leonard turned the basketball world upside down.
For five consecutive seasons, the Golden State Warriors ruled the West, reaching the Finals each time and winning three championships.
That dominance seemingly was broken by Leonard, first with the Raptors in the Finals and then in free agency.
“I was so happy, just because I love parity and I love going into an NBA season and it’s like, ‘Man, I don’t know who is going to win it because there are so many good teams.’ I missed that,” said Billups, an ESPN analyst who was named Finals MVPwhen Detroit upset the Lakers in 2004. “We haven’t had that in a long time, and the fact that Kawhi was able to go there and Paul George will be there and them join what already is a good team … I loved it.”
To Jackson, it was irrelevant that Leonard took his talents to the Clippers and not the Lakers.
“It’s a matter of preference and his choice, so I don’t really get caught up in which place he went and one over the other,” Jackson said. “You get one choice and he made the choice. At the end of the day, I respect him as much as anybody I’ve ever covered. The way he’s handled everything speaks volumes from his character and his professionalism being questioned. … He never said a word. We never heard anything from him. He let his body of work do the talking and his character and professionalism speak for him.”