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Column: Kawhi Leonard’s waiting game raises the stakes for Lakers and Clippers

Kawhi Leonard
Toronto Raptors forward Kawhi Leonard speaks to reporters before a practice session on June 12. When will Leonard make his free agency decision?
(Jeff Chiu / Associated Press)

Kawhi Leonard is worth the time, the anxiety and the patience. He’s the NBA’s best player today, a superstar free agent who can take over games on both ends of the court. He can hit the big shot — ask Philadelphia and the Golden State Warriors. He can take on the impossible defensive assignment — ask the Milwaukee Bucks and Giannis Antetokounmpo.

Pairing Leonard with LeBron James and Anthony Davis would give the Lakers, even with the most conservative estimates, three of the 10 best players on the planet — arguably an unprecedented amount of talent.

So you wait.

But Leonard’s pace in free agency hasn’t matched the rest of the market. Gone are the days of multi-city meetings and of fancy presentations. There’s no point in shooting new scenes of “The Sopranos,” like the New York Knicks once did for James, or printing T-shirts and creating a “This is your life” shrine, like the Clippers did for Blake Griffin. There just isn’t time.

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By the end of Sunday, only 11 of The Times’ top 40 free agents hadn’t agreed to deals. By the end of Monday, only six remained — Leonard, DeMarcus Cousins, Danny Green, Marcus Morris, Kelly Oubre Jr. and JaMychal Green.

It’s the necessary downside to having salary-cap room and being in the hunt for Leonard. You aren’t the first person into the grocery store with the free-agency storm on the horizon. No, you get stuck in the parking lot hoping the shelves aren’t picked over once you finally get inside.

The Lakers, much more than the Clippers, have their Plan A and Plan B closely tied. Either the Lakers sign Leonard and fill out their roster with more players on minimum contracts than not, or they lose out on him and probably fill out their roster with more players on minimum contracts than not.

It’s not an indictment of their thinking — it’s firmly the path they’re on — but it’s a cost they have to pay. Seth Curry, the sharpshooting brother of Warriors All-Star Stephen Curry, would’ve looked great coming off the bench and scoring in the Lakers’ backcourt. The Lakers spoke to him about it.

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Instead, he took a four-year deal to play for Dallas, leaving the Lakers to sign shooter Troy Daniels — a one-skill player who won’t impact games nearly as much as Seth Curry.

Austin Rivers, a combo guard who would’ve been valuable because he could’ve occupied two positions on the Lakers’ thin depth chart, decided to re-up with Houston.

There’s still talent available. Danny Green, who has spoken with the Lakers and the Clippers, seems content waiting to find the right landing spot. Morris and JaMychal Green are both versatile frontcourt players. Lesser known players, such as former 76ers guard T.J. McConnell or a veteran guard like Iman Shumpert, still are looking for teams.

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The Lakers, if they miss out on Leonard, could try to acquire Goran Dragic from Miami. Maybe they take a flier on Cousins and pair him with Davis again.

The shelves aren’t empty — there just aren’t a lot of premium ingredients left.

While some of the costs for role players in the early stages of free agency might not be ideal, in a perfect world for the Lakers (and to a lesser extent, the Clippers), either Leonard would’ve sped up his decision or the rest of the teams would’ve slowed down theirs, allowing for both L.A. franchises to have as wide a set of options as possible.

But that’s not what happened, leaving both front offices to sit around and wait.

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It’s the right thing to do. It’s just not the easiest thing to do.

Staff writer Tania Ganguli contributed to this report.


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