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Kawhi Leonard's Decision Will Reveal More About Him Than We've Ever Known

Grant Hughes

Kawhi Leonard's free-agency decision will alter the NBA landscape, regardless of which team—the Los Angeles Lakers, Los Angeles Clippers or Toronto Raptors—he selects.

With potential change of that magnitude afoot, it's no wonder everyone's fit to burst with anticipation. But for a superstar whose entire career has been built on silence and inscrutability, Leonard will soon do something unexpected.

He's going to tell us about himself.

To this point, all we've really known about the NBA's mum megastar is that he didn't want to play for the San Antonio Spurs anymore. He didn't decide to go to Toronto; he was dealt there. Before that, when he re-signed with the Spurs in 2015, he didn't have nearly the level of agency he does now.

Leonard had just turned 24 when he inked that five-year, $90 million contract, which was effectively the first revealing choice of his career. But although he'd just won his first Defensive Player of the Year award and secured a Finals MVP, he hadn't yet been an All-Star.

Though it feels like an age ago, that version of Leonard was still a supporting piece to the Tim Duncan-Tony Parker-Manu Ginobili dynastic trio. He averaged 16.5 points per game and shot 34.9 percent from deep in the season leading up to his new deal—good numbers, but nothing that put him in the "best player alive" conversation he's in now.

We could surmise Leonard's decision to take that maximum five-year deal means he's good at making the obvious choice. Who'd turn down the most money possible and another few seasons with an all-time-great core of vets with whom you'd just won a ring?

There's not a lot to learn from the situation, but what little there is might convince some that Toronto is the most likely choice for Leonard. Let's unpack that.


If It's the Raptors

Leonard's 2015 decision to stick with the Spurs, though made under different circumstances, indicated that consistency, trust and team success were high priorities. Trust, particularly, seems to have been valuable to Leonard. When it frayed between him and the Spurs during the 2017-18 season, everything came undone.

The Raptors' medical staff were uncommonly cautious with Leonard throughout last season, holding him out of back-to-back sets and limiting him to 60 games. The strategy paid off, as Leonard remained fit enough to dominate the playoffs, averaging 30.5 points, 9.1 rebounds and 3.9 assists per game with a true shooting percentage of 61.9.

Know how many players matched those numbers during the decidedly less pressurized 2018-19 regular season?

Try zero.

If he values trust and reliability, there are reasons for him to choose Toronto that extend well beyond the medical staff. Kyle Lowry, Marc Gasol, Pascal Siakam, Serge Ibaka, Danny Green and Fred VanVleet all validated themselves in Toronto's title run. Leonard won't have to imagine how those guys will react in tense situations because he's seen them rise to the occasion firsthand.

The Toronto Known Commodities Mitchell Leff/Getty Images

Leonard will know exactly what he's getting in Toronto. If he stays put, it'll show the premium he puts on certainty.

A re-up with the Raptors will also tell us what Leonard doesn't prioritize: location, brand-building opportunities, superteams and all the hullaballoo that would follow his decision to relocate to, say, the Lakers. It's not exactly revelatory to say Leonard has little time for the nonsense associated with fame, but his sticking with Toronto would also show he's not bothered by incessant questions about his future.

The Raptors aren't built to last. Lowry, Gasol, VanVleet and Ibaka will hit free agency in 2020. If Leonard returns, it'll have to be on a short-term deal, and all the questions about what's next will follow him.

Maybe the speculation and guesswork that defined his time in Toronto didn't bother him because he never engaged with it. Because he just kept quiet.

Leonard is cool with staying silent? I guess that's one thing we already knew.


If It's the Lakers

There would be nothing quiet about Leonard's life as a Laker. Even if LeBron James shouldered the brunt of the media responsibilities, Leonard would still face more noise with the franchise than he's ever endured. Choosing a destination so antithetical to his no-nonsense makeup, then, would indicate Leonard values what L.A. offers more than his desire avoid the negatives that come with life under a microscope.

That may seem surprising, but it would be hard to fault Leonard for wanting to create the best three-man combination of players the league's ever seen.

That's a possibility with appeal to any player of Leonard's caliber, regardless of disposition. Who wouldn't want to team up with two other perennial MVP candidates and see what kind of destruction they could visit upon the rest of the NBA?

The appeal of playing with other superstars might be too great to ignore. Vaughn Ridley/Getty Images

Of course, the Lakers aren't a sure thing. And if Leonard were to choose them, it would tell us he's not overly concerned with organizational stability. The Lakers have operated chaotically for several years, and Leonard's only professional experiences involved the almost comically hyperfunctional Spurs and last year's Raptors, who also seemed to have everything figured out. It would come as a surprise if Leonard decided culture and stability were no longer priorities.

Throw in coaching uncertainty as well. Nick Nurse proved his mettle with the Raptors last year, and the Clippers' Doc Rivers is among the league's most respected, experienced head coaches. Both also have rings.

Frank Vogel had success with the Indiana Pacers earlier this decade, but he's never been to the Finals and most recently got a gig as the Lakers' fallback choice—still a pretty good spot to land after getting fired by the Orlando Magic, even with Jason Kidd eying his job from the bench. There's no question Vogel ranks third on the list of coaches Leonard could choose to play for, though.

As much as anything, picking the Lakers would reveal Leonard to be an optimist. To justify that selection, he'd have to take a glass-half-full approach to all the questions surrounding the franchise and its thin roster. He'd have to believe Anthony Davis and LeBron would stay healthy, that the Lakers could find role players on the cheap, that Vogel could hold things together and that there'd be no more front-office intrigue.

Finally, if Leonard chooses to work with James and Davis, it'll indicate he's more like other superstars than we thought. Team up with top-end talent and figure the rest out later.


If It's the Clippers

This would be the most Spurs-like choice and might mean Leonard's formative years still contribute to his priorities.

You've got an iconic coach in Rivers who comes about as close as anyone to Gregg Popovich, and a consultant in Jerry West whose gravitas and track record are at least on par with Spurs GM R.C. Buford's.

The front office, led by president of basketball operations Lawrence Frank and GM Michael Winger, has built a flexible, professional, grown-up operation that should appeal to any player, especially one who's seen how good organizations look from the inside.

Rivers and West, sensible stability incarnate. Andrew D. Bernstein/Getty Images

The Clippers can't advertise the star power or recent success the Lakers and Raptors, respectively, can. So choosing the other L.A. team would tell us Leonard is more of a big-picture, forward-thinking type. With the Clips, he'd get a readymade supporting cast of veterans (mostly at below-market deals) and young talent, with several incoming picks to provide down-the-road help.

The Raptors, as we know them, won't survive beyond this season. The Lakers are built around two stars, the 34-year-old James is at the end of his prime, there are no draft assets to speak of there and it seems impossible that all the drama of the last few years will suddenly disappear. Both non-Clipper situations feel less sustainable.

Choosing the Clips would indicate Leonard is more focused on the sensible than the sensational. That he's not into instant gratification. That he's got one of those five-year plans most of us neglect to form.

That version of Leonard wouldn't exactly square with Kawhi: Fun Guy, but nobody ever bought that persona anyway.

The truth is, we may never really know Leonard. The conclusions we draw from his decision, whenever he makes it, will be little more than inferences because it seems unlikely he'll sit down for an interview and explain his motivations in detail.

Really, if Leonard wanted to keep us completely in the dark and reaffirm everything we already think—that he's not interested in hastening a decision just because it's expected—he wouldn't decide anything until August. Because who cares about feeding the hype machine?

Let's hope it doesn't come to that.


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