Kevin Durant was getting ready to commit to the Brooklyn Nets, along with his good friends Kyrie Irving and DeAndre Jordan. They'd all grown close in 2016 with the United States Olympic Team and had talked often about playing with one another someday. All that remained was for free agency to officially open on the evening of June 30.
Then Durant got a call from Kawhi Leonard, asking if he'd consider teaming up with him and signing with the LA Clippers. They'd be great complements to each other, Leonard told Durant. He'd always admired him and had tremendous respect for him as a competitor.
Durant was flattered and more than a little stunned, according to sources close to the situation. He didn't know Leonard that well, so getting a recruiting call like that made a real impression.
And while Durant followed through on his plan to play with Irving and Jordan in Brooklyn a few days later, the seeds of Friday's blockbuster night had been sown -- which saw the Clippers secure a commitment from Leonard and trade for Oklahoma City forward Paul George.
Leonard's ambition in trying to recruit Durant to the Clippers suggested he was serious about joining LA in free agency. But it also suggested that they needed to get him another star.
After the Clippers met with Leonard for approximately three hours at head coach Doc Rivers' house in Malibu on Monday night, both sides went to work to make that happen. At the same time he was meeting with the Los Angeles Lakers and Toronto Raptors this week, Leonard was meeting, calling and texting with George, trying to convince him to find a way out of Oklahoma City.
Like Durant, George was flattered by Leonard's recruiting. The two had a fair amount in common. They'd grown up in the Los Angeles area at about the same time. George, 29, is from Palmdale, a dusty desert town about an hour and a half north of L.A. Leonard, 28, is from Riverside, a sprawling Inland Empire town about an hour and a half east of L.A. Both had been lightly recruited out of high school, found their footing as players at mid-major colleges (George at Fresno State, Leonard at San Diego State) and then quietly entered the NBA as mid-first-round picks.
Still, Leonard's recruiting efforts caught George by surprise.
Said one source close to George, "For a quiet guy, he's a hell of a recruiter."
For George to join Leonard with the Clippers, however, he'd have to ask for a trade from Oklahoma City -- and that wasn't going to be pleasant, considering the way the franchise had treated him in the two seasons he'd played there and the bonds that he'd formed.
But George felt like it was a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity, to play at home in L.A. alongside a generational talent like Leonard. So in the middle of the week, he went to Oklahoma City general manager Sam Presti and asked for a trade -- to the Clippers.
Presti was crestfallen. Just a year ago he'd been rewarded for taking a risk and trading for George when he eschewed all other free-agent meetings and agreed to a four-year contract to remain in Oklahoma City. It was a validation of everything Presti had built and believed in. And while this felt like a repudiation of that, Presti understood.
Superstar players in the modern NBA have tremendous power. Contracts don't really matter. Leonard forced his way out of San Antonio with a year remaining on his deal. Anthony Davis forced his way out of New Orleans with a year and a half left. George forced his way out of Indiana with a year left. Jimmy Butler forced his way out of Minnesota with a year left. Kyrie Irving forced his way out of Cleveland with two years left.
You don't have to trade a player once he asks to be moved. But usually you end up wishing you did, as the unhappy superstar and corresponding chaos these situations create thwart any chance at team building. So the Thunder obliged George's request and sought to extract maximum value from the Clippers, knowing that landing George was key to the Clippers' hopes of also landing Leonard.
While Leonard and his camp met with the Lakers and the Raptors, the Clippers and Thunder began negotiating a blockbuster trade. For Presti, it was a chance to make something good out of a bad situation while he still had leverage. For the Clippers, it was a chance to do something risky and bold after two seasons of prudent team building and asset accumulation.
Over the Fourth of July holiday, while anxious Raptors and Lakers fans tracked the flight plans of private jets carrying Leonard to and from California to Toronto, Presti was negotiating with his former protégé, Clippers general manager Michael Winger.
Leonard's camp was essentially trying to buy time, asking the Lakers as late as 9 p.m. PT on Friday night to delay the consummation of the Anthony Davis trade until "as late as Sunday," according to sources close to the situation. No reason was given for that delay by Leonard's camp, except that they should do it if they still wanted Leonard to consider them.
By that point, the Lakers, Clippers and Raptors were committed to waiting and doing whatever they had to do to land Leonard. But with the NBA's moratorium lifting on Saturday, any further delays were going to start causing problems for the series of trades maintaining the Lakers' cap space.
The chance to contend for a championship creates a gravitational force in moments like these. Two years earlier, Presti had felt that same pull, when he traded for George as part of an effort to keep Russell Westbrook and rebuild after losing Kevin Durant to free agency. Last year, Raptors general manager Masai Ujiri had felt it, as he weighed whether to give a core group that had experienced countless playoff disappointments one more crack at it with Leonard as a leading man. The Lakers had felt it just a few weeks earlier, when their chance to pair LeBron James with Davis was finally upon them. Now it was the Clippers' turn. Was it time to eschew caution and trade away virtually every asset they had for George -- and the chance to close on Leonard? How would they feel if they didn't take the shot and Leonard chose the Lakers instead?
Leonard has become something of a Rorschach test the past couple of seasons. What you see in him is as much a reflection of who you are, as it is of him. He reveals little about himself, but everything about those who project on to him.
The Lakers saw a chance to build a dynasty around Leonard, Davis and James.
The Raptors saw a king, one they hoped would want to defend the championship ring he won in his lone season with them.
The Clippers saw a chance to reshape themselves and their place in the NBA.
In the end, though, this was about what Leonard wanted. His choice was more revealing of his character and ambitions than anything he could ever say.
He went home. And he didn't go alone.
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