What a difference a decision makes.
If Leonard had taken his talents to the Lakers, the entire narrative that followed would have been how super teams have once again ruined the NBA and that the championship fate had been over, determined before the season had even begun.
Leonard is taking his talents to Staples Center but he is headed towards the locker room of the tenant, not the owner, of the arena. Leonard is a Los Angeles Clipper, not a Laker. And not only are the Clippers not shoo-ins to win a title with the board man on board, they still will have to fight to emerge as the best team in their own building or even their own division.
After $2 billion were spent in the first 90 minutes and $3.4 billion given out in the first 30 hours of free agency, nobody emerged as a clear winner of the frenzy. But, by the time the Kawhi watch ended in the early hours of Saturday morning, it seemed the championship became the Clippers’ to lose after they secured not just Leonard but also Paul George.
Not so fast.
Not only has the parity in the league not been eroded due to the player-empowerment era that saw Leonard hold the entire league hostage, it has never been better. Super teams aren’t the death of the league. They’re its rebirth. The player-empowerment era’s movement has been a true meritocracy, where the organizations that exhibit a positive culture and shrewd business decisions are coming out on top.
Look at the teams that won big in free agency. The Brooklyn Nets secured stars coveted by the New York Knicks. Leonard chose the Los Angeles Clippers, making it consecutive years in which a California product signed with a team yet to win a championship (George in 2018 with the Oklahoma City Thunder) instead of joining the Lake Show.
What is the commonality among the field of growing title contenders emerging from this free-agency period? Franchises that aren’t necessarily storied or from huge markets were rewarded for having great cultures, savvy front offices and proving that player development and a chance to win are the NBA player’s chief concerns.
The fear that all the stars were going to congregate in areas where they can sell the most endorsements and stack up the most championships was premature and invalid.
To that end, two players with their own signature shoes just chose the Clippers.
Another two players with their own signature shoes chose the Nets.
Market isn’t the type of driver it once was. Now the central motivator is eliminating the hot-take narratives fans and media perpetuate only validating players if they accumulate championships.
With that pressure, star players’ increasing willingness to pick up shop is putting pressure on franchises to uphold their end of the bargain and continue to strive to compete.
Of the 24 all-stars who played in the 2017 All-Star Game, only eight haven’t switched teams. They are Stephen Curry, Draymond Green, Klay Thompson, James Harden, Russell Westbrook, Giannis Antetokounmpo, Kyle Lowry and John Wall. Two of the eight may not play next season due to injury. Another two, Lowry and Westbrook, may not finish the upcoming seasons with their respective teams.
The fluidity of stars means organizations are one transaction away from bouncing in and out of contention. So, nobody is safe, not even the on-paper champions that are the two teams in Los Angeles.
The Clippers should know this best because they took the large triple jump from mediocre to betting favourite, it seems, overnight.
And now the Clippers are set up to be great.
No matter where Leonard went, his employer was immediately going to be considered a title contender. That’s how much he impacts winning. Leonard’s teams have a winning percentage of .754 in the regular season when he plays, currently the highest such figure in NBA history among players with at least 400 games played.
To put that number in perspective, the next two players behind him on the list — Magic Johnson (.740) and Larry Bird (.736) — aren’t even all that close behind.
With Leonard, the Clippers will be menacing defensively and efficient offensively. The two players with the most points per touch last season were George (.476) and Leonard (.465).
But both players are used to operating with the ball in their hands and the same can be said for super-sub and Sixth Man Of The Year Lou Williams. Not to mention that George and Leonard both have their own checkered injury history and played through the playoffs last season managing various ailments. As it is, George might miss training camp due to the shoulder issues that derailed his MVP contention season last year.
On paper, the Clippers should be favoured. But are they a lock to hoist the Larry O’Brien trophy? Not close. What makes the league compelling is now so many teams have a shot.
The Philadelphia 76ers still might have the best starting five in the NBA with the addition of Al Horford and Josh Richardson.
The Milwaukee Bucks were the best team in the league last season and bring back the MVP who is still getting better.
The Nets will have to wait a year to have the team they dream of healthy, but Kevin Durant and Kyrie Irving are two of the game’s most gifted scorers being dropped on one of the youngest emerging rosters in the league.
The Nuggets are running it back with the core that pushed the Golden State Warriors‘ best record in the West last year and could add the talented Michael Porter Jr. after his medical-redshirt year as a rookie.
The Trail Blazers will add a healthy Jusuf Nurkic with the addition of Hassan Whiteside to create one of the league’s best frontcourt duos.
The Houston Rockets have refrained from blowing it up at least for one year to try and challenge again now that their personal roadblock that is the Warriors is weakened.
Oh, that’s right the previous big bad bully, the Warriors. They did lose two all-stars in Durant and DeMarcus Cousins. But that still leaves them with four all-stars as D’Angelo Russell adds some youth to the three-time champion trio of Thompson, Green and Curry.
There isn’t one dominant super team, but a bunch of startup super teams across the league. By my count there are legitimately seven teams in the West alone that should consider themselves title contenders.
Leonard going to the Clippers made them the pre-season favourite in 2019. But the NBA post-season in 2020 will feel more like the NCAA tournament than the inevitable march to the Finals we’ve become accustomed to.
Some people like the drama that comes with dominant teams. Others like unpredictability that comes with parity. Well, the unintended consequence of the players taking the league in their own hands means we’ve now got both. Enjoy it while it lasts because, if this NBA off-season taught us anything, it’s that nothing in the NBA stays the same for long.