This is mainly because, despite winning a championship with Toronto, the Clippers offered something the Raptors couldn’t: Doc Rivers.
In an interview with the Los Angeles Times’ Arash Markazi, the Clippers coach explained he was a key reason for Leonard’s desire to play for Los Angeles’ other team.
“We had a meeting with Kawhi at my house in Malibu and we felt we had the inside position,” Rivers told Markazi. “The Lakers had a meeting with Kawhi and they built this whole thing up for him to come to their new practice facility and he said, ‘No, you can come to my hotel room.’ But with us, he said, ‘Yes, I’ll come to your house.’ When we heard that it felt like he was telling us he wants to come here. …
“He comes into this meeting and he shakes our hands and he’s talking. We were prepared for a meeting where we would have to drag things out of him. Instead, he’s the one talking and finally, he tells us exactly what the deal is.
“He said, ‘I want to play for you,’ and he pointed at me.”
According to Rivers, while there were likely many other factors at play that led to Leonard choosing the Clippers, the key one was his desire to play for Rivers, a former coach of the year and the man at the helm of the 2008 champion Boston Celtics.
There was one hiccup with this plan of Leonard, though: the Clippers team itself. As badly as Leonard wanted to play for Rivers, he wasn’t coming unless the team made some serious personnel changes.
“He said, ‘Mr. Ballmer, I love the things you do and what you stand for, but your team is not good enough and if you don’t change your team, I’m not coming,’” Rivers said.
Confirming the reports of Leonard’s ultimate power move, the 2019 Finals MVP really did hand-pick who would be worthy to play with him.
“We actually had a list of guys, which was a mistake, but we got lucky,” said Rivers of other players the Clippers were throwing around as possible off-season targets. “We shouldn’t have had a list, because then he got to choose who he wanted to play with and the assumption was that we could get them. We didn’t know if we could get anybody. We just showed him guys that we thought would match him and when he saw Paul George’s name he said, ‘I want to play with him.’
“We showed him everybody else and he didn’t want to hear it. He just stayed on Paul George, so after the meeting we sat down and I said, ‘We got to get Paul George. I don’t know how we are going to do it, but we have to do it.’”
While it would’ve been disappointing for Rivers and the Clippers to see Leonard return to the Raptors, the straw that broke the camel’s back was the thought of the Lakers landing Leonard.
“The day of the trade at 12 noon [PST] the deal was off,” said Rivers. “I was at home in Malibu and [Clippers president of basketball operations] Lawrence [Frank] called me and told me, ‘It looks like he’s either going to Toronto or the Lakers.’ The Lakers part just threw me over. I told him that can’t happen. … I remember I kept telling him, ‘We cannot allow that to happen!’”
And as Rivers tells it, by about 4:00 p.m. PST, the deal for Leonard was back on as Rivers was pulling into a restaurant.
“So I go to the side of the road on PCH and we’re going back and forth and we got the deal done,” said Rivers.