It was widely expected that Kawhi Leonard was interested only in a long-term deal when he announced early in the week that he would join the Los Angeles Clippers as an unrestricted free agent.
Instead, he surprised many NBA observers by going short term in a deal announced on Wednesday.
Leonard signed for three years for $103 million with a player option in the third year. His contract now aligns himself with new Clippers teammate Paul George, setting the two of them up to be members of the 2021 free-agent class.
It was expected all week that Leonard would sign for four years and $141 million with the Clippers.
This deal is worth $67,121,100 in the first two years, including $67,121,100 guaranteed, with an annual average salary of $33,560,550. Leonard will make $32.74 million next season, $34.37 million in 2020-21 and $36.01 million in the player-option season.
In 2019-20, George will carry a cap hit of $33 million. In 2020-21 that cap hit moves to $35.4 million and $37.8 million in his player option year.
The NBA Finals MVP for the second time, Leonard had turned down the possibility of making $190 million over four years with the Raptors so he could play closer to home with the Clippers.
As reported by ESPN, if Leonard and George become free agents in 2021, the Clippers would hold Leonard’s early Bird rights and full Bird rights for George.
As former NBA front office insider and current ESPN insider Bobby Marks reported, the most Leonard could earn with the Clippers if he does not opt in for 2021 is four years at $196 million. Because of early Bird rights, he would not be eligible to sign a five-year, $253 million contract.
Bird rights offer teams a chance to sign their own free agents without regard for the salary cap. Early Bird rights can be offered after two seasons, but there are limitations.
Bird players can receive maximum-salary deals for up to five years, while the most a team can offer an Early Bird free agent without using cap space is four years.
The shorter-team deal for Leonard puts even more pressure on the Clippers, who gave up a record-setting package in return for landing George in a trade from the Oklahoma City Thunder.
The Thunder acquired guard Shai Gilgeous-Alexander, forward Danilo Gallinari and five first-round draft picks.
It was the biggest trade for one player in NBA history, a move engineered by Leonard, who had heavily recruited George to play with him because he wanted another star player to compete with the Los Angeles Lakers’ power duo of LeBron James and Anthony Davis.
Leonard’s three-year deal was surprising in light of what TV analyst Cris Carter reported last week.
Carter, who is close to the Leonard camp, reported that Leonard was not interested in discussing short-term deals with the Raptors, Clippers or Los Angeles Lakers — the three teams who were seen as the front-runners for his services.
The deal brokered by Leonard to get George traded to the Clippers so they could team up has raised questions about the power of the NBA’s free agents and whether tampering rules go far enough.
NBA Commissioner addressed the issue this week.
“The one strong conviction I have is that we should not have rules that are not strictly enforced,” Silver said. “And we know that’s the case right now. And whether that’s by virtue of practice, whether it’s because just the world around us has changed, whether it’s because players have power that they didn’t use to have … let’s step back, let’s reset, let’s talk to our players’ association about what system makes sense going forward.”
Meanwhile, the Raptors are moving on quickly from the disappointment of losing Leonard.
“I think we got a great deal out of this,” Raptors president Masai Ujiri said in reference to the Leonard trade last year for DeMar DeRozan. “We won a championship so we’re happy. And honestly it’s on to the next. This is the NBA and this is how it works.
“I always say there’s no time to go out and cry. You can’t hide under the table and cry. Honestly, I’ve lost no sleep, I’m not disappointed. It’s on to what’s next. I’m telling Raptors fans and everybody, don’t lose one day of sleep, one second of sleep. We’re going to be just fine.”