We’re continuing our 213Hoops Exit Interview series, where we go player-by-player through the Clippers’ roster and break down how each player on the team performed relative to their pre-season expectations, and ponder their future with the team. Today, we’re taking a look at superstar forward Kawhi Leonard.
Weight: 225 lbs
Years in NBA: 10
Key Stats: In 52 regular season appearances, played 34.1 minutes per game and averaged 24.8 points, 6.5 rebounds, 5.2 assists, 1.6 steals, and 2.0 turnovers on 51.2/39.8/88.5 shooting splits. In 11 playoff appearances, played 39.3 minutes pergame and averaged 30.3 points, 7.7 rebounds, 4.4 assists, 2.1 steals, and 2.2 turnovers on 57.3/39.3/88.0 shooting splits.
Contract Status: Leonard has a player option for $36,016,200 for the 2021-22 season. If he opts in, he can choose to either hit free agency next summer, where the Clippers would have his full bird rights and could offer him a 5-year deal worth $235M, or immediately sign a 4-year max extension immediately worth $181M. If he opts out, he could either sign a short-term contract that would pay him $39.2M for 2021-22 and allow him to pursue the aforementioned 5-year/$235M deal next summer, or take the long-term security of a 4-year, $176M contract. Here’s a chart (his maximum contract will be start at 35% of the salary cap in the year it begins, so these numbers are projections and could change by the time the official cap number comes out):
|Option||21-22 (age 30)||22-23 (age 31)||23-24 (age 32)||24-25 (age 33)||25-26 (age 34)||26-27 (age 35)||Total|
|Opt in + 5-year max in 2022||$36M||$40.5M||$43.7M||$47M||$50.2M||$53.5M||6 years, $270.9M|
|Opt in + extend||$36M||$40.5M||$43.7M||$47M||$50.2M||5 years, $217.4M|
|Opt out + 1-year + 5-year max in 2022||$39.3M||$40.5M||$43.7M||$47M||$50.2M||$53.5M||6 years, $274.2M|
|Opt out + sign 4-year deal||$39.3M||$42.5M||$45.6M||$48.8M||4 years, $176.2M|
Sometimes, this series is most boring when we get to the biggest names on the roster. It can be really instructive to reflect on the season and note how someone like Reggie Jackson or Luke Kennard exceeded or didn’t quite measure up to our preseason expectations for them. With Kawhi Leonard, it’s pretty clear what the expectations are: be one of the best players in the world, and be at your best in the biggest moments to lead the team to a championship. And frankly, there isn’t a ton of year-to-year suspense: yes, like every other player, Kawhi is going to have stinkers like his 2020 game 7 against Denver. But on the whole, I’m not exactly going into each season thinking “I hope Kawhi plays at an All-NBA level this year.” You already know he’s got it.
But we also know he isn’t perfect, and there were a few areas heading into the 2020-21 NBA season where I was watching for a little bit of improvement. While he had a career-best year passing the basketball in 2020, room for growth as a distributor remained as the focal point of LAC’s offense. A good three-point shooter throughout his career, he has never been elite from beyond the arc or taken a tremendous volume of shots from out there. A renowned defender who has at times certainly had a case for the top 1-on-1 shutdown perimeter defender in the world, he doesn’t always bring the intensity nightly on that end of the court. And most importantly, as an infamously quiet, private, and reserved guy, Kawhi doesn’t necessarily bring a traditional, vocal leadership style–and with the Clippers crumbling under pressure and lacking locker room chemistry in 2020, his personality was under the microscope.
Let’s get the obvious out of the way: Kawhi played at an All-NBA level this season. He started in the All-Star game, made the All-NBA first team, and put up all the normal great box score lines that you expect from a superstar. He also took things to another level in the playoffs, averaging over 30 points per game (he, Donovan Mitchell, and Kevin Durant are the only 3 guys to average 30+ in 10+ playoff games played this year), including a monster 45-point game on 18-25 shooting to stave off elimination in a road game 6 against the Dallas Mavericks. With all credit to Paul George for his amazing playoff run, Leonard was clearly the Clippers’ best player through the 11 postseason games he appeared in before a rough foul from Joe Ingles late in a blowout caused Kawhi to injure his knee. There was little doubt, up until the point that Ingles injured Leonard’s right ACL, that Kawhi was clearly playing at “best player on a championship team” level these playoffs.
To check in on the other objectives, Leonard’s distribution did in fact improve this season: he re-set last year’s career high in assists per game, improving from 4.9 to 5.2 (though in higher minutes, staying level at 5.5 per 36) while significantly reducing his turnovers from 2.6 to 2.0 per game (or 2.9 to 2.1 per 36). Shooting the ball from deep, he brought his three-point percentage up a couple of ticks from 37.8% to 39.8%, although he notably took them at a lower rate in 2021 than he did in 2020. Thankfully, there was no playoff drop-off–while he hit just 32.9% of his postseason threes in 2020, he hit 39.3% in 2021. And, because nobody is perfect, the consistent defensive impact throughout the regular season this year did not materialize. In fact, the Clippers struggled to post an average defensive efficiency for much of the season, and the issue was lackluster play from elite personnel rather than too many minutes going to subpar defenders. But in the playoffs, Leonard was absolutely fantastic on the defensive end of the floor, showing that he still can kick things into that gear as a two-way wrecking ball when needed.
The leadership front is where things get interesting. Overall, there’s no real direct evidence that Kawhi substantially changed his leadership style or became a more outgoing, talkative person this season. That’s more of a fundamental, underlying personality thing than something you can realistically ask him to adjust. But there are a few more subtle positive signs: reports of him being a little more involved in strategy sessions, providing a little more mentorship to teammates, and notably taking the initiative to play in back-to-backs again after declining to play them for load management the last two years after a major quadricep injury. It’s probable that the back-to-back decision had more to do with a reassessment of the likelihood that the strain of those games would increase reinjury likelihood than a decision to eschew that consideration, but it’s also probably true that regardless of the reasoning behind it, his more consistent presence in regular season lineups helped the team overall take the regular season a bit more seriously night-to-night. And whatever large or small role Kawhi played in it, there’s no doubt that the biggest improvement between the 2020 Clippers and 2021 Clippers were the vibes, confidence, and togetherness on this roster.
Future with Clippers
Right now, Kawhi’s future with the Clippers is completely up in the air and in his own hands–and while his ACL surgery, which could cost him much or all of the 2022 NBA season, could change his thought process on which contractual avenue he chooses this summer to ensure his long-term financial security, there probably isn’t any reason to think it changes the likelihood of him staying or leaving. The sensationalism in some places on the internet that the ambiguity around his knee injury could signify a Clipper misdiagnosis is just that: sensationalism. Leonard famously craves privacy around matters related to his health, so the team not being forthcoming with information is far more likely to be adhering to Kawhi’s own public disclosure policies than they are to have no clue what’s going on. And in terms of the timeline, the extreme rareness of a true parial ACL tear helps pull together a totally plausible timeline where Kawhi, his outside medical team, and the Clippers’ doctors worked together on possibilites for a non-surgical rehabilitative recovery before ultimately opting for surgery when he wasn’t making sufficient progress. In other words, there’s no compelling evidence to this point that the Clippers mismanaged Kawhi’s injury or that there is any negative feeling between the two parties regarding the injury–it’s simply not something that’s worth wasting time worrying about unless reliable information does come out at some future point that suggests it could be the case.
So, setting aside his injury for a moment, I’m still left feeling like Kawhi re-signing with the Clippers is overwhelmingly likely for all of the same reasons why he came to LAC in the first place: he wants to be in Southern California with his family near where he grew up, the Clippers have a newly-respectable organization dedicated to winning with him, and he’s paired with another superstar. It certainly helps that Paul George had a historically great playoff run of his own this year, carrying the Clippers to the Western Conference Finals after Leonard’s injury, and that George and the team won two WCF games without Kawhi once they got there. It’s hard to imagine that his supporting cast could have inspired any more confidence than they did after he went down. And while the team-building calculus definitely changes if Kawhi and the organization expect 2022 to not be a contention year (we just aren’t sure yet), they still have the right combination of pieces and owner wealth to build a championship-level roster around a fully healthy Kawhi in 2023.
Considering Kawhi’s ACL surgery again, there could be significant ramifications here for how he handles his contract with the team should he indeed choose to stay. If Kawhi wanted, I still think he has the leverage to demand that the Clippers give him a 1+1 max contract this summer, allowing him to opt out and become a free agent in the 2022 off-season, where LAC could give him a full 5-year max (the 3rd option in the chart at the top of the article). While it would sorta suck for the Clippers to only get 1 guaranteed year of Kawhi where he’s going to be injured, they’d absolutely still go for it: any financial flexibility afforded by his departure would be nowhere near worth losing the possibility of him playing for the Clippers long-term, and they’d have his full bird rights next summer and be able to offer 5 years and $234.9M where other suitors could only offer 4 years and $174.1M, giving the Clippers a major upper hand. For Kawhi, such an arrangement would lead to the most guaranteed money and give him more autonomy to manage his own recovery timeline, as the organization would surely refrain from pressuring him and cave to every demand if they still needed to convince him to re-sign in the 2022 off-season. And yes, teams will still line up to give Kawhi a max deal after ACL surgery–look no further than the recent free agency of Kevin Durant, who was older than Leonard and guaranteed to miss the entire first season of a new contract with a ruptured Achilles tendon, yet was hotly pursued by multiple teams for a 4-year max deal that he could opt out of after year 3.
Such a maneuver would only guarantee Leonard about $82 million this summer if something catastrophic were to happen in the coming year, but it’s overwhelmingly likely that he could sit out the entire season and still easily opt out and get the 5/235 deal from LAC or the 4/174 from any number of other suitors in the 2022 off-season. Plus, after a negative experience managing injury recovery with the San Antonio Spurs earlier in his career, Leonard might value not being married to an organization long-term, allowing him to be in the driver’s seat of his own knee recovery. If he only gives the Clippers 1 year, they’d feel the pressure all season long of making sure he’s happy and not feeling pressured, because they need him to still want to re-sign in the off-season. The other side of that coin is that he’s clearly talented to do whatever he wants anyway–he forced his way out of San Antonio despite being under contract–and taking the “opt in + 3+1 extension” route would mean guaranteeing himself $217M this summer instead of just $82M. Plus, depending on how long he plays and how willing he is to bet on himself, opting out of the final year of that extension would align perfectly for him to both hit free agency at the same time as Paul George (again, putting pressure on the Clippers to remain competitive to keep Leonard) and sign one last massive contract at the age of 33.
Overall, it’s probably still most likely that Kawhi will opt out of his contract, sign a 1+1 max to return to the Clippers, and then look to secure the massive 4+1 bird rights maximum with the team next summer. Even though there’s significant downside to such an arrangement for the team (they could potentially pay him $39M to not play for a year and then watch him walk next summer anyway), they’d be fools not to comply with his demands if they think he’s likely to take the Clippers’ 5-year max offer in 2022. That said, there’s still a possibility that post-injury, the guaranteed money this summer available via the opt-in + 3+1 extention path, plus the timing of a potential final maximum deal in 2025, make opting in and signing that extension an attractive option for Leonard. Certainly, it would be the better option for the Clippers, as they’d guarantee his presence on the team for the remainder of his prime.
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