Two-time NBA Finals MVP Kawhi Leonard declined his $36 million option with the Los Angeles Clippers for the 2021-22 season, weeks after surgery on his partially torn right ACL. According to insiders, Leonard and the Clippers are set to negotiate an agreement to keep him in Los Angeles.
Leonard is eligible for a starting salary of 35% of the salary cap, or $39 million, making the option uncomplicated for one of the game’s most sought players, even though he might not be able to play next season at all. Given the multibillionaire’s investment in pairing Leonard with fellow perennial All-Star Paul George just two summers ago, Clippers owner Steve Ballmer will pay whatever it takes to keep Leonard.
Kevin Durant left the Golden State Warriors for a four-year, $164 million agreement with the Brooklyn Nets, who understood he would not play the first season of his contract due to an Achilles injury sustained during the 2019 playoffs. Leonard is in a similar scenario, and Los Angeles might lose him to free agency.
“Right now our focus, like Kawhi, like his is, is on his health,” Clippers president of basketball operations Lawrence Frank said.
“He had major surgery. He tore his ACL. That’s going to require a great deal of time and we want to support him in that,” he added.
Leonard is now eligible for a four-year contract worth up to $175 million. Leonard could fetch a five-year maximum contract approaching $250 million if he re-signs for $39 million in Los Angeles this season and re-enters free agency next summer, when the Clippers will hold his full Bird rights.
Prior to this season, Leonard, who is known for his fearlessness, told reporters, “Not saying I’m going anywhere else or staying here, but I’m just focused on the season. Obviously, if I’m healthy, the best decision is to decline the player option, but that doesn’t mean I’m leaving or staying.”
Leonard is not in good health, but that may not be a factor.
In 2019, the Clippers traded young talent Shai Gilgeous-Alexander to the Oklahoma City Thunder and their first-round selection rights from 2022 to 2026 in exchange for George. It was a move to appease Leonard’s demand for a star teammate in Los Angeles if he were to leave the Toronto Raptors, whom he had just led to a championship. It also linked the Clippers’ long-term prospects to Leonard and George’s willingness to stay in Los Angeles beyond this summer.
In December, George agreed to a four-year deal that will pay him $190 million.
Leonard and George’s stints with the Clippers did not provide the expected outcomes. In the 2020 Western Conference playoffs, they wasted a 3-1 series lead to the Denver Nuggets, leading in the sacking of their coach and the reshaping of their roster around their two stars. Leonard’s injury in Game 4 of their second-round series against the Phoenix Suns this season put an end to any genuine hopes of avenging their failure in the playoffs.
Last season, Leonard averaged 24.8 points (on 51/40/89 shooting splits), 6.5 rebounds, and 5.2 assists in 34.1 minutes across 52 games, with chronic tendinopathy in his right knee quadriceps needing frequent rest.