2019 NBA Free Agent Profile: Kawhi Leonard

Kawhi Leonard
Kawhi Leonard (Credit: Dillon Hiser/Lakers Outsiders)

Over the course of the last 11 months, the Los Angeles Lakers have made nearly every mistake possible. They surrounded LeBron James with sub-par talent. They focused on the wrong type of skillsets. They had a shady medical record. They lost a sense of direction in their front office. They had an embarrassing coaching search.

Despite it all, the organization’s future may still be bright. Such is the power of having James on your side.

LeBron’s presence, along with the traditional privileges that the Lakers have always had, led to their ability and willingness to trade for Anthony Davis, a young, generational talent that could be the face of the franchise for a decade. But could it be enough to get another player of that magnitude to the Lake Show?

Kawhi Leonard is, without a doubt, the top prize in free agency this summer. Fresh off an incredible postseason run culminating in winning Finals MVP while leading the Toronto Raptors to their first ever NBA championship, no one would dare point out any limitations in his game.

Kawhi Leonard has the entire basketball in the palm of his massive hand.

Before Leonard ever made it to Toronto, he was effectively in the same position as Davis. A young talented player unhappy with his situation with a lack of trust in his organization, he requested a trade from the Spurs with a focus on returning home to Southern California to play for the Lakers, in particular.

Things change quickly in the NBA however and now, a year removed from the Lakers unwilling to pay the hefty price to get Leonard, it appears as though only the Raptors and the LA Clippers have favorable odds of landing the star of the league.

On the other hand, Leonard is a rare breed in the game: a superstar whose every move and mood isn’t reported. Yes, those two franchises are deemed to be the favorites but does that mean Leonard won’t do what everyone expects him not to?

The Lakers have their work cut out for them if they do want to sign Leonard. Not only do they have to maximize their cap space to offer the SoCal native the full max he can earn, but they also have to convince him that joining a superteam with two other stars after winning a title as the only one on a team built around depth is the right move.

Who knows what Leonard will emphasize in making his decision? What’s clear is that he would be the acquisition most likely to put the Lakers over the top.

Leonard has nearly every ability you would want from a modern-day big. He can score at a high volume (26.6 points per game last season). He can shoot it from deep (37.1 percent). He can rebound the ball. He can put it on the floor and bully people at the rim. He can defend every position and he can do it better than anyone else in the game.

In a way, Kawhi merges some of the greatest parts of every generation of basketball that has shaped him. The Pippen-like ferocious defending at every position, the Kobe-esque midrange game built off his strength and footwork, and the efficiency of the modern game. He is the built-in-a-lab prototype of a perfect basketball player, missing only the playmaking abilities of the greats – a weakness minimized on a team with LeBron and Davis.

And if that’s not enough to get you frothing at the mouth for Leonard, consider the level to which he upped his game in the playoffs, averaging 30.5 points, 9.1 rebounds and 3.9 assists per game with a true shooting of 61.9%. Those are numbers only ever achieved by LeBron James and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar in the postseason. How would you like to have that entire list in purple and gold?

If the Lakers want to convince Leonard to share the ball with two co-stars rather than running it back in Toronto or with the Clippers, they have to show that he won’t be taking a backseat to his teammates.

Leonard is, first and foremost, an isolation scorer. Whether that means giving him the ball at the top of the key, on the elbow, or in the post, sometimes you need to just give him the ball and get out of his way.

The thing is, that’s not a difficult request to fulfill. James has experience playing alongside other ball-dominant stars, winning championships with Dwyane Wade and Kyrie Irving. He has also played with talented big men in Chris Bosh and Kevin Love who did the bulk of their scoring in the flow of the offense rather than in isolation.

The Lakers’ pitch will come down to this:

They can offer Leonard rest. They can offer him a decreased workload. They can give him the opportunity to create one of the most talented big threes the NBA has ever seen and run the league for the length of LeBron’s career. And they can give him the notice that once James retires, he and Davis can continue to keep the purple and gold in contention for the rest of their careers.

Whether that will be enough to convince him to leave his championship team and forego the hometown team that has shown more stability and togetherness over the last year is a question that will not be answered until Kawhi Leonard makes his free agency decision.

What is clear is that Leonard’s decision will shape the league’s future and for the Lakers, that future could become a whole lot brighter with him in purple and gold.

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