Kawhi Leonard’s decision to sign with the LA Clippers in early July came as a surprise to most people. Despite the Clippers and Toronto Raptors seemingly being in the lead for his services much of last year, the momentum seemed to be shifting towards the Los Angeles Lakers as his decision neared, making many believe that a super team involving the reigning Finals MVP, LeBron James and Anthony Davis was being formed.
The Clippers, meanwhile, continued to operate in silence, swinging a massive blockbuster trade for Paul George in order to secure Leonard’s commitment. As it turns out, their silence was a major part of their coup to acquire the superstar duo and it may have been the reason behind the Lakers’ ultimate failure in signing Leonard.
According to a story written by The Athletic’s Shams Charania, Sam Amick and Jovan Buha, Magic Johnson’s public comments about speaking with Leonard and his uncle, Dennis Robertson, could have led to the forward’s camp losing trust in the Lakers’ organization:
But Leonard and his representatives made it clear: We have a way we handle business, and we expect the same. Leonard and his camp asked questions and received responses. Details shared in meetings, private and personal information on both sides, were to remain within the group. Leonard promised that to each team and expected the same, sources told Charania.
“If you fuck this up, you’re done, you’re out,” one front-office executive involved in the process explained to The Athletic. “They didn’t say that, but that was the message. It was basically, ‘Look, we would appreciate discretion.’ Which means, ‘Keep your fucking mouth shut.’”
Magic Johnson, the Lakers legend who abruptly resigned as president of basketball operations in late May and proceeded to torch owner Jeanie Buss and general manager Rob Pelinka on national television weeks later, thought it wise to broadcast that Robertson had called to pick his brain about the purple-and-gold before free agency had even begun.
“I truly believe that when Magic started telling the media about the meeting he had with Kawhi and Dennis, that sealed the fate of the Lakers,” a person involved in the process told The Athletic. “I think that right there was when Dennis and Kawhi decided we can’t trust the Lakers as an organization. And that was it. I think that was it for them.”
There’s obviously a lot to take in. Leonard having a “loyalty test” for the three franchises he met with is not new information and it is absolutely clear that he prefers to operate with as much discretion as possible. Magic obviously breached that trust when he so openly spoke about talking with Leonard and Robertson. Even if he is no longer employed by the Lakers organization, it’s easy to see why that would put a bad taste in Leonard’s mouth.
That all said, it’s hard to believe that Magic’s comments were the nails in the coffin for the Lakers. Given the Clippers’ days-long attempts at finding a co-star to trade for (they reportedly tried to get James Harden and Bradley Beal before George), it seems that the forward had his eyes set on the other LA team all along. The Lakers were, effectively, a backup plan that the Clippers believed he would go to if they could not get him the help he wanted. The Athletic reports in the same piece that Leonard did not have much of an appetite for forming a super team with James and Davis.
Additionally, if trust in the organization was an issue, Leonard would have demoted the Lakers long before his meeting with Magic. The Lakers have not exactly been the most stable organization over the last year and Johnson has been at the center of their ineptitude even after he stepped down from his role as the team’s president.
So, yes. Magic Johnson’s unnecessary public comments did not help the Lakers’ chances of getting Leonard and they point to the bigger issue that the Lakers as an organization need to distance themselves from Johnson who, other than being the “closer” on getting LeBron, has had missteps every step of the way since being hired by the team. But to say that Johnson’s words were the biggest reason behind Leonard opting to go to the Clippers over the Lakers seems to be a bit of a reach that really only takes the spotlight away from the Lakers’ previous errors.