Rapid Reaction: Kawhi Leonard & Paul George Join Clippers
In an absolutely stunning turn of events, both Kawhi Leonard and Paul George will play for the Clippers next season. Leonard announced early Saturday morning that he would sign a four-year, $142 max contract. Leonard agreed to sign with the team only if they acquired Oklahoma City All-Star forward Paul George. The Clippers traded a ridiculous haul of picks, Shai Gilgeous-Alexander, and Danilo Gallinari to the Thunder for George.
The Clippers are sending the Thunder four unprotected first-round picks, one protected first-round pick and two pick swaps, league sources tell ESPN. Those picks go to OKC with Gallinari and SGA.
— Adrian Wojnarowski (@wojespn) July 6, 2019
The Clippers took the world by surprise with the acquisition of two of the best players in the world, especially considering Kawhi was believed to have narrowed his choices to the Lakers and Raptors. The very busy night of negotiations for the Clippers and Thunder will have a lasting impact on NBA teams and individual player legacies for years to come. Fantasy values will also be affected in the process, so let’s dive into the implications of the Leonard and George acquisitions.
Obviously, the entire power structure in the West and the entire NBA shifts to Los Angeles. The Lakers have LeBron James and Anthony Davis, and the Clippers have Leonard and George. The collection of talent calling Staples Center home this year is unrivaled. However, the Clippers should be the favorites to win the NBA championship next season. They gave up future picks, but the team still returns most of its core from last season, including two Sixth Man of the Year finalists, Montrezl Harrell and winner Lou Williams. With Patrick Beverley, Leonard, and George all on the team, this Los Angeles squad looks to feature one of the most formidable defensive lineups in the Association. The roster, as a whole, is more well-rounded than the Lakers, who have James, Davis, Kyle Kuzma, and a weak supporting cast. Golden State is vulnerable right now without Klay Thompson, and the Rockets haven’t been able to get over the hump in the playoffs. The same is true of the Milwaukee Bucks in the East who relinquished a 2-0 lead in the Eastern Conference Finals last season, as well as the Philadelphia 76ers. The Nets are without Kevin Durant for one more season, leaving the Clippers as the most likely team to win a championship in 2019. Most sports books agree, including FanDuel.
Unlike Kevin Durant, Leonard does not seem to be phased by outside noise. He isn’t influenced by the media or the fans, and he doesn’t look like he’s out to prove anything. He is known as the dynasty killer. Leonard won his first Finals MVP with the Spurs in 2014, ending the Heat’s hopes for a three-peat. Last year, he did the same to Golden State. He’s one of only three players (LeBron James, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar) to win the Bill Russell Award with two different franchises. He’s got nothing left to prove, if he ever believed he had something prove in the first place.
When it’s all said and done, Leonard will probably be remembered most for his private persona, monotone laugh, and of course, the championships. He won’t be viewed as a lesser player because he joined George to form a super team. Without the prior success, Leonard’s signing may have been viewed as jumping on the bandwagon to win a title similar to Durant’s signing with the Warriors in 2017.
LeBron James’ legacy is affected by the Leonard/George signings, too. His massive decision to join the Lakers last season included the plan to “win now.” After a disastrous season marred by rumors, front office dysfunction, and missing the playoffs, the Lakers’ situation seemed to have done a complete 180. Now, James faces a more dangerous team just across the hall in his own building. If James doesn’t win a title with the Lakers, it changes his final narrative as an NBA player.
In the end, Kawhi Leonard didn't want to construct a Super Team with the Lakers. He wanted a co-star across the Staples corridor with the Clippers, and made it clear to Steve Ballmer and Lawrence Frank: Get PG, and I'm coming.
— Adrian Wojnarowski (@wojespn) July 6, 2019
WHAT’S NEXT IN OKC?
According to reports, George had been recruited by Leonard for some time and demanded a trade from the Thunder to join forces in Los Angeles. George signed a four-year, $137M contract with Oklahoma City last summer after spurning the Lakers and Clippers. A big part of his decision was based on his friendship with Russell Westbrook. One year later, the Thunder were bounced in the first round of the playoffs handily and have no money to sign additional free agents. In fact, the Thunder were shopping Steven Adams ahead of the draft to get some relief from the luxury tax. Was George tired of Westbrook after one season? Did he see the writing on the wall that the Thunder would be trapped in Western Conference purgatory with the current lineup? In either case, the Thunder are at a crossroads. Westbrook is on the trading block, as Sam Presti has already tried to trade him. Westbrook was nearly traded to the Raptors in a deal that would have involved he and George, but the trade did not pan out. Dennis Schroder and Adams could also be moved.
Westbrook’s usage this upcoming season will be incredible if he remains with the Thunder. Expect another triple-double average but with even more shots. Westbrook’s pedestrian shooting dings his value slightly, but his production in points, rebounds, assists, and steals more than makes up for his low field-goal percentage. Gilgeous-Alexander could find a significant role with the Thunder, and Gallinari will almost certainly be the top-scoring option for Oklahoma City should Westbrook be traded. Gallinari will be a top-50 player in 2019 regardless.
George did the Thunder a favor by requesting a trade. The team would likely never have traded him without provocation, and now Oklahoma City has a treasure trove of draft picks and cap space. The team is also willing to trade Westbrook — a move that would have been deemed impossible just a few weeks ago. The Thunder will not win a title with Westbrook as the number-one superstar, and a rebuild is best for the team moving forward.
With Shai Gilgeous-Alexander and Danilo Gallinari gone, the fearsome bench duo of Lou Williams and Montrezl Harrell may get their shot in the starting five. Williams won Sixth Man of the Year last season behind 20.0 points and 5.4 assists in 26.6 minutes per game, and Harrell was a finalist with 16.6 points, 6.5 boards, and 1.3 blocks in 26.3 minutes per game. With a bump in playing time, both could be even more valuable in 2019 than they were last season. Landry Shamet, the second-year man out of Wichita State, showed off his sharpshooting abilities in limited action last season. If he gets a little more run for Los Angeles this season, he could be a sneaky late-round pickup.
Leonard and George both project as top-15 fantasy players this season, with George the more valuable of the two. Leonard’s value is partly tied to the number of games he’ll play, as he sat out 22 games last season due to “load management.” His value is harder to predict because of his workload, but on a per-game basis, he easily warrants that kind of ranking. George was a finalist for MVP and Defensive Player of the Year last season, and his excellence on both ends of the court makes him a top-10 fantasy asset. He’s less likely to rest for games, and he’s a better scorer than Leonard. Without Russell Westbrook around to hog the usage rate, expect George to be even better than he was a season ago.
TORONTO AND THE RISE OF PASCAL SIAKAM
Siakam won Most Improved Player this year after an impressive 2018 that saw him achieve career highs in points (16.9), rebounds (6.9), and assists (3.1). He should be a top-20 fantasy option now without Kawhi. Siakam is set to take on a huge workload as the number-one option on offense. Kyle Lowry should also be more involved this season after taking a step back in the scoring department in 2018. He averaged just 14.2 points per game (a six-year low), but he dished a career-high 8.7 dimes. Expect him to be a top-35 fantasy option in 2019. Danny Green joined the Lakers, so the departure of he, Leonard, and Lowry will free up some more playing time for Fred VanVleet. VanVleet stands to gain the most from the Leonard/Green exodus aside from Siakam and Lowry. Marc Gasol and Serge Ibaka are limited offensively, so it’s unlikely for them to take steps forward this season, despite the absence of two former starters.
AROUND THE LEAGUE
The Western Conference now features two teams with significant star power in the Lakers and Clippers who could win a title this season. Golden State is still a contender with Stephen Curry, Draymond Green, and D’Angelo Russell. The Rockets’ hopes of a title run seem all but extinguished after leading Golden State 3-2 in the Western Conference Finals just two seasons ago. The Eastern Conference looks to be the weaker conference once again, and the top teams in the East such as Milwaukee and Philadelphia seem ill-equipped to hang with the Lakers, Clippers, or Warriors. Russell Westbrook’s future is very much up in the air, and it’s unclear where he’ll play next season. The Oklahoma City Thunder, who have had four MVP winners/finalists in Westbrook, George, Harden, and Durant will likely enter the season as a lottery team and with no championships to show for the past decade of superstars who have played in the building. LeBron James’ road to a fourth championship just got a lot tougher.