THE LOS ANGELES CLIPPERS SENT SHOCK WAVES THROUGH THE NBA last weekend when they added two superstar wings literally overnight, signing Kawhi Leonard and trading for Paul George. And so ended a wild week-long Kawhi Watch in the craziest NBA free agency on record, with not one but two final exclamation marks.
All week, fans frantically checked phones for updates as the Toronto Raptors battled both Los Angeles franchises for Kawhi’s signature, with the Lakers reportedly the favorite and the Clippers a distant third. But no one really knew how Kawhi was leaning, and in the end, his decision shocked the NBA and had seismic effects around the league.
It may have even saved the entire NBA.
Really? The *Entire* NBA?
Okay, well, maybe not the entire NBA.
Two teams are obvious losers here: the Toronto Raptors and Los Angeles Lakers. Both hoped to secure Kawhi’s signature and instead walked away with nothing. Toronto is hardly a loser though, and the Larry O’Brien trophy is a lot more than nothing. The Toronto Raptors are NBA champions, and flags fly forever. Even optimistic Raps fans didn’t expect Kawhi to stick around forever, knowing the rebuild was coming sooner or later. It hurts to move on this early, but memories last a lifetime.
The Lakers, though, were all-in on Kawhi. And sure, the Lakers have plenty of rings to their name, but they’re always pursuing #17 and haven’t even made the playoffs in six seasons. Last year was supposed to be different. LeBron James came, and everything was supposed to change. But it didn’t. LeBron was still very good, but the supporting cast wasn’t. The kids didn’t step up, the team couldn’t shoot or play much defense, and the players didn’t develop much chemistry. LeBron’s groin injury was the nail in the coffin, but the season was already lost.
This summer everything was going to be different, again.
The Lakers traded everything they had for Anthony Davis, including former number two picks Lonzo Ball and Brandon Ingram, first-round pick Josh Hart, and a handful of other future picks and swaps. They cleared enough cap space to add a third superstar, too. They eschewed stars like Kyrie, Kemba, Butler, and DLo, going all-in on the shiniest star of them all, Kawhi Leonard. As the Lakers waited confidently for Kawhi’s decision, every other option went by the wayside, every Plan B and C and F out the window. It was Kawhi or bust.
Make no mistake about it: if the Lakers had gotten Kawhi’s signature on the dotted line, they would have ravaged through the NBA for the next few seasons like no team ever before.
LeBron AND Kawhi AND Brow.
It would have been absurd and easy and ridiculous. And boring. We just escaped five years of Warriors mania and four years of Heatles before that. And while dynasties are fun for awhile, they get old quickly. It’s only fun to root against the villain if you believe the villain can be defeated sometimes.
LeBron, Kawhi, and Anthony Davis would’ve been invincible. That’s three of the seven most talented basketball players in the universe, and it wouldn’t have mattered one lick who played with them. The other starters could have been you and me, dear reader, and we’d have stormed through the playoffs casting off our opponents like the peons they were. Look how unbeatable the Warriors were with Steph and Durant. LeBron and Kawhi are just as good, and Brow is far more talented than the other Warriors. The healthy Ws were unbeaten in the playoffs, only even threatened in one series in three years.
The Kawhi Lakers would have walked to the next three or four titles.
All that exciting player movement from the last couple weeks? Meaningless. The intriguing young cores? Pointless. It would have just been Lakers, Lakers, Lakers, all exceptionalism, all day. It would’ve meant endless thinkpieces bemoaning the death of the NBA. LeBron would’ve passed Jordan in titles, all but ending the GOAT conversation. Players like Chris Paul, James Harden, Russell Westbrook, and Damian Lillard would have faded into obscurity, the end of their primes wasted while a superteam stormed through the league.
Worse yet, the only solution would have been a second superteam in a second major market. In a couple years, Giannis Antetokounmpo and Joel Embiid would have gotten so frustrated with the lack of parity that they’d have left for greener pastures, joining the ̶K̶n̶i̶c̶k̶s̶ Nets in New York with Durant and Kyrie. The entire NBA would have been reduced to two franchises in the league’s biggest markets. We’d have waited all year for seven games in June and spent the other 358 days listening to Stephen A. Smith and Skip Bayless yell at each other from across the country, echoing from coast to coast.
That’s what it would have meant if Kawhi had joined LeBron and Davis with the Los Angeles Lakers. It would have meant the end.
Instead… it’s only the beginning.
Every team in the NBA other than the Lakers won last weekend
Because the Lakers lost, every other team in the NBA won.
The lack of one huge superteam favorite means every other team has a real chance now. The last nine years, that never seemed possible. And sure, it turned out to be, as long as the Warriors all got hurt or the Heat got old, then maybe that year, one other last team standing could win a title. But this is different. This is a wide open NBA.
The Los Angeles franchises still look like favorites. But I count a whopping 10 other NBA fan bases that now have a legitimate shot at an NBA championship the next two years:
- Houston Rockets — closest to beating the Warriors the last two years, no more Warriors in their way
- Utah Jazz — added Mike Conley and Bojan Bogdanovic to their 2-time Defensive Player of the Year Rudy Gobert and Donovan Mitchell
- Denver Nuggets — a couple plays from the Western Conference Finals with a young core and a superstar in Nikola Jokic
- Portland Trail Blazers — actually made the WCF, brought back Dame and C.J., and added Hassan Whiteside and Kent Bazemore
- Golden State Warriors — don’t forget about them once Klay returns and they flip D’Angelo Russell for a better fit next to Steph and Draymond
- Philadelphia 76ers — Joel Embiid and Ben Simmons, a re-signed Tobias Harris, Al Horford and Josh Richardson in the league’s best starting five
- Milwaukee Bucks — Giannis Antetokounmpo and most of the core returning from the league’s only 60-win team
- Boston Celtics — Kemba replaces Kyrie, Hayward gets healthy, Tatum and Brown make the leap, and President Brad does the rest
- Brooklyn Nets — Kyrie and the supporting cast hang around long enough for Kevin Durant to return to full speed as the East’s top duo
- Miami Heat — Jimmy Butler in tow, South Beach, Pat Riley, and no state income tax mean a second star (Russ?!) is always on the way
Add it all up and 12 NBA teams can legitimately win an NBA title the next two years. That’s a whopping 40% of the league! Compare that to the rest of the decade, where one team entered the season as better than 50% favorites by Vegas betting odds, with a few other teams fighting for more than a 5% chance should everything go their way.
If Kawhi had teamed up with LeBron and Brow, they would have cleared those 50% odds with ease. Watch the contenders bounce off the list. Nuggets and Jazz? Cute, but you’re not beating that trio. Rockets? Not without a barrage of threes. Heat, Clippers, Blazers? Please. Boston? Not ready yet. Milwaukee? Not even Giannis is enough against those three.
Golden State would have believed, once healthy. Brooklyn would’ve hoped for a chance. Philly might’ve had the best odds with the size and the defense. Everyone else would have been a pretender, like they have been for the past decade. They would’ve been reduced to a consolation run to the Western Conference Finals, like the Blazers this year. No one hangs Conference Finals banners. Few will even remember it was Portland that got there by this fall.
Yet again, the NBA would have been reduced to one megadeath lineup and a couple weak challengers to the throne. Instead every one of those teams now sees an opening. The Lakers duo is still great. The Clippers pair might be even better. But neither looks unbeatable. Neither feels inevitable.
The door is not just cracked. It has swung wide open.
It’s good news for everyone else too. In a wide open race, there are a lot more buyers on the market, and sellers have been making a mint lately. Suddenly the Wizards might not feel so bad about trading Bradley Beal, and maybe the Cavs get the big Kevin Love deal they’ve been waiting on. Perhaps Victor Oladipo or Jrue Holiday is the perfect third star on one of these teams. The leftover Raptors and Thunder could net a few high picks. Blake Griffin and Nikola Vucevic might net big value for a team in need of a star big man. And with some of those teams weakened temporarily, young teams like the Wolves, Kings, and Mavs may have a path to the playoffs.
In a wide open NBA arms race, everyone wins. Kawhi to the Clippers wasn’t just good for them. It may have saved the entire NBA the next few years.
Well, every franchise except one.
It’s a good thing the Lakers wear purple and gold, because they royally screwed themselves.
Classic Lakers exceptionalism.
The Lakers always have a plan. It usually mans simply being the Lakers, the sunniest locale with the celebrity fans and the history and the clout. The Lakers’ plan is to get the biggest stars because they always do. Even when they don’t, they do anyway. They got Kareem. They got Wilt. They got Shaq and Kobe. They got LeBron and Brow. They figured they’d get Kawhi too.
So they put all their eggs in one Kawhi basket. And certainly it would have been a heck of a basket. It would have meant #17 and #18 and 19 and 20. But the basket turned up empty. And it did so in a summer with a whole lot of other wonderful championship-winning baskets out there.
Instead of Kawhi, the Lakers used their cap space on… Danny Green? They ran it back with Kentavious Caldwell-Pope, JaVale McGee, and Rajon Rondo and took a flyer on DeMarcus Cousins. Basically they used cap space on Green and a bunch of guys that should’ve been available at the minimum, the same guys they could’ve signed to add with Kawhi. So they just got Danny instead of Kawhi. Woof. This was not Plan B. It wasn’t even Plan Z. It was Plan Wait-Kawhi-Didn’t-Pick-Us-But-That-Was-Our-Only-Plan-What-Do-We-Do-Now?! The Lakers never have a backup plan, because they never need one.
Look at the alternate options the Lakers might have considered. They could’ve tried to pair LeBron with Kyrie again, a championship-winning duo, or gone after Kemba, DLo, or Brogdon. We know LeBron plays well with an attacking guard that can create and hit shots. The Lakers have no such players. They could’ve tried to sell Durant on L.A. or gone all in on Klay, recruiting him to his father’s team. They could’ve brought in Butler to lead the defensive charge or Middleton to carry the scoring load.
If they didn’t want a max guy, the Lakers could’ve filled out the lineup with quality supporting players like Patrick Beverley, Trevor Ariza, Garrett Temple, Jeremy Lamb, J.J. Redick, Cory Joseph, Seth Curry, Thaddeus Young… the list goes on. With $30 million in cap room, the Lakers could’ve handpicked the best shooters and defenders to surround LeBron and Brow and build the lineup in the NBA, even without the Kawhi cheat code.
What do they have instead?
LeBron and Brow are studs. Green is a championship-caliber role player. But the other two starting spots are vacant. Kyle Kuzma is a nice bench scorer. So too Boogie Cousins at this point. The rest of the team is dreadful. Rondo, KCP, JaVale, and Caruso added nothing last year outside of a nice couple months from McGee. Jared Dudley is a nice veteran leader. Quinn Cook and Troy Daniels can shoot in an empty gym. The only rookie of note, Talen Horton-Tucker, is years away from contributing.
That’s it. That’s the whole roster. And with the exception of Boogie, the Lakers overpaid to get all these guys. And this roster is sort of locked in at this point, so there may not be a third star on the way. There isn’t an obvious path to max space next summer and might not be a star available anyway, and the team has nothing left to trade other than Kuzma. Everyone else on the roster already got passed over by the rest of the league, and the Lakers can’t trade any of their picks through 2026. The asset cupboard is bare.
Where is the defense on this team?
Kuzma was the worst defender on the team last year. KCP is supposed to be 3-and-D but does neither. He was the team’s second worst defender. Rondo is the worst defender of the last six years, according to 538.com. Caruso, Cook, Daniels et al are not here to play defense. LeBron plays D for a few summer weeks but was checked out last season, and he’s no longer quick enough to stay with players consistently on the perimeter. Davis is coming off the best defensive season of his career after finally playing center all year, so naturally the Lakers moved him back to the four where he’s less impactful. JaVale is fine. The Lakers will do well enough protecting the rim, but their perimeter defense will be poor, the rotations weak, and the shots allowed abysmal.
And where’s the shooting?
Oh sure, the Lakers added Troy Daniels, Alex Caruso, and Quinn Cook, all over 40% for their careers. The thing about shooting is it only helps if the guys are on the floor actually taking shots. Shooting is about volume as much as percentage. Daniels plays 15 minutes a game. Cook is in a similar range and plays awful defense. Caruso’s taken under 100 threes in his career. None of these supposed shooters will make a difference because they’re all vying to be the 8th man in the rotation.
As for the seven guys who will play ahead of them? All but Danny Green are under 35% threes for their career: Brow 31%, Boogie 33%, LeBron 34%, Kuzma 33%, Rondo 32%, KCP 34%. That’s the sort of shooting this team has. Green’s over 40% but notably dropped to 36% the previous three seasons before a huge spike this year. There’s little shooting efficiency and no volume on this team. Last year’s Lakers ranked 29th in the NBA on three-point percentage at 33%. Eight Lakers took more than three 3s a game; only LeBron, KCP, Rondo, and Kuzma remain. Even Green may not be open much. Why rotate off Danny when the other four defenders can just pack the paint and let the other Lakers fire away? I know you think Boogie and Brow can shoot, but their numbers say otherwise. Every time one of those two or LeBron shoots a three, it’s a win for the defense.
That’s the roster the Lakers have chosen to build.
Los Angeles began free agency tied in the bottom of the ninth with bases loaded and no outs. Instead of just trying to single or sacrifice the winning run home, they watched eight straight strikes go down the middle of the plate, took one ginormous grand slam swing that hooked foul at the last second, and struck out looking to end the game.
Lakers fans will tell you Kawhi was worth the wait. But there were so many other avenues that would have left the Lakers sizable favorites into the new season, even in a world with Kawhi and PG sharing the Staples Center locker room. There was a Plan B and a Plan C and D, and all of them would’ve meant everyone in the NBA chasing LeBron yet again.
But the Lakers swung for a grand slam when any old hit would do. They mortgaged their entire conceivable future on this window, and the Clippers just stole it out from under them.
This is not the end. LeBron teams always look different in April than in August. There will be buyout players, and LeBron will trade for some new teammates. James has still only lost to the Warriors and Spurs the last eight years. He’ll have a chance; he always does. But he’s an underdog now, and he should have been the favorite.
And it could go further south. What if LeBron can’t get back to elite status? What if Bron and Brow have nagging injuries all season? What if there’s little defense or shooting and the team looks a lot like last year? What if the weird coaching situation gets even weirder and the team doesn’t gel? Could the Lakers struggle to make the playoffs in a loaded West where all but a couple teams have a shot? Could the team be so dysfunctional yet again that their young superstar decides to walk as a free agent next summer?
Think about that. The Lakers traded everything for Anthony Davis and failed to build anything useful around him. He could walk next summer.
The Lakers are in far worse shape now than they were ten days ago. And they are no longer the 2019–20 championship favorites.
The Los Angeles Clippers are championship favorites already, and they still have another move coming.
So remember all that jazzmatazz about the NBA being wide open and 12 teams having a chance and this being better for everyone? As it turns out, maybe not.
Because these Clippers are going to be really, really good.
They’ll start Patrick Beverley and Landry Shamet at guard, two sharpshooters that excel off the ball and play smart team defense. At center will probably be Ivica Zubac, a decent enough option. Kawhi and PG form one of the best forward combos in NBA history. And behold the best bench in the NBA: Lou Williams, Rodney McGruder, Moe Harkless, JaMychal Green, and Montrezl Harrell. That bench features the two-time defending Sixth Man of the Year plus a young big that was even better last season. That’s easily the best bench unit in the NBA and means plenty of load management for Kawhi and PG and that the Clippers will come at opponents in waves in the postseason.
The shooting and defense the Lakers lack? It’s here in droves. Kawhi and PG shoot 38% with plenty of volume. Beverley’s hit 40% three of the past four years and plays enough for that to matter. Shamet made 42% as a rookie. Lou makes 35% with volume, still better than any Laker not named Danny. That’s five regular rotation players that are good to great shooters.
And the defense is going to be absolutely filthy. Kawhi, PG, and PBev have made 11 All-Defense teams between them. Leonard’s won Defensive Player of the Year twice, and PG was a runner-up this year. If you’re a guard or wing, you could begin a play with Kawhi on you, call for a screen and get switched onto Beverley, and then have PG come over to help. This could be one of the greatest perimeter defensive teams in NBA history.
Look back at the last decade of NBA Finals. Think how valuable it’s been to have an elite lockdown perimeter defender to guard the LeBrons and Durants of the world. AND THE CLIPPERS HAVE TWO OF THEM.
No team has ever been more prepared to stop LeBron. Kawhi and PG can take turns, putting everything on Brow’s shoulders. The Bucks will have the same problem, but without Anthony Davis to balance. The Rockets have no shot. Beverley can bother CP3 while Kawhi and PG take turns smothering Harden. The Sixers are by far the most interesting matchup right now with no elite wings to guard and no one small enough to stick Beverley or Lou on.
We don’t properly value defense because it’s so hard to gauge, but this defense is going to be absolutely nasty under Doc Rivers, and the D alone puts them into the Conference Finals. Kawhi can do the rest from there.
Remember the Celtics formula we thought would dominate for a decade? Slot in Lou Williams as the guard scorer and Beverley as the defensive jackknife. Harrell isn’t exactly Horford but steps into the big man energy role. Now replace Jaylen and Jayson with Kawhi and PG. Whew.
There’s one other thing about this Clippers team many have not even realized.
They’re not done yet.
Did you notice how the Clips quietly picked up Mo Harkless on an expiring $11-million deal? Were you puzzled when L.A. overpaid McGruder and Zubac a bit on $5 and $7 million AAV contracts? That’s as close as this team gets to having bad money on its books. Kawhi and PG are worth every penny. Lou and Harrell make $14 million combined. Shamet is practically free.
Do you know why the Clippers went out and got some decent middling contracts? Because you need to match salary in a trade, and the Clippers are not done yet. Even after the PG trade, this team remarkably still has assets. A bunch of them.
You know how they gave up Shai Gilgeous-Alexander? They still have a young sharpshooter in Shamet. They have last year’s other first-round pick, scoring guard Jerome Robinson, and this year’s first rounder, a unicorn rim protector that shoots threes in Mfiondu Kabengele. And, somehow without anyone noticing, they managed to keep their own 2020 first rounder. They can still trade that one, and rest assured, they will.
The Clippers are already calling around. They can offer a team an expiring Harkless deal, a young player or two, and a first-round pick for a star that wants out. That’s pretty good! If the salaries don’t quite match, they can add McGruder or Zubac as perfectly fine middling contracts. Now they can trade for a player in the $25-million range. If the star they’re getting is good enough, they can even add in Lou or Harrell to push the deal over the top.
The third star is coming. Can I interest you in Bradley Beal or Jrue Holiday? How about a big man like Clint Capela, Steven Adams, Derrick Favors, or Myles Turner? All easily targetable adds for this team. They could go out and get Kyle Lowry or Marc Gasol at the trade deadline. Heck, they might even be able to get one of those two and then clear enough expiring salary to sign a frustrated Anthony Davis next summer. Okay, it probably won’t be Davis — though you have to admit, that’d be hilarious schaudenfreude — but there’s a third star out there coming, and they’ll be on this roster before the playoffs.
Even without that star, the Clippers are already bigger favorites than you think. Once the other shoe drops, it will be lights out for the rest of the NBA.
So much for an era without any superteams. The next one is already being formed right under out noses. ■