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In an N.B.A. off-season filled with surprises, Kawhi Leonard may have just supplied the biggest.
The famously reclusive Leonard has proved to be more of a talker behind the scenes, more of a recruiter, than anyone in the league realized. In his San Antonio days, remember, Leonard made the media-shy Tim Duncan seem gregarious.
After clandestine attempts to recruit, first, Jimmy Butler and then Kevin Durant to join him on the Los Angeles Clippers, Leonard was a driving force in persuading Paul George to abruptly request a trade from the Oklahoma City Thunder to the Clippers, according to three people familiar with the negotiations who were not authorized to discuss them publicly.
After a week of deliberations that generated much curiosity but also impatience around the league, Leonard has committed the next four years of his career to the Clippers — but only after his new team managed to swing an equally stunning trade to acquire George. That bold move met Leonard’s prerequisite that he be joined by another elite player before he would agree to leave the Toronto Raptors less than a month after leading the Canadian franchise to its first championship.
It turns out that Leonard, who last month enhanced his reputation as the league’s dynasty disrupter by derailing the Golden State Warriors’ bid for a third successive title, not only wanted big-name help but was insistent on getting some. Not too much, though.
Leonard informed the Clippers heading into free agency that joining them was his preference, according to a person familiar with his stance who was not authorized to discuss it publicly — but only if they could pair him with another All-Star. If not, Leonard was prepared to stay with the Raptors, who could offer a five-year deal worth $190 million, or to perhaps accept the Lakers’ invitation to form the league’s starriest trio alongside LeBron James and Anthony Davis.
Leonard and his representatives also recruited Butler and then Durant to join him on the Clippers, according to three people familiar with the talks. But when Butler went ahead with his plans to push for a sign-and-trade deal from Philadelphia to Miami — and with Durant determined to form his own marquee partnership on the Nets with Kyrie Irving — Leonard spent the past week successfully persuading George to request a trade away from the mercurial point guard Russell Westbrook and the Thunder.
When the Fourth of July holiday passed without a decision from Leonard, after pitch meetings from his three primary suitors, numerous league observers openly wondered why Leonard was taking so long. He was merely buying time for the Clippers to go get George, who asked out of Oklahoma City just one season into the four-year deal he signed last July.
The Clippers, who have labored in the Lakers’ shadow in Los Angeles for nearly four decades, then presented Oklahoma City with a gargantuan trade offer that the Thunder could not refuse. Rather than keep George after he just requested a trade, with little financial flexibility to improve the team around him and Westbrook, Oklahoma City extracted five future first-round draft picks from the Clippers, as well as Shai Gilgeous-Alexander, the highly coveted guard, and the veteran forward Danilo Gallinari. Now, numerous rival executives responding to news of the Clippers’ blockbuster moves are forecasting that Westbrook could push for his own exit.
Secret superstar-to-superstar lobbying is the norm in the player-power era of the modern N.B.A. League officials maintain that they cannot police player discussions for potential tampering violations unless they receive evidence suggesting that the players are operating under the direction of team executives. Leonard, however, was never previously known to be part of such discussions — and not merely because he is typically so quiet.
The idea of Durant and Irving playing together, much like that of James teaming up with Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh in Miami in 2010, was hatched while they were teammates for U.S.A. Basketball. Durant, Irving and DeAndre Jordan, who are all Brooklyn-bound, played with Butler and George at the 2016 Rio Games. Leonard has not played in a major competition for the national team since reaching the N.B.A. in 2011.
But the unexpectedly active role Leonard took in negotiations in the past week led to a four-year, $142 million deal with the Clippers that, yet again, has upset the balance of power in one of the league’s biggest markets. Outdueling the more celebrated Lakers to land Leonard, beyond convincing him to leave the league’s new champions, gave the Clippers significant bonus satisfaction on par with the Nets’ coup in beating out the Knicks for Durant and Irving.
It also gave the Clippers a pair of low-key Southern California natives with modest collegiate backgrounds to build around. Leonard grew up in the Riverside area, east of Los Angeles, before playing at San Diego State. George grew up in Palmdale, north of Los Angeles, before starring at Fresno State.
Leonard’s decision was the most eagerly awaited move in perhaps the wildest week of free agency in league history. Nearly 50 players committed to contracts worth more than $3 billion in the first 12 hours after the market opened June 30, followed by a virtual bottleneck in movement while Leonard’s fate played out.
The Clippers were widely regarded throughout the league for much of the season as the favorites to win the Leonard sweepstakes, but the Raptors’ title and the Lakers’ trade agreement for Davis last month seemingly dropped them to third in the bidding once free agency arrived. The insistence of Leonard’s camp to the teams courting him to keep all details private only added to the mystery, with little information leaking as the week unfolded and aviation experts frantically tracking the takeoffs and landings of a private jet belonging to Raptors ownership that ferried Leonard to and from his meetings with team brass in Toronto.
But Steve Ballmer, the Clippers’ ambitious and deep-pocketed team owner, didn’t spend $2 billion on the franchise and recruit the Hall of Fame executive (and former player) Jerry West to his front office to play it safe. After a passionate pitch to Leonard on Monday from Coach Doc Rivers, the Clippers surrendered more for a superstar player than any team in league history. Their reasoning: The Clippers saw this as trading for both George and Leonard — while also keeping Leonard away from their Staples Center co-tenants.
For all the love Canada showered upon Leonard in his time as a Raptor, Toronto’s honeymoon lasted all of 22 days. Never before has an N.B.A. finals most valuable player chosen to immediately leave the newly crowned champions, but that was the risk the Raptors accepted last July when they traded the All-Star guard DeMar DeRozan and the former top-10 draft pick Jakob Poeltl to the Spurs for Leonard with only one year left on Leonard’s contract.
Yet it was the Lakers, above all, who met with their worst fears. The league’s glamour franchise paid a heavy premium to get the New Orleans Pelicans to trade Davis last month and strongly believed in recent days that through the recruiting efforts of James, Davis and Magic Johnson, it had overcome months of organizational dysfunction to move to the top of Leonard’s list. The Lakers will instead have to compete with Leonard, 28, who won his first finals M.V.P. Award in 2014 when he led the Spurs to a five-game demolition of James’s Miami Heat.
So Staples Center in downtown Los Angeles will house dueling superstar tandems next season rather than the solitary superteam many expected. It should be a matchup of Wimbledon-worthy doubles: James and Davis against Leonard and George.