Kawhi Leonard outlines how close he was to joining the Lakers

Kawhi Leonard, LeBron James (Mandatory Credit: Kirby Lee-USA TODAY Sports)
Kawhi Leonard, LeBron James (Mandatory Credit: Kirby Lee-USA TODAY Sports) /

Oh, what could have been: Kawhi Leonard almost chose the Lakers in free agency before signing with the Clippers in 2019. 

Think back to the summer of 2019 and you will likely remember the very patient free agency process of Kawhi Leonard. Fresh off his NBA championship with the Toronto Raptors, Leonard faced a difficult decision: run it back up north, or move back home and play for either Los Angeles team.

After a while, it became clear Leonard was heavily considering a return home. The two-time Finals MVP was born in LA and he played college ball down the road in San Diego. Many expected him to team up with LeBron James and Anthony Davis on the Lakers, forming the league’s next unbeatable superteam.

Then, he threw a curveball and decided to sign with the Clippers, who also traded for Paul George to create their own powerhouse contender. After his decision, Leonard admitted how close he was to joining the Lake Show.

Kawhi Leonard almost signed with the Lakers instead of the Clippers in 2019

Leonard drew criticism for how long it took him to make a decision in 2019. Some thought he led the Lakers on before stabbing them in the back and running to the Clippers. Leonard dispelled any such notion.

“I didn’t lead anyone on,” he told Chris Haynes of Yahoo Sports. “I took my time in free agency, as I should, to make sure I made the best decision for myself and my family.”

He went on to lambast the media coverage and rumormongering that went on during the process. All the noise about Toronto and the Lakers was false; Leonard was “close” to signing with the Lakers, he admits, but ultimately the Clippers appealed to him more.

An obvious motivating factor in Leonard’s decision was the Clippers’ subsequent trade for George. The front office noted the possibility of acquiring PG13 in discussions with Leonard, and once that trade was on the table, his decision became that much easier:

"“[Paul’s] name was on the board, and I said I would love to play with him. They made the opportunity happen in probably two to three days later. I was close to signing with other teams, but once they told me that this deal was on the table, I jumped for it.”"

Leonard and George are both home town kids, and as Leonard went on to note, neither grew up a Lakers fan. There has been much debate over the veracity of that statement (they were Clippers fans? Really?), but in the end, Leonard never seemed like a Lakers kind of guy. He’s much too quiet and reserved to share the spotlight with LeBron James and Anthony Davis. The Clippers provided the comforts of home without the giant purple and gold spotlight.

It’s fun to think about what a Leonard-Lakers pairing would have looked like. LeBron, AD, and the Lakers went on to win the championship in 2020. That was the Bubble year, when Kawhi and the Clippers famously did not want to be sequestered in Orlando for two months.

In the years since, Leonard, Davis, and James have all been ravaged by varying degrees of injuries. Leonard missed the entire 2021-22 season to a torn ACL and he was once again hurt during the Clippers’ first round elimination to the Suns this year. You can list a dozen excuses for why the Clippers haven’t reached the mountaintop with Leonard and George, but the simple fact is that availability is the best ability, and Leonard hasn’t been available often enough for the Clippers to make a deep run.

Does he regret not joining the Lakers and potentially winning a ring? Maybe, maybe not. He seems perfectly at peace with his decision, but then again, Leonard doesn’t really modulate his expression under any circumstances.

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