Why Kawhi Leonard embraced his free agency and the Clippers

Why Kawhi Leonard embraced his free agency and the Clippers

LOS ANGELES — The Los Angeles Clippers introducing native Southern California superstars Kawhi Leonard and Paul George at Green Meadows Recreation Center on Wednesday will go down as one of the most historic moments in the franchise’s history.

Leonard, though, was eager to set the record straight on the narrative that he led on the Los Angeles Lakers and Toronto Raptors during free agency.

“If they didn’t want to wait for me, they didn’t have to,” the two-time NBA Finals MVP told Yahoo Sports in an exclusive interview after the introductory press conference. “They had a big opportunity to sign me. [The Lakers] were close, but I ended up on the other side.”

Leonard would have likely chosen the Lakers if the Clippers hadn’t found a way to pull off the blockbuster trade for George, league sources told Yahoo Sports.

Leonard was in a jovial mood Wednesday and was more talkative than usual. He was finally home. The joy shined through, except when mentioning the fallout in the aftermath of selecting the Clippers.

“I didn’t lead anyone on,” Leonard told 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. I feel like some of the media coverage over it made it feel that way, with people saying I’m signing with Toronto 99 percent or I’m going to the Lakers 99 percent. I don’t ever want to have that bad karma come back on me trying to make the Lakers miss out on players they should have gotten or vice-versa with the Raptors.”

Leonard wasn’t done setting the record straight.

“Y’all kept saying that me and Paul’s favorite team growing up was the Lakers. I’m not going to say [Yahoo Sports], but whatever media outlet was out there saying that Kawhi prefers the Lakers over the Clippers, or Paul loves the Lakers, was wrong,” Leonard told Yahoo Sports. “I wasn’t a fan of the Lakers growing up. Not saying that’s why I didn’t choose them, but that’s not what it is. I wasn’t a fan of them, and [Paul] just told you guys he was a Clippers fan.”

Paul George and Kawhi Leonard were introduced by the Los Angeles Clippers on Wednesday. (Kevork Djansezian/Getty Images)

The Clippers, for their entire existence in this city, have always been portrayed as the unwanted stepchild. But on Wednesday, in a packed basketball gymnasium filled with reporters and children from the area, it was a day when the Clippers seized control and snatched the attention from their Staples Center roommates who happen to own 16 championships.

“It’s a great chance and opportunity for us to start anew, you know, a legacy here in L.A.,” George told Yahoo Sports. “The Clippers haven’t been to the Promised Land yet and that’s something that we can bring to a different part of L.A. I think that’s attractive. Again, we are playing at home, I was a Clippers fan growing up, so this hits differently for me. I get a chance to do something that I dreamed of as a kid playing in the front yard. This is just a different opportunity that I don’t think anybody wants to pass up in their career.”

And it was all reportedly made possible by Leonard, who has been credited for stunning the basketball world by engineering a path in which the Clippers could obtain two top-10 talents this offseason.

“S—, I guess I need a front-office position if that’s what happened,” Leonard told Yahoo Sports. “They’re saying I was the architect of the deal. I’ll say this: players talk, and when I talked to the Clippers, they had certain players they thought they could pair with me before I signed. His 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.”

And with a roster equipped with suitable depth, the modernized Clippers might be the Lakers’ toughest challengers for the Larry O’Brien Trophy.

“The Lakers aren’t what’s going to be on the board when we’re running out of the tunnel,” George told Yahoo Sports. “We’re going to change the narrative just by how we approach the game, how we go out and play, how we compete every night, and that’s what’s going to change the game. So as far as splitting between Lakers and Clippers, that’s for everybody else to decide. Our decision is just to come out, compete, put it all on the line on every night and see where that takes us. You know the Clippers already have a great foundation and they already have a fanbase. All we’re doing is playing for the fans that’s already been Clippers fans. We’re not trying do anything else other than that. We get there’s going to be fans that want to switch sides along the way and so be it, but we’re playing for the fans that’s already here.”

Leonard echoed George’s sentiment.

“Our focus is on building our own legacy, building the Clippers’ legacy. That’s how the Lakers started. Who won the first championship with the Lakers? That’s how we’re going to start our movement. We’re going to go in and obviously have a goal set of winning a championship, and if we can get one, then that’s going to start the changing process. But you can’t change one championship against 16 or a brand. There are bigger brands. I’ve been out there. The Knicks are still a big brand, but they haven’t won any games. They’re still going to overshadow the [Brooklyn] Nets, too. So it’s just about winning at this point. The fan base is going to change over if we win and that’s the goal. We’ve got to win and everything else is going to take care of itself.”

Owner Steve Balmer, president of basketball operations Lawrence Frank, coach Doc Rivers and team executive Jerry West sold their vision well in a meeting with Leonard. It was based on organizational stability, an atmosphere free of drama, a trust base and a team made up of hard-nosed, scrappy talent who lacked a star or two to elevate them.

For someone who was already homesick the last few years, it was something the former Raptor wanted to invest in.

Kawhi Leonard says he put family first in free agency. (AP Photo/Ringo H.W. Chiu)

“Everybody knew where I wanted to play last year during the trade, and it was the Lakers or Clippers and wanting to come back home,” Leonard told Yahoo Sports. “Once we were able to get [Paul] to be a part of this with me, I already knew he wanted to play at home, too. I felt like it was a great opportunity. I trusted the front office for the most part when I went through the process. They did everything right, just letting me play ball and not trying to call anyone’s cell phone. They took the right steps of doing it the legal way and waited until they were able to talk to me, and I liked that about them.”

And now the journey begins. The pieces are in place, and the Clippers are early title favorites. But had Leonard remained with the Raptors, they would have been viewed as the favorites.

Could the reigning champions have done anything more to keep their star?

“You know, once I got together with my team and we put the pros and cons down, it was never about winning a championship,” Leonard said to Yahoo Sports. “It was about what the future has to hold. And for me, myself and my family, that’s what type of decision I had to make. It’s no discredit to Toronto, I just wanted to play at home. I wanted to do that before I got traded there, and obviously when I got there, it was a goal of mine to make history and get them a championship, and I feel like I did my job there pretty much and that I should be granted to go play where I wanted to after I gave them what they needed. I just wanted to play at home. Like Paul said, our families are able to come to games. But just from my own thinking, it’s like we’re in the NBA and I played eight years already. Eight years can fly by so fast, and we’re not able to do anything with [our families] eight or nine months of the season.

“So once the summer comes, you got three months to either go see family, train and do your other business obligations. There’s really no time to see them, to see your family. I love my family. Over the last five or six years, I’ll go back home and see my family, my nieces and nephews, and they’re talking, playing, shooting basketballs, and I’m like, ‘Dang, I missed all this. Y’all talking already. What? You’re doing this?’ So it’s like, ‘Man, where the hell have I been?’ It feels like you been in a matrix or something.

“For me, it was a family situation more so than a basketball decision. Basketball is going to be here long without me, so I feel like when we’re here, we just have to make sure we share it with our loved ones, and that’s one of the big reasons why I came to the Clippers.”

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