TORONTO — It was a heck of a season, but it appears that’s all the Toronto Raptors are going to get from Kawhi Leonard.
Less than a month after leading the Raptors to their first NBA title, the superstar free agent is reportedly leaving Toronto for the Los Angeles Clippers.
A person familiar with the negotiations says the Clippers will be landing Leonard as a free agent after they acquire Paul George from the Oklahoma City Thunder in a massive trade for players and draft picks.
George will be traded for at least four first-round picks, according to the person who spoke to The Associated Press on condition of anonymity early Saturday because none of the moves have been finalized. And Leonard made his decision to sign with the Clippers after the team swung the deal to land George, the person said.
ESPN, which first reported the trade, also said the Thunder were getting Shai Gilgeous-Alexander and Danilo Gallinari from the Clippers.
Leonard going to the Clippers means that for the first time, a reigning NBA Finals MVP will be changing teams before the next season. Leonard was also pursued by the Los Angeles Lakers and, of course, the Raptors.
The most the Clippers can offer Leonard is $142 million over four years, which is the deal he is expected to sign. Players can sign with new teams as early as noon Eastern on Saturday.
Leonard was arguably the most coveted prize in this year’s free agency, and met with several teams including the Raptors, Lakers and Clippers in his hometown of Los Angeles.
The Lakers didn’t wait long before starting to move on from their quest for Leonard. Danny Green announced that he is signing a two-year deal with the Lakers, meaning he, too, is leaving Toronto.
“Kawhi has made his decision. Seems like the announcement is out,” Green said in a video he posted to his social media accounts. “It’s time for me to make my announcement ... I will be teaming up with new teammates in LA, the Los Angeles Lakers.”
Green said he enjoyed Toronto and that it was unfortunate how free agency turned out for that city, the Raptors and for Canada.
The news ends months of speculation and angst for Raptors fans.
Leonard’s departure was considered by many to be a foregone conclusion a year ago when Raptors president Masai Ujiri acquired him from the San Antonio Spurs in an off-season blockbuster that sent beloved franchise icon DeMar DeRozan to Texas.
Leonard had a year left on his contract plus a player option — which he was certainly going to decline — when he moved to Toronto, and many believed he’d put in a season in Canada before bolting for his hometown of Los Angeles.
The Raptors certainly made Leonard’s decision a tough one. After Leonard missed all but nine games last season with San Antonio with a serious quadriceps injury, he said health was his biggest concern heading into this past campaign.
Toronto responded by treating the superstar, who turned 28 on Saturday, with kid gloves. They made “load management” part of their lexicon, holding him out of back-to-back games for health maintenance.
Load management paid off in the playoffs. Leonard had one of the best performances in NBA post-season history in leading the Raptors to their first Larry O’Brien Trophy. He was excellent on both sides of the ball as they dispatched Orlando, Philadelphia, Milwaukee and finally the two-time defending champion Golden State Warriors. He was rewarded with his second career Finals MVP award.
There were iconic moments along the way, including his series-winning final shot in Game 7 against the 76ers that bounced on the rim four times before falling, sending the Scotiabank Arena crowd into a frenzy.
Leonard’s status as a sports icon in Toronto and across Canada perhaps closed the gap between the Raptors and other suitors.
But ultimately, what Toronto had to offer wasn’t enough.
Leonard averaged 26.6 points on 49.6 per cent shooting, 7.3 rebounds, 3.3 assists and 1.8 steals over 60 regular-season games with the Raptors in 2018-19. He took his game to an elite level in the playoffs, averaging 30.5 points, 9.1 rebounds, 3.9 assists and 1.7 steals over 24 games.
It’s a massive blow to Toronto’s chances of back-to-back titles, and obviously puts a damper on the Lakers’ off-season quest as well — even though they will finalize a trade Saturday to bring in Anthony Davis from New Orleans and landed the sort of shooter than LeBron James craves by adding Green.
With files from The Associated Press