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Clippers’ Kawhi Leonard opts out to open free agency frenzy

Clippers Kawhi Leonard opts out to open free agency frenzy
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The Kawhi Leonard free agent sweepstakes have begun again.

The first-team All-NBA forward is now an unrestricted free agent after declining his player option with the Clippers that would have been worth $36 million next season, according to a person with knowledge of the situation who is not authorized to speak publicly.

The decision was not unexpected and could be the precursor of Leonard returning to the team on a new contract when free agency opens Monday afternoon. Veteran center Serge Ibaka did exercise his option on Saturday.

Leonard signaled the likelihood he would choose this route in December when he noted that, if healthy, “the best decision” would be to enter unrestricted free agency. The chief reasoning is not necessarily because of a wandering eye but timing — Leonard has completed his 10th NBA season, making him eligible to sign a maximum contract worth 35% of a team’s salary cap. If he re-signs with the Clippers, he will earn $39 million next season, or $3 million more than he would have earned had he opted into his player option.

If Leonard, 30, chooses to return to the Clippers, he has several options he can pick from regarding the length and structure of his deal. The maximum length and value of any contract he can sign to return right now is four years and around $176 million.

A one-year deal with a player option for the second season could allow him next summer to sign up to a five-year extension worth close to $235 million.

Leonard underwent surgery July 14 to repair what the Clippers called a partially torn anterior cruciate ligament in his right knee. Orthopedic surgeons say most ACL injuries typically carry a recovery time of nine months to one year. The chance he could miss all of next season, however, is not expected to scare away potential suitors such as the Dallas Mavericks or New York Knicks. Before his injury, Leonard had averaged 30.4 points, 7.7 rebounds and 4.4 assists while shooting 57% during the postseason, including 39% on three-pointers.

“We also hope to have, in Kawhi’s case, a very long-term relationship with him,” team president Lawrence Frank said Thursday. “I know that he has a process, and right now our focus, like Kawhi, is on his health. He had major surgery. He tore his ACL. That’s going to require a great deal of time and we want to support him in that.”

The Clippers have long been pegged the favorites to re-sign Leonard, because of the lengths they have gone to acquire and accommodate the superstar and the proximity to his family in Southern California.

In 2019, Leonard met with Toronto, the Lakers and the Clippers as a free agent and waited five days before deciding to join the Clippers. In two seasons with the club, he has averaged 26.0 points, 6.8 rebounds, 5.0 assists and 1.7 steals while making 48.8% of his shots. According to Basketball Reference, Leonard and Brooklyn’s James Harden are the only two players to average at least 25 points, six rebounds, four assists and 1.5 steals over the last two seasons.

Limited by a payroll well into the tax, the Clippers’ main priority in free agency is re-signing their own players, with Leonard their top focus. Like him, guard Reggie Jackson and forward Nicolas Batum also are unrestricted free agents.

The Clippers have 11 players under contract for next season, not including the three rookies selected in last week’s NBA draft. Who might be added? Here are some other potential fits:

DeMar DeRozan (G, 6-6, 220 pounds)

The Clippers have an enormous scoring void left by Leonard’s injury, one Paul George cannot fill, which is why discussions of the team’s interest in DeRozan have credence. The 12-year veteran and L.A. native made 51% of his shots inside the arc last season, the second-best mark of his career, and could be a fit to absorb Leonard’s steady diet of mid-range shots. But DeRozan, 31, made $27 million last season. He’d either need to take a substantial pay cut to take the mid-level exception or the teams would need to work out a sign-and-trade deal, which would trigger a hard salary cap on the Clippers, making their payroll unable to exceed a projected $143-million limit. Constructing such a deal appears difficult, and other suitors have cap space to use on DeRozan.

Lonzo Ball (PG, 6-6, 190 pounds)

Ball, a restricted free agent, does so many things that the Clippers love. The 23-year-old has now made 37% of his three-pointers in back-to-back seasons, remains a terrific distributor while not needing to dominate the ball in a traditional point guard role, and he’s a superb wing defender. But like DeRozan, acquiring him wouldn’t be straightforward, with a sign-and-trade likely requiring the Clippers to send New Orleans a whole bunch of players to make the money work. He’s an ideal fit, on paper, but the complicated mechanics to get him on the roster make this unlikely.

Trevor Ariza (F, 6-8, 215 pounds)

The 36-year-old Westchester High product would be another elder statesman on a roster that is already one of the league’s oldest, but if the Clippers can’t re-sign Batum, perhaps they believe Ariza can provide an encore of what Batum gave the Clippers last season — a veteran forward ready to reveal some of his old magic. Ariza did shoot 35% from three-point range last season.

Kent Bazemore (G, 6-4, 195 pounds)

The career 35% three-point shooter was one of the first players the Clippers called in free agency in 2020, and he is coming off of a one-year, minimum deal with Golden State. Would they make a run at the 32-year-old again? He shot nearly 41% from deep with the Warriors.

Alec Burks (G, 6-6, 214 pounds)

Last season, the 30-year-old’s 10th in the NBA, Burks produced his best three-point shooting by connecting on 41.5%, on a career-high five attempts per game. He came off the bench for New York yet averaged 12.7 points and is now an unrestricted free agent. After making $6 million with the Knicks, he could be a candidate for the $5.7-million mid-level exception.

DeMarcus Cousins (C, 6-10, 270 pounds)

Cousins, 30, is an unrestricted free agent after his three-month stay as a rental center, but with Ivica Zubac and Serge Ibaka returning at center, he would need to be content with playing only spot minutes. A smaller role was reportedly one reason why his fit with Houston ended early last season, so whether he would accept that is a big question. But during the postseason, he made it clear that he valued being with the team.

“I think it’s just a good culture fit. We understand each other, everyone respects one another, respect each other’s opinion, each other’s space,” Cousins said in June. “It’s just a smooth organization. That’s the way I can put it.”





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