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 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 Hamilton native 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.
He reportedly agreed to a four-year, US$142 million max contract, which he can sign as early as noon ET 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, US$30 million deal with the Lakers, meaning he, too, is leaving Toronto.
“It’s been unfortunate how things turned out for everybody, and the city of Toronto and Canada that we couldn’t run it back. 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.
“Had a fun time in the city of Toronto … always have a great place in my heart, will never forget the historical run that we had,” said Green.
The news ends months of speculation and angst for Raptors fans, that has only heated up as the days wore on after free agency opened last Sunday.
The top 10 Twitter trends in Toronto were about the move on Saturday morning as Raptors fans woke up to the news. The hashtags #ThankYouKawhi and #ThankYouDanny were both trending. Toronto Mayor John Tory tweeted: “Our #KawhiWatch has ended. #ThankYouKawhi for the NBA championship that you helped to bring to Toronto with your @Raptors teammates. #ThanksKawhi #WeTheNorth.”
Leonard’s sister, Miesha Slayton, posted several images on Instagram showing her brother in a Clippers jersey.
His tenure in Toronto ended with a wild few days of free agency that included tracking trips to California by the plane owned by Raptors parent company Maple Leaf Sports & Entertainment Ltd., and Toronto news station CP24 following a black van by helicopter that may or may not have had Leonard in it.
Billboards encouraging Leonard to stay emerged in Toronto, with signs also popping up in Los Angeles calling on the star forward to return home.
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 Los Angeles.
The Raptors certainly made Leonard’s decision a tough one. After Leonard missed all but nine games the previous season in San Antonio with a serious quadriceps injury, he said health was his biggest concern heading into this campaign.
Toronto responded by treating the superstar, who turned 28 on Saturday, with kid gloves. They made “load management” part of the NBA lexicon, holding him out of back-to-back games for health maintenance.
It all paid off in the playoffs, as 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 Leonard’s 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, the lure of home proved too much and 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.
His departure is 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.