The NBA Playoffs, Brought to You by Kawhi Leonard – The Wall Street Journal

For a few days last summer, after professional basketball teams managed to blow through a few billion dollars in a few hours, the NBA abruptly stopped.

The flood of deals in free agency slowed to a trickle as the entire league waited for one reclusive superstar to make up his mind. Kawhi Leonard was coming off a title with the Toronto Raptors, and for the first time in his career, he was a free agent with the right to play anywhere he wanted. The fate of the NBA hung on his decision.

It was the middle of the night in July 2019 when he made it known how little anybody had known about his maneuverings: Leonard chose to sign with the Los Angeles Clippers—and bring Paul George with him.

His move triggered a domino effect that would touch nearly half the teams in the NBA playoffs that began on Monday in the league’s Walt Disney World bubble. Leonard won the championship last season, and what he did next will likely decide who wins the championship this season.

This is how power works in today’s NBA. One transcendent player in a sport that prizes individual talent and a business that limits salaries can pick a new team and tip the competitive balance of the entire league. LeBron James held teams at his mercy in 2010 and 2014. Kevin Durant sent teams into hibernation in 2016. Now, after the longest, rockiest year in the history of the league, the NBA playoffs brought to you by Kawhi Leonard are here.

It’s finally time to see where the dominoes have fallen.

The Kawhi Effect

How one NBA player’s decision rippled across the league.

Free agent

Trade

July 6, 2019

Leonard agrees to sign with the Clippers, but only after they secure Paul George.

Toronto Raptors

Kawhi

Leonard

Paul

George

The Thunder use their leverage to secure an unprecedented trade haul.

Los Angeles Clippers

Oklahoma City Thunder

Shai Gilgeous-

Alexander

Danilo

Gallinari

Seven first-

round picks*

As soon as the Lakers knew they weren’t signing Leonard, they spent the salary-cap space they were saving for him elsewhere.

DeMarcus

Cousins

X

Golden State Warriors

Los Angeles Lakers

Danny

Green

Rajon

Rondo

If the Lakers had signed Leonard, Danny Green would have signed with the Mavericks.

JaVale

McGee

Alex

Caruso

Kentavious

Caldwell-Pope

July 7

Delon

Wright

X

Tyus

Jones

Dallas Mavericks

Memphis Grizzlies

Minnesota Timberwolves

Two second-

round picks

July 8

July 11

The Thunder’s extreme makeover continues.

Jerami

Grant

Russell

Westbrook

Denver Nuggets

Oklahoma City Thunder

Houston Rockets

Chris

Paul

Four first-

round picks*

One first-round pick

Free agent

Trade

July 6, 2019

Leonard agrees to sign with the Clippers, but only after they secure Paul George.

Toronto Raptors

Kawhi

Leonard

Paul

George

The Thunder use their leverage to secure an unprecedented trade haul.

Los Angeles Clippers

Oklahoma City Thunder

Shai Gilgeous-

Alexander

Seven first-

round picks*

Danilo

Gallinari

As soon as the Lakers knew they weren’t signing Leonard, they spent the salary-cap space they were saving for him elsewhere.

DeMarcus

Cousins

X

Golden State Warriors

Los Angeles Lakers

Danny

Green

Rajon

Rondo

If the Lakers had signed Leonard, Danny Green would have signed with the Mavericks.

JaVale

McGee

Alex

Caruso

Kentavious

Caldwell-Pope

July 7

Tyus

Jones

Delon

Wright

X

Dallas Mavericks

Memphis Grizzlies

Minnesota Timberwolves

Two second-

round picks

July 8

July 11

The Thunder’s extreme makeover continues.

Jerami

Grant

Russell

Westbrook

Denver Nuggets

Oklahoma City Thunder

Houston Rockets

Chris

Paul

Four first-

round picks*

One first-round pick

Free agent

Trade

July 6, 2019

Leonard agrees to sign with the Clippers, but only after they secure Paul George.

Toronto Raptors

Paul

George

Kawhi

Leonard

The Thunder use their leverage to secure an unprecedented trade haul.

Los Angeles Clippers

Oklahoma City Thunder

Shai Gilgeous-

Alexander

Seven first-

round picks*

Danilo

Gallinari

As soon as the Lakers knew they weren’t signing Leonard, they spent the salary-cap space they were saving for him elsewhere.

DeMarcus

Cousins

X

Los Angeles Lakers

Golden State Warriors

Danny

Green

Rajon

Rondo

If the Lakers had signed Leonard, Danny Green would have signed with the Mavericks.

JaVale

McGee

Kentavious

Caldwell-Pope

Alex

Caruso

July 7

Tyus

Jones

Delon

Wright

X

Dallas Mavericks

Memphis Grizzlies

Minnesota Timberwolves

Two second-

round picks

The Thunder’s extreme makeover continues.

July 8

July 11

Jerami

Grant

Russell

Westbrook

Denver Nuggets

Oklahoma City Thunder

Houston Rockets

Chris

Paul

One first-round pick

Four first-round picks*

Free agent

Trade

Toronto Raptors

July 6, 2019

Leonard agrees to sign with the Clippers, but only after they secure Paul George.

Kawhi

Leonard

Los Angeles Clippers

The Thunder use their leverage to secure an unprecedented trade haul.

Paul

George

Seven first-

round picks*

Danilo

Gallinari

Oklahoma City Thunder

Shai Gilgeous-

Alexander

As soon as the Lakers knew they weren’t signing Leonard, they spent the salary-cap space they were saving for him elsewhere.

DeMarcus

Cousins

X

Los Angeles Lakers

Danny

Green

Golden State Warriors

Kentavious

Caldwell-Pope

JaVale

McGee

Rajon

Rondo

Alex

Caruso

If the Lakers had signed Leonard, Danny Green would have signed with the Mavericks.

X

Dallas Mavericks

July 7

Delon

Wright

Two second-

round picks

Memphis Grizzlies

Tyus

Jones

Minnesota Timberwolves

July 8

Denver Nuggets

Jerami

Grant

The Thunder’s extreme makeover continues.

Oklahoma City Thunder

One first-

round pick

Chris

Paul

Four first-

round picks*

July 11

Houston Rockets

Russell

Westbrook

*Includes the right to swap first-round picks.
Photo credit: Associated Press, Getty Images, USA TODAY Sports, Icon SMI via ZUMA Press

Source: Basketball Reference
Kyle Kim/THE WALL STREET JOURNAL

Thunderstruck

The Clippers have been title favorites since the night they defied their decades of ineptitude to land two superstars in one swoop. They have the versatility, depth and firepower to give them matchup advantages over every team, and the pairing of Leonard and George gives them exactly the right players to throw at Giannis Antetokounmpo, LeBron James and anyone else who comes their way. They also have one big advantage if they get to the conference finals in the NBA bubble: Their home games won’t be invaded by an army of Lakers fans.

The next team to feel the aftershocks of Leonard’s seismic move was the Raptors. One reliable law of basketball is that a championship team that loses its best player will get worse. But the Raptors are NBA outlaws. They secured the No. 2 seed in the Eastern Conference—again—with an even better net rating than they had last year. Not having Leonard lowers their ceiling in the playoffs, but Pascal Siakam is a budding star, Kyle Lowry anchors their impenetrable defense and Nick Nurse burnished his reputation as the league’s schematic mad scientist. What they’re doing without Leonard is nearly as impressive as winning a title with him.

Something peculiar happened to the Thunder, too. They snatched Danilo Gallinari, Shai Gilgeous-Alexander and as many as seven first-round draft picks through 2026 in exchange for George—an unprecedented haul of assets—and then continued their gut renovation by trading franchise icon Russell Westbrook to the Houston Rockets for Chris Paul and potentially four more first-round picks. Leonard pressuring the Clippers gave the Thunder a surprising amount of leverage for a team in a desperate situation against a tight deadline. They used it. Oklahoma City essentially placed a short bet against the long-term futures of the Clippers and the Rockets.

But if the Thunder were rebuilding, the players never saw the blueprints. They stunned the league and delighted their fans this season by finishing with the No. 5 seed in the Western Conference. That was in large part because they were the NBA’s best team at the end of close games with a crunchtime lineup that includes Paul, Gallinari and Gilgeous-Alexander—three players who are in Oklahoma City because Leonard wanted to be in Los Angeles.

LeBron James dribbles the ball as Kawhi Leonard defends.



Photo:

kirby lee/Reuters

Kawhi vs. LeBron

The teams directly involved in the Leonard deal weren’t the only ones that had to scramble that night.

His play in free agency turned out to be as efficient as his play on the court: It helped the Clippers and hurt their rivals. The Lakers had already paired LeBron James with Anthony Davis when they decided to pursue Leonard, too, even if that meant agonizing as he deliberated and the market for other players shriveled. As soon as Leonard committed to their hallway rival, the Lakers burned through a pile of cash they had set aside for him. They spent the next 24 hours signing Danny Green, Alex Caruso, Kentavious Caldwell-Pope and others to fill out their playoff rotation.

Now they might have to beat a player who inadvertently built the Lakers to get to the Finals.

Russell Westbrook shoots under pressure from Kawhi Leonard.



Photo:

Ringo Chiu/Zuma Press

The Big Move Behind Small Ball

The next dominoes to come toppling down were the teams that went into free agency knowing they had no chance of poaching Leonard—and they might have their own decisions to make in the minutes after his decision.

The Denver Nuggets were one of them. With the Thunder looking to dump salary after trading George, the Nuggets pounced, trading a first-round pick for Jerami Grant, a quietly important rotation player for a No. 3 seed in the West that could be playing the Clippers in the second round. But first the Clippers would have to get past the Dallas Mavericks and the most efficient offense in NBA history. They, too, have a Leonard connection. Dallas would look very different if Leonard had signed with the Lakers—because Green has said he would’ve signed with the Mavericks.

But the way that Leonard managed to alter the strategy of yet another team showed how a single player can fundamentally transform an entire franchise without playing there.

Less than a week after Oklahoma City traded George, the Houston Rockets plucked Westbrook and reunited him with James Harden. It was the beginning of one of the most audacious experiments the league has ever seen. Other teams had phenomenal success playing small ball in spurts. The Rockets are trying to win a championship by only playing small ball.

They shrunk. The Rockets doubled down on the bet they placed the night they traded for Westbrook by winning a bidding war for Robert Covington before February’s trade deadline. Their starting center is 6-foot-5. Nobody in their rotation is taller than 6-foot-8. They’re about to find out whether smaller is better.

Who do the Rockets play in the first round of the playoffs? The Thunder. Neither team would be the same without Kawhi Leonard.

Share Your Thoughts

What are your predictions for the NBA playoffs? Join the discussion.

Write to Ben Cohen at ben.cohen@wsj.com

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