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-point attempts.
“We also hope to have, in Kawhi’s case, a very long-term relationship with him,” Clippers 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 favourites 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. Like Leonard, guard Reggie Jackson and forward Nicolas Batum also are unrestricted free agents.
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