In his first taste of how the media and fan interest in Los Angeles is divided up, Kawhi Leonard spent much of his first day being introduced with the Clippers answering questions about the Lakers.
While Leonard and new teammate Paul George mostly tried to downplay the connection while insisting the Clippers are doing their own thing, Leonard also admitted that he was “very close” to joining the Lakers, and additionally answered questions about whether or not Magic Johnson leaking details of their meeting pushed him away from the Lakers.
But while Leonard has taken some ire from the purple and gold fan base for what some feel was leading the Lakers on, he doesn’t see things that way. He told Chris Haynes of Yahoo Sports — who also reported that Leonard was likely to join the Lakers if he didn’t choose the Clippers — that none of the teams chasing him were being forced to wait, and could have moved on if they’d wanted to:
“If they didn’t want to wait for me, they didn’t have to,” the two-time NBA Finals MVP told Yahoo Sports in an exclusive interview after the introductory press conference. “They had a big opportunity to sign me. [The Lakers] were close, but I ended up on the other side.”
Leonard would have likely chosen the Lakers if the Clippers hadn’t found a way to pull off the blockbuster trade for George, league sources told Yahoo Sports.
Leonard technically isn’t wrong, but he’s sort of ignoring the context of he and his camp continuing to leak that all three teams — the Lakers, Clippers and Raptors — were all still in the hunt up until the moment he joined the Clippers after the Paul George trade. None of those teams were going to move on from a chance at arguably the best player in the world in order to lock up some role players.
And all of that is before factoring in that even mere hours before joining the Clippers, Leonard and his camp were reportedly asking the Lakers to delay the Anthony Davis trade to give them more time to decide. Yes, the Lakers didn’t technically have to listen to Leonard’s people, but Leonard acting as if his camp’s hands are completely clean in the Lakers’ decision to wait ignores a few facts.
Still, he maintained to Haynes that he wasn’t trying to give teams false hope:
“I didn’t lead anyone on,” Leonard told Yahoo Sports. “I took my time in free agency, as I should, to make sure I made the best decision for myself and my family. I feel like some of the media coverage over it made it feel that way, with people saying I’m signing with Toronto 99 percent or I’m going to the Lakers 99 percent. I don’t ever want to have that bad karma come back on me trying to make the Lakers miss out on players they should have gotten or vice-versa with the Raptors.”
Leonard may not want it, but some of the blame for those teams missing out on players does fall on him stringing things along, even if they ultimately made a justified gamble to wait, and even though it really does seem as though Leonard wasn’t asking them to delay with malicious intent. Based on everything Leonard has said, and everything that has been reported, it really does seem as though he wasn’t drawing the process out to screw over the teams he didn’t choose. It just appears as though he didn’t care if that was a result of his actions.
It’s hard to blame Leonard for his approach, either. Fans are going to be frustrated, and you can quibble with some of the details, but ultimately players don’t get this level of power to set up their ideal destination for themselves that often. Leonard has been on the other side of things in having his destination chosen for him — first in the draft, and then in his trade from San Antonio — and saw with the Spurs that teams don’t always put what their players feel are their best interests first. Why should he put team’s needs ahead of his own? That’s not his job.
Still, that’s not going to stop fan bases from feeling bad blood about the way they were given what ultimately turned out to be false hope, no matter how many times Leonard justifies his actions. This is just a public relations battle he’s not going to win, even if his choices were understandable from his perspective. That’s just not how fandom works. He has a right to feel the way he feels, and Lakers and Raptors fans have a right to feel a tad led on. That’s just how this is going to be.
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