It was true during the N.B.A. playoffs and again in a stunning free-agent twist that played out early Saturday morning: Kawhi Leonard does things his own way — and at his own pace.
After a week of deliberations that generated much curiosity but also impatience around the league, Leonard decided to leave the Toronto Raptors, not even a month after leading them to the championship, and to commit the next four years of his career to the Los Angeles Clippers.
Leonard did so only after the Clippers managed to swing an equally stunning trade to acquire Paul George from the Oklahoma City Thunder, ensuring that Leonard would be joined by another elite player on his new team.
Leonard was pursued aggressively by the Clippers, the Los Angeles Lakers and the Raptors. Toronto could offer a five-year deal worth $190 million, while the Lakers pitched the opportunity to form the league’s starriest trio alongside LeBron James and Anthony Davis.
By persuading Leonard to accept their four-year, $142 million offer, Clippers officials upstaged their competition after being dismissed by many league observers over the past week. Outdueling the more celebrated Lakers, in particular, gave the Clippers bonus satisfaction reminiscent of the Nets’ recent coup in beating out the Knicks to reach agreements with Kevin Durant and Kyrie Irving.
Leonard’s decision was the most anticipated move still outstanding in perhaps the wildest week of free agency in league history. Nearly 50 players committed to contacts worth more than $3 billion in the first 12 hours after the market opened June 30.
When the Fourth of July holiday passed without a decision from Leonard, after pitch meetings from his three primary suitors, numerous league observers openly wondered what was taking so long. It turns out that Leonard was using the extra time to recruit George to join him with the Clippers, who have labored in the Lakers’ shadow in Los Angeles for nearly four decades.
Leonard successfully persuaded George to request a trade away from the mercurial point guard Russell Westbrook and the Thunder, according to two people close to the negotiations who were not authorized to discuss them publicly. The Clippers then presented Oklahoma City with a substantial trade offer that the Thunder could not refuse, especially when the alternative was keeping Westbrook and George with little financial flexibility to improve the team around them — and with George recovering from surgeries on both of his shoulders.
The trade, which will be formally completed after the league’s moratorium on free-agency contracts ends Saturday, calls for the Clippers to send Oklahoma City three unprotected first-round picks (in 2022, 2024 and 2026) and two first-round draft choices that will be conveyed to the Thunder by the Miami Heat (unprotected in 2021 and protected from 1 to 14 in 2023), according to one person with knowledge of the trade terms. The Thunder also will have the right to swap first-round picks with the Clippers in 2023 and 2025, according to the person.
Oklahoma City will likewise acquire Shai Gilgeous-Alexander, a promising guard, and Danilo Gallinari, a veteran forward, in the trade, according to the person. It’s more than any team has ever surrendered for a superstar player, but the Clippers clearly felt that they had to part with all of those draft assets, as well as two quality players, to ensure that Leonard chose them ahead of the Lakers and the Raptors.
As The New York Times first reported, Leonard made it clear to the Clippers that he would not sign with them unless he would be joined by a proven All-Star sidekick. The cost was high, but the Clippers found a way to unite them, both Southern California natives. Leonard is from the Riverside area, east of Los Angeles, and played at San Diego State; George grew up in Palmdale, north of Los Angeles, in the Antelope Valley.
Leonard’s choice was a stinging outcome for at least three other franchises, starting with the Raptors. Never before has an N.B.A. finals most valuable player chosen to immediately leave the newly crowned champions. But Toronto knew there was no guarantee Leonard would stay when they acquired him last season, trading the All-Star guard DeMar DeRozan and a former top-10 draft pick, Jakob Poeltl, to the San Antonio Spurs.
It proved to be a magical deal, with Leonard, 28, cementing his status as the league’s foremost two-way force. After eliminating the Philadelphia 76ers in the second round of the playoffs with an unforgettable Game 7 buzzer-beater, Leonard won N.B.A. finals M.V.P. honors with his second team after leading the Raptors to a six-game triumph over the two-time reigning champion Golden State Warriors. Only James and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar have won finals M.V.P. for at least two different teams.
A 6-foot-7 forward, Leonard averaged 26.6 points and 7.3 rebounds in 60 regular-season games in Toronto while shooting 49.6 percent from the field. He was even more dominant in the playoffs, averaging 30.5 points and 9.1 rebounds for Toronto, the league’s first champions based outside the United States. The Raptors attracted a crowd of millions at their championship parade, but the over-the-top adoration Leonard received from an entire country was not enough to sway him to stay in Canada.
The Thunder were reluctant participants in the Clippers’ maneuvering, according to one person familiar with the team’s thinking who was not authorized to discuss it publicly. George averaged 28.0 points and 8.2 rebounds in 77 games last season despite injuries.
Oklahoma City ultimately decided that passing up the Clippers’ offer was impossible — but the near-instant reaction to the trade from rival teams was that a presumably disappointed Westbrook could now try to force his way to a team closer to title contention.
Yet it was the Lakers, above all, who met with their worst fears.
The league’s glamour franchise paid a heavy premium to get the New Orleans Pelicans to trade Davis last month and strongly believed in recent days that, through the recruiting efforts of James, Davis and Magic Johnson, it had overcome months of organizational dysfunction to move to the top of Leonard’s list.
Once Leonard opted for the unfashionable Clippers, as Durant and Irving had done with the Nets, Lakers officials quickly agreed to terms with Danny Green, the veteran swingman who was one of Leonard’s most trusted teammates in San Antonio and Toronto.
Next season, then, Staples Center in downtown Los Angeles will house dueling superstar tandems instead of the solitary superteam many expected. It should be a matchup of Wimbledon-worthy doubles: James and Davis against Leonard and George.