NBA free agency kicks off in less than 24 hours, making Sunday the final day for teams to exercise options for next season and for players to opt-in to another year with their current organizations. For Kawhi Leonard, that decision came just before 6 p.m. ET this afternoon.
Leonard will decline his $36 million player option and become an unrestricted free agent, as first reported by Chris Haynes of Yahoo Sports. That means the Los Angeles Clippers star will be available to sign wherever he finds the best offer or whatever he deems to be the best situation to play in.
Although that may be the case, Leonard is widely believed to be planning a return to Los Angeles, but on a longer deal worth more money annually. The 30-year-old is eligible for a starting salary of 35% of the salary cap, or $39 million per year for up to four years. If he had exercised his 2021-22 player option, he could’ve landed a four-year extension worth slightly more at $181 million, but he still decided to opt-out.
Coming off of postseason that ended early for Leonard after he suffered a partially torn ACL, it’s not surprising to see the five-time All Star potentially choose the security of a long term deal. It could also mean that he simply wants to sign a “1 + 1” deal that would give him the opportunity to hit free agency again in 2022 if he wasn’t happy with the Clippers trajectory, or sign an even longer and more lucrative extension.
Most fans and media members following the news on Sunday recognized that Leonard’s decision to opt out won’t lead to a dramatic power-shift in the NBA. However, a few others encouraged everyone to exercise caution, as it’s never been easy to predict what the two-time Finals MVP will do.
Kawhi Leonard told us in December that he was likely going to decline his player option. It's the best decision for him to get the most money. https://t.co/9BNwOAMHWZ
— Cinnabod Esnaashari (@Farbod_E) August 1, 2021
If the goal was to secure financial security now and sign a long-term deal, the smart play would have been to opt-in to his $36M contract and extend for an additional $181M.
It would make zero sense to sign a 4 year contract now. https://t.co/nC50ga51b9
— Bobby Marks (@BobbyMarks42) August 1, 2021
Which basically sets him up to sign longer term at more money, right? https://t.co/UEAwwfI8vc
— Doug Smith: Raptors (@SmithRaps) August 1, 2021
I understand that this could be him re-signing longterm but I am nervous nonetheless https://t.co/RGEt87iajr
— Isaac K. Lee (@IsaacKLee) August 1, 2021
Get that money, Kawhi. https://t.co/thiprpheKX
— Bryan Toporek (@btoporek) August 1, 2021
There is no such thing as expectation with Kawhi Leonard. We know nothing about his moves. https://t.co/C8jPTZKTb7
— Steve Jones Jr. (@stevejones20) August 1, 2021
Although his decision doesn’t necessarily indicate his departure from the Clippers, some NBA fans and media members already started to hypothesize about Leonard landing on another team in free agency.
— Fiato Steelhands 💎🎹💎 (@DrewsThatDude) August 1, 2021
Gonna need some Kawhi in a Bulls uniform photoshops https://t.co/shGQbJoFwM
— Tom Fornelli (@TomFornelli) August 1, 2021
Leonard produced at an elite level yet again during the 2020-21 regular season, averaging 24.8 points, 6.5 rebounds and 5.2 assists per game. He connected on 39.8 percent of his threes and shot 88.5 percent from the free-throw line while remaining one of the best on-ball defenders in the NBA.
Leonard’s injury history is cause for concern for the Clippers or any team hoping to sign him in the future, but if he continues to produce at such a reliable rate, it’ll be difficult to not cough up a large sum of cash to bring him aboard.
If Leonard is indeed headed back to Los Angeles, fans will know of that decision soon enough. Free agency negotiations can officially begin on Monday at 6 p.m. ET.