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SportsColumnistsSteve Popper

Kawhi Leonard, Paul George signal shift of power to Clippers

Kawhi Leonard drives against Golden State Warriors forward

Kawhi Leonard drives against Golden State Warriors forward Andre Iguodala during the first half of Game 6 of basketball's NBA Finals in Oakland. Photo Credit: AP/Ben Margot

LAS VEGAS — The crowd had just finished streaming out of the Thomas and Mack Center with the huge scoreboard and hanging speakers still swaying in the wake of the 6.9 magnitude earthquake that shook the start of the NBA’s Summer League when the real aftershocks began.

The front row of the Knicks and Pelicans game had included stars like LeBron James and Anthony Davis and their powerful agent Rich Paul who crowded in to see the NBA debuts of Zion Williamson and RJ Barrett. Knicks principal owner James Dolan along with the Knicks front office executives were just a few seats away. But the power brokers may have had little clue that quietly and as shockingly as the quake, the balance of power in the NBA was shifting below their feet.

Not long after the long lines for taxis and Ubers had begun to clear, word leaked that the biggest prize of free agency had found a home — and did it with a massive trade to accompany him. Kawhi Leonard, the quietest star in the NBA and maybe the best player, wanted his free agency to go under cover of silence, avoiding leaks and rumors, and when he finally signed on with the Los Angeles Clippers it may not have been the shock. But that the Clippers, to make the deal happen, swung a massive deal with the Oklahoma City Thunder to team him with Paul George provided the drama, suddenly thrusting the little brothers of the L.A. market into the position of the favorites to win the next NBA title.

Leonard leaves the Raptors after leading them to a championship. Even if he broke hearts by passing on the efforts of what felt like an entire country — staging Kawine and Dine promotions for him, offering him vacations and penthouse apartments if he would stay in Toronto — the team’s president, Masai Ujiri, issued a statement thanking him and Danny Green, who bolted to the Lakers once Leonard made his decision, for the contributions to the franchise.

Toronto, from the front office to his teammates to the country, had done its part to try to coax Leonard to stay. The Lakers made their pitch, using star power as their greatest asset. But in the end, nothing that the front offices put in front of Leonard mattered.

What mattered is that Leonard plotted his own path, reaching out not to the players in place at the teams on his list, but flipping through his contacts and calling on exactly who he wanted to team up with and making it happen in Southern California, close to his home. ESPN reported that he tried to recruit Kevin Durant, but Durant already had decided to forge his own team in Brooklyn with Kyrie Irving and DeAndre Jordan. 

So Leonard reached out to Paul George, gauged his interest, and George took it from there. George, who had finished third in the MVP balloting this year, ahead of Leonard, Durant and James — and Russell Westbrook, who played alongside him in Oklahoma City — told the Thunder he wanted out. This was just a year after George had passed on the chance to bolt for his preferred destination of Los Angeles and signed on to stay in OKC. 

There’s lots of credit to be handed out to Thunder general manager Sam Presti for leveraging the demand, playing the Clippers against the Raptors, engaging both teams in talks. And the Clippers front office deserves credit for the courage to ship out a huge haul of assets — five first-round picks (two unprotected picks from the Heat) and the rights to pick swaps in two other years, along with Danilo Gallinari and Shai Gilgeous-Alexander. 

But there is nothing more transparent than the flouting of tampering in the NBA. That’s not a bad thing — the NBA free agent market and trade season has turned out to be as entertaining as the games. But from the sudden ability of nearly half the league to come to agreements within minutes of the start of what is supposed to be the time that talks can begin to the players creating their own fantasy teams, the rules are there in theory, but not in reality.

And that brings us to the Knicks and their decision not to sit down with Leonard and their inability to get a meeting with Durant or Irving or, let’s be honest, anyone with any star power. 

The reports are that this combination of players in the Leonard deal came together in the last week. Could the Knicks have convinced Leonard to try to place his future at Madison Square Garden? Maybe not. But if he was open to doing it in L.A. or in Toronto, maybe they could have enticed him. And if not, maybe they could have put themselves in position with creative thinking to set the groundwork for the next major power shift in the NBA. 

The show is over

Zion Williamson didn’t disappoint in providing the highlights that he was expected to create when he made his NBA Summer League debut Friday night against the Knicks — at least for one half.

Before the earthquake ended the night prematurely, Williamson’s night ended early with a knee-to-knee collision late in the first half putting him on the sideline for the rest of the game and then the Pelicans announced Saturday that he would be held out of the remainder of Summer League play.

His most notable moment came when he ripped the ball from the hands of Kevin Knox, sending Knox to the floor, and then dunked as Knox covered up below him. 

“Zion did what he normally does out on the court,” said Knicks rookie — and college teammate of Williamson — RJ Barrett. “It was great to just compete against him this time.”

Borough beef

New York may take a backseat to Los Angeles in the NBA this season despite the Nets' step forward with Durant and Irving. But even if the Nets are clearly ahead of the Knicks on the court, it figures to be a rivalry that inspires some hard feelings. 

Spencer Dinwiddie, who did some recruiting of Durant and Irving, provided an explanation that was maybe a not so heartfelt apology after a season of taunting the Knicks and their fans.

“[The Knicks’] fan base runs deep. Their history runs deep and they are fanatics for sure,” Dinwiddie told reporters. “I’m sure they wish the whole league saw them the way they saw themselves. We’ve been the best team in New York for a hot second now. We beat them last year. We’re going to beat them this year. That’s pretty simple.

“Like I said, I don’t really want that much beef with Knicks fans. I’m just here to tell you the truth. They got mad last year. All I did was tell the truth, but I didn’t say anything ill or against them.”

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