One of, if not the biggest free agent on the market this summer in the NBA is Kawhi Leonard. Would he even consider parting ways with the Clippers? Here are the teams that have the cap space or potentially the appeal to sign Leonard.
Los Angeles Clippers
Kawhi Leonard has a $36 million player option for 2021-22 and all signs point to him declining that to become a free agent.
Even though he suffered what some thought was a severe knee injury in the playoffs, as long as there was no structural damage and Leonard is ready to play sometime next regular season, I’m assuming he will continue the opt out and test the market. The deadline for that is August 1 so Leonard and the other guys with player options for 2021-22 will have to make a final decision soon.
That could be the first indication of whether Leonard will be healthy for at least some portion of next season.
Assuming that all plays out and Leonard becomes a free agent, there isn’t much speculation around the league that Leonard will sign anywhere other than the Clippers, even though I play out a few scenarios below that could happen if Leonard signs elsewhere.
The NBA soft salary cap rules are a bear to understand sometimes, but for the Clippers, assuming Leonard opts out, they will be on the hook for a little more or a little less than the projected salary cap of $109.1 million in 2021-22.
A lot of that will depend on whether Serge Ibaka opts in to his player option of just under $10 million.
Either way, the Clippers can use their bird rights on Leonard to sign him to a max contract, but their ability to re-sign Reggie Jackson or Ibaka may be limited because of it.
I’ll say upfront that teams that aren’t the Clippers are going to have a hard time signing Leonard. They can’t offer as much money as the Clippers can and would have to convince Leonard that leaving the Western Conference is the right move if he wants to win a title. The only team in the East with a superstar player to team up with, enough cap space to sign Leonard and with the reputation for winning is the Miami Heat.
Assuming the Heat decline the team options on Goran Dragic and Andre Iguodala, they will have a lot of cap space to absorb a max player.
Originally that was thought to be Victor Oladipo, but with his knee issues proving serious, it has scared away the Heat and probably the other 29 teams too in regards to giving him big money.
Miami didn’t do themselves any favors by bowing out of the playoffs early, but they could make the pitch that pairing Leonard with Jimmy Butler and Bam Adebayo is a championship team and I don’t think I would argue that.
Dallas is in a tough spot, but it’s not too farfetched to believe that they could pull off a miracle like Leonard in free agency.
Even If they are unable to shed the Kristaps Porzingis contract, the Mavs will have only $85 million committed next season with Tim Hardaway and JJ Redick’s money coming off the books.
Josh Richardson has an $11 million player option for next season which he may or may not opt in to, but even with that, Mark Cuban has proven over the years he’s not afraid of the luxury tax, so that shouldn’t matter too much in the Mavs’ free agent plans.
All I know is, if Porzingis gets back to somewhere close to his peak and the Mavs paired Leonard with him and Luka Doncic, they would be the undisputed favorites in the Western Conference.
Indulge me for a second on this one, because giving the young and gritty Grizzlies a wing player like Leonard to pair with Ja Morant and Jaren Jackson Jr. would pole vault them up the Western Conference futures.
It will never happen because good things don’t happen in free agency to small market NBA teams, but Memphis has the cap space and they have the young core to at least entice a big name free agent, even if it isn’t Leonard.