Kawhi Leonard turned down $39 million in an eyebrow-raising move that sets big stakes for the Clippers and free agency in 2021

Kawhi Leonard turned down $39 million in an eyebrow-raising move that sets big stakes for the Clippers and free agency in 2021

kawhi leonard

David Zalubowski/AP

Kawhi Leonard's new contract gives him a chance to hit free agency again in 2021.

  • Kawhi Leonard signed a three-year, $103 million contract with an opt-out in 2021 with the Los Angeles Clippers instead of the presumed four-year, max contract.
  • The move gives Leonard flexibility over his future, but also a chance to recoup some money that he's missed out on after not signing the $221 million "supermax" with the San Antonio Spurs or $190 million max with the Toronto Raptors.
  • The move also sets massive stakes for the Clippers and NBA free agency in 2021, as Leonard and Paul George can hit the open market in the same summer as LeBron James, Giannis Antetokounmpo, and Bradley Beal.
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In a surprising move, Kawhi Leonard has taken a shorter contract with the Los Angeles Clippers.
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According to The Athletic's Shams Charania, Leonard is signing a three-year, $103 million contract with the Clippers, with a player option for the third year.
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Initial reports following Leonard's move to the Clippers said Leonard would sign the four-year, $142 million max contract with the Clippers.

The move marks the third time in two years that Leonard has turned down money on future contracts. Leonard would have been eligible for the five-year, $221 million "supermax" contract with the San Antonio Spurs had he stayed there. It's unclear if the Spurs ever offered the deal in an attempt to convince Leonard to stay. It seems likely that would have signed it if the two sides never had a falling-out.

In free agency this summer, Leonard could have signed a five-year, $190 million contract with the Toronto Raptors. He instead chose to leave Toronto.
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Now, Leonard has signed a short-term deal with the Clippers that accomplishes two things: flexibility and the chance to recoup some money.

As ESPN's Bobby Marks noted, if Leonard opts out after two years, the Clippers won't have his full Bird Rights, meaning they can't offer him the five-year max. The most he could sign is for four years, $196 million.If Leonard wanted to remain with the Clippers for Year 3, he could opt-in, then hit free agency in 2022, when the Clippers could offer him a full five-year max. If he wanted to leave the Clippers, he could sign elsewhere for four years, at 35% of the salary cap - a deal that would still be worth more than the $141 million he could have signed with the Clippers this summer.
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As Nate Jones, an NBA agent, noted on Twitter, Leonard could also opt-out in 2021, do another 1+1 contract (two years, with a player option in the second year), then sign a full max in 2022 or 2023.

kawhi leonard paul george

Chris Szagola/AP; Eric Christian Smith/AP

Kawhi Leonard and Paul George could both become free agents in 2021.

Perhaps most importantly, Leonard's contract structure gives him flexibility. The Clippers now look like the league's best team after landing Leonard and Paul George. But if things don't go well over the next two years, Leonard could once again hit the free-agent market in 2021 looking for another team.

Leonard's opt-out occurs in the same year as George's. It's possible both players could hit free agency at the same time, weighing their futures.
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This puts pressure on the Clippers. They traded seven first-round picks, plus All-Rookie Team guard Shai Gilgeous-Alexander to the Oklahoma City Thunder for George. Faced with the possibility that Leonard and George could bolt in two years, the Clippers will have to be prudent in finding ways to upgrade their team. If they were to lose both players - and it's very early even to begin speculating about such things - the Clippers could be facing dire straights, as the Thunder will have control over five of the team's picks.

While 2021 free agency is still two years away and the league will change in the meantime, the class is shaping up to be a big one. Leonard and George could be free agents, as could Giannis Antetokounmpo, LeBron James, and Bradley Beal.

In today's NBA, teams think years ahead. It may seem too early for the gears on 2021 free agency to start turning, but it's entirely possible that in the coming months, teams make moves to set themselves up for another big summer.
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