Executive Oversight, Player Empowerment, and a Little Bit of Magic: The Sequence of Events That Landed Kawhi in LA

Alex Kurpeski

Shortly after our nation celebrated its 243rd birthday, we saw the biggest domino of NBA free agency fall, as two-time NBA finals MVP Kawhi Leonard decided to take his talents to Los Angeles. Shockingly, Leonard decided to pass on the chance to form perhaps the most “super” Superteam of all time alongside Lebron James and Anthony Davis in favor of joining the Clippers. 

It was a matter of minutes before more breaking news broke out of LA, as it was announced that the Clippers had sent a package consisting of five first round draft picks (5!) along with fringe all-star forward Danilo Gallinari and second-year point guard Shai Gilgeous-Alexander to the Oklahoma City Thunder in exchange for MVP Finalist Paul George. In less than an hour the Clippers, forever the younger, less successful brother franchise had acquired two targets that had long been linked to the Lakers, swiftly transitioning their team from a squad of plucky scrappers into a Championship front runner. 

Thanks to Kawhi’s decision, the era of the three man Superteam is now gone (for the time being) and parity has returned to the NBA. 

Yet without a specific sequence of moves made over the course of the past few seasons, it is quite possible that this return to parity may have never happened. If there is one team that you can thank for the current iteration of the NBA it is not the Clippers, it is in fact the Orlando Magic. More specifically, their disgraced former GM Rob Hennigan.

June 23rd, 2016

ORLANDO, FL – JUNE 21: Orlando Magic General Manager Rob Hennigan poses for a portrait on June 21, 2012 at Amway Arena in Orlando, Florida. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading and or using this photograph, User is consenting to the terms and conditions of the Getty Images License Agreement. Mandatory Copyright Notice: Copyright 2012 NBAE (Photo by Fernando Medina/NBAE via Getty Images)

Desperation had kicked in for Hennigan. Sitting on one of the hottest seats imaginable, the former boy wonder was feeling immense pressure to bring success back to Orlando. At just 30 years old, Hennigan had been the youngest General Manager in NBA history at the time of his hiring. While many expected innovative thinking and a new age analytical approach from this young executive, we instead saw his inexperience and immaturity from day one, as his tenure had been marred by a series of questionable front office decisions. As it turned out, the move he was about to make would be the ultimate flop, yet this was a flop that would someday bring balance to a league that was currently being dominated by Lebron James and the Golden State Warriors. 

In one of the hastiest trades in NBA history, Hennigan, sent former number two overall pick Victor Oladipo, 2016 first round pick Domantas Sabonis, and role player Ersan Ilyasova to Oklahoma City in exchange for Serge Ibaka, a former defensive stalwart who for the previous few seasons had come to be known as the guy that the Thunder chose to keep over future league MVP James Harden. 

Even at the time this deal looked suspect, as Ibaka’s days of glory were seemingly in the past, while Sabonis and Oladipo were both still very full of promise. As it turned out, this deal would soon turn out to be even worse for Orlando than anyone could imagine. 

February 14th, 2017

Not even a year into the Serge Ibaka experiment, the Magic sent the big man to Toronto in exchange for swingman Terrence Ross and a first round pick that would become 

Anzejs Pasecniks, a player who we may never see play in the NBA. While Ross has become a fine offensive player in Orlando, some may argue that he is overrated (and overpaid) while Ibaka was a key cog in the Raptors run to the NBA Finals this past season. While this was far from the worst haul a team has received in exchange for an expiring contract, it’s what became of the assets dealt for Ibaka that makes this trade so infamous. 

June 28th, 2017

Chris Paul seemingly upset with the direction of the Clippers franchise, requests a trade to Houston where he can play alongside Harden, now a fully developed superstar. In exchange for Paul, the Clippers acquired Patrick Beverley, Lou Williams, Sam Dekker, Montrezl Harrell, Darrun Hilliard, DeAndre Liggins, Kyle Wiltjer, a protected first-round pick and cash considerations. Beverley, Williams, and Harrell remain with the team to this day, as the trio was key to the team’s playoff push this past season. Paul meanwhile has taken a few steps back due to age/injuries and currently has one of the most immovable contracts in the league in the midst of a reported conflict with James Harden.

June 30th, 2017

A few months after Ibaka is traded away from Orlando, the Thunder part with the key pieces received in the initial Ibaka trade, as they send Sabonis and Oladipo to Indiana for all-star forward Paul George. To some this trade is a steal, as George has proven to be an MVP caliber player when healthy. To others this deal is a foolish maneuver by Oklahoma City, as the team has parted with two bright young players for a player with a metal rod in his leg, who the Pacers had dealt away in fear of his leaving for the Los Angeles Lakers during the 2018 offseason.

This deal has become one of the best deals in the history of both the Pacers and Thunder, as George turned in consecutive all-star campaigns for the playoff bound Thunder while Oladipo himself became an all-star in the Circle City, helping to bring them to the playoffs as well. 

The most painful aspect of this deal for fans of the Magic is that the Thunder were able to acquire George for the exact package (minus Ilyasova who had been included for salary matching purposes) that Orlando had surrendered for Ibaka just one year earlier. 

January 29th, 2018

LOS ANGELES, CA – FEBRUARY 24: Blake Griffin #32 of the LA Clippers reacts while trailing the San Antonio Spurs late in the fourth quarter at Staples Center on February 24, 2017 in Los Angeles, California. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading and or using this photograph, User is consenting to the terms and conditions of the Getty Images License Agreement. (Photo by Harry How/Getty Images)

Lob City dies its official death, as the Clippers trade away superstar Blake Griffin to the Detroit Pistons in exchange for Avery Bradley, Tobias Harris, Boban Marjanovic, and draft picks. While Bradley is an utter failure in LA, Harris and Marjanovic become fan favorites, as Harris continues to develop into an elite scorer. 

With the trades of Griffin and Paul, the Clippers hit a reset on the team’s culture while maintaining cap flexibility for the future. 

July 18th, 2018

Kawhi Leonard, frustrated with the San Antonio Spurs handling of an injury suffered during the 2017 playoffs finally has his trade demands met as he is dealt to the Toronto Raptors along with Danny Green for longtime star DeMar DeRozan, Jakob Poetl, and a protected first round draft pick. Rumors of Leonard wanting to join the Lakers in free agency the following offseason run rampant as many bash the Raptors dealing for the mysterious superstar…

February 6th, 2019

The Clippers continue to flip superstars for assets as they send Harris to Philadelphia alongside Marjanovic and forward Mike Scott in exchange for a host of future draft picks (including a coveted unprotected pick from the Heat in 2021) as well as solid role players in Wilson Chandler, Landry Shamet, and Mike Muscala. This deal will ultimately be the one that brings Leonard to LA, as the draft selections acquired are key elements of the deal for George and the cap space cleared by the deal opens up room for Leonard’s max contract. 

February 7th, 2019

The Lakers make themselves look terrible as they trade promising young center Ivica Zubac to the Clippers for the expiring contract of Muscala. A complete lack of oversight that likely played a part in Leonard’s decision making process. 

Without this sequence of transactions we likely never see Kawhi Leonard in LA, at least as a Clipper. So let’s thank everyone that helped make this a possibility, from Rob Hennigan and Serge Ibaka to Mike Muscala and Anzejs Pasecniks. Welcome to the new NBA people!

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