Kawhi Leonard joined the Los Angeles Clippers on a contract that was only for two years and included a player option. This was a smart move that balanced Leonard's professional and financial empowerment. Although the agreement was short, it kept the Clippers accountable for their product on and off the court. However, the security aspect of the deal was not compromised. In the past, players like LeBron James or Kevin Durant took one-year contracts to leverage that organizational accountability to its full extent. However, this also exposed them to some financial risk. Leonard achieved a better balance.
He could get $103 million in the short-term if he wanted. He was a star in his prime and believed he would get another max contract at that time. He wanted to maximize the value of it. Strategically, he placed the option following his 10th NBA year. A player who has 10 years experience is eligible for the maximum max contract. It starts at 35 percent of the salary cap. This price point would be available to both the Clippers and other teams in free agency. If he had decided to leave the Clippers, he would not have left too much money.
He had many options if he wanted to remain with the Clippers. He was likely to get a four-year contract starting at the 35 percent figure. However, if he desired a fifth year, he could have done so by staying with the Clippers for an additional season. To give the fifth year of Bird Rights, teams must have full Bird Rights. It takes three years to get those rights. Leonard could have had that third year with his player option. Leonard was able to pursue any team or situation he wanted through the entire deal.
This flexibility is still available to a certain extent. To see the eagerness of most teams to sign injured superstars, we only have to look at Kevin Durant in 2019. A torn Achilles can be far more dangerous than an ACL partially torn. Leonard will likely return to the floor next season. Durant was absent for the entire 2019-20 season. It didn't matter. Last season, he was undoubtedly the NBA's greatest player. Leonard will be expected to do the same for their teams. Most of the time, the upsides of an MVP candidate outweigh the risks of injury.
It might not last forever, especially with Leonard's many injuries. Only twice has he played 70 games in one season in his entire career. This figure is unlikely to change next year. He played only nine games as a Spur in 2017-18, which is still not clear. The same mystery also surrounds his postseason knee injury that occurred before the Clippers revealed his torn ACL. As they age, players tend to become less durable. Leonard may still be worth a max contract today. What number of years and how many injuries will it take for that to change? Will suitors still be as keen to get him next season if he re-injures his knee?
Leonard will have to answer this question before deciding what type of contract he wants to sign in the offseason. The financial answer would have been clear if he had emerged from the postseason unharmed. The prudent decision would have been to return on his option and get the maximum five-year contract next offseason if he wanted to stay with the Clippers. There was no doubt about his power to demand such a deal before the injury.
It's important to ask him if he is willing to take this risk and what the financial consequences might be. He may still be able to secure a long-term contract if he desires it. Leonard's Early Bird Rights can be used by the Clippers to pay him his maximum on a four year deal, which includes eight percent increases annually. A similar deal could net him $176 million, which is more than the $112.4 million cap.