Kawhi Leonard has until Aug. 1 to decide if he's going to pick up his $36.0 million player option for the 2021-22 season.
If he does pick it up, Leonard will play out the final year of his contract with the LA Clippers. If he doesn't, he will become an unrestricted free agent this offseason.
The expectation is that Leonard will simply re-sign with the Clippers if he does opt out of his player option - it would make a lot of financial sense if he did - but it should come as no surprise that teams are reportedly gearing up to pursue him if he does become an unrestricted free agent.
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A two-time Finals MVP, Leonard is coming off of one of the best seasons of his career, averaging 24.8 points, 6.5 rebounds, 5.2 assists and 1.6 steals per game on .512/.398/.885 shooting splits. He earned his fifth All-Star selection in the process, as well as his fifth All-NBA selection and seventh All-Defensive selection.
Leonard has long been a knockdown spot-up shooter...
...in addition to being one of the league's best midrange scorers.
He's also a bruising driver and a much-improved passer.
Leonard suffered a partial tear of his right ACL in LA's second-round series with the Utah Jazz in the 2021 NBA Playoffs, an injury that could cost him a large portion of next season. Still, that shouldn't prevent him from getting the contract he's looking for if he does choose to become a free agent, whether it's with the Clippers or another team.
So which teams could pursue Kawhi Leonard?
The first team that comes to mind is the Dallas Mavericks. The Ringer's Kevin O'Connor reported not long ago that the Mavericks are one of two teams that plan to "make a hard push" to acquire Leonard this offseason. Mavericks owner Mark Cuban didn't exactly confirm that report, but he did make it clear following the team's first-round exit to the Clippers that they'll be looking for another ball handler who can take some of the playmaking burden off of Luka Doncic. I guess you could say that Leonard ticks that box. As noted by ESPN's Bobby Marks, the Mavericks will have $34 million in cap space if they renounce Tim Hardaway Jr. and Josh Richardson declines his player option for next season.
The Miami Heat is the other team planning to "make a hard push" for Leonard per O'Connor. The Heat had a tough season, but they made the Finals in 2020 and have one of the league's best duos in Jimmy Butler and Bam Adebayo. Butler, Adebayo and Leonard would make for a terrifying trio defensively, and Leonard would be able to solve some of the issues the Heat ran into offensively in their first-round loss to the Milwaukee Bucks in the 2021 NBA Playoffs. The Heat are a little more limited financially, but picking up the team options of Goran Dragic and Andre Iguodala would help them match salary in a sign-and-trade while declining both of their options would open up $22 million in room.
The last team that deserves mention is the New York Knicks. Arguably the most surprising team in the league this season, the Knicks finished with a 41-31 record to earn a spot in the playoffs for the first time since 2013. Given their recent success, as well as the development of Julius Randle and RJ Barrett, they're a much more attractive free agent destination than they were 12 months ago. The Knicks could have up to $50 million in cap space this offseason, giving them the room to pursue Leonard and potentially another star. A report from Marc Stein indicates the Knicks are also hoping to get involved in the Leonard sweepstakes.
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