Free Agency

Will Thunder's big win with Paul George change thinking on Kawhi Leonard trade?

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Paul George and Kawhi Leonard (Getty Images)

Paul George wanted to play in Los Angeles and intended to do so when the summer of 2018 rolled around. He'd made that clear last year before the Pacers put him on the trade market in earnest, and in doing so, dinged his own trade value as some teams simply assumed he would soon sign with the Lakers. Even the Lakers, it could be argued, bought George's desire to join the team enough to resist trading for him, thinking he could be signed this summer.

Still, the Thunder gambled that they could trade for George and, with a full year to push the organization's culture on him, would be able to persuade him to give up his SoCal dreams and stay in OKC beyond the one season.

Now, as NBA free agency has tipped off, the Thunder won that bet, as George spent Saturday evening in Oklahoma City at a party hosted Russell Westbrook, keeping one of the biggest free-agent prizes of this summer in town and away from the sunny California shores.

Before the midnight start to free agency on the East Coast, George and the Thunder had a $137 million deal in place, keeping him in OKC for at least three years, with an option on Year 4.

This chain of events immediately brought to mind one of the few overriding issues in this NBA offseason that carries more weight than George's decision - the fate of Spurs star Kawhi Leonard. In recent weeks, Leonard has made clear he wants out of San Antonio, and much like George, he's let it be known that he wants to land with the Lakers.

That fact has spooked potential suitors of Leonard, like the Celtics and Sixers, away from making too rich an offer for Leonard. If Leonard wants to go to the Lakers after a season, no team (other than the Lakers) is going to put forth a fair offer. It's a one-year rental.

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Sure Not Now

Unless, that is, there is some inspiration to be drawn from the Paul George example. The Thunder bet George could be persuaded to stay put, and they were right. Could, say, the Sixers see the results of that success and be willing to up their offer to the Spurs for Leonard?

Well, maybe. If they were dealing with George, it would obviously be a gamble worth taking. But Leonard is a different story.

George just always wanted to go to LA because he was a local kid and would enjoy playing back home. Leonard's desire to go to the Lakers is driven, in part, by an appreciation of home, but it is also fueled by his agents, who want to maximize Leonard's exposure, especially before his contract with the Jordan Brand is up at the end of September.

Leonard was close to a new $20 million shoe deal four months ago, but the belief is that he could earn much more in a bigger media market than San Antonio, and could earn most of all by being in LA.

There's some difference, then, between George's motivation for going home and Leonard's motivation - and George's motivation was much easier to change. There's also a difference in personalities, and that's where things get tricky for a team thinking about taking an OKC-type gamble.

Asked about the possibility of the Thunder's success with George possibly inspiring a move for Leonard by a non-Lakers team, with no guarantee he would re-sign, one GM said, "Paul George is not the same guy as Kawhi Leonard. You can't approach them the same way. George is going to try to get along with the people in his locker room. Leonard does not care as much about that."

Indeed, what we saw from Leonard in the past year, as his mysterious quad injury torpedoed his season and dragged the Spurs organization down with it, was a player who came off as stubborn and hard-headed. Leonard had always been quiet and introverted in a locker room that lacked flashy stars but was stacked with genial personalities. The quad injury drew more spotlight toward Leonard, and as that happened, he came across as an increasingly difficult locker-room presence.

If he is set on going to the Lakers, another team that trades for Leonard will have to contend with that reputation for stubbornness. That was not the case with George. There is concern for any front office looking into Leonard that he might hold a grudge against a team that trades for him, unless that team is the Lakers.

In that light, as good a story as the Thunder keeping George may be, it does not have much impact on how teams will proceed with Leonard. They're much different personalities, with much different motivations.

All signings will not be official until the end of the NBA moratorium period on July 6.

The views on this page do not necessarily reflect the views of the NBA or its clubs.

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