Secret superstar-to-superstar lobbying is the norm in the player-power era of the modern N.B.A. League officials maintain that they cannot police player discussions for potential tampering violations unless they receive evidence suggesting that the players are operating under the direction of team executives. Leonard, however, was never previously known to be part of such discussions — and not merely because he is typically so quiet.
The idea of Durant and Irving playing together, much like that of James teaming up with Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh in Miami in 2010, was hatched while they were teammates for U.S.A. Basketball. Durant, Irving and DeAndre Jordan, who are all Brooklyn-bound, played with Butler and George at the 2016 Rio Games. Leonard has not played in a major competition for the national team since reaching the N.B.A. in 2011.
But the unexpectedly active role Leonard took in negotiations in the past week led to a four-year, $142 million deal with the Clippers that, yet again, has upset the balance of power in one of the league’s biggest markets. Outdueling the more celebrated Lakers to land Leonard, beyond convincing him to leave the league’s new champions, gave the Clippers significant bonus satisfaction on par with the Nets’ coup in beating out the Knicks for Durant and Irving.
It also gave the Clippers a pair of low-key Southern California natives with modest collegiate backgrounds to build around. Leonard grew up in the Riverside area, east of Los Angeles, before playing at San Diego State. George grew up in Palmdale, north of Los Angeles, before starring at Fresno State.
Leonard’s decision was the most eagerly awaited move in perhaps the wildest week of free agency in league history. Nearly 50 players committed to contracts worth more than $3 billion in the first 12 hours after the market opened June 30, followed by a virtual bottleneck in movement while Leonard’s fate played out.
The Clippers were widely regarded throughout the league for much of the season as the favorites to win the Leonard sweepstakes, but the Raptors’ title and the Lakers’ trade agreement for Davis last month seemingly dropped them to third in the bidding once free agency arrived. The insistence of Leonard’s camp to the teams courting him to keep all details private only added to the mystery, with little information leaking as the week unfolded and aviation experts frantically tracking the takeoffs and landings of a private jet belonging to Raptors ownership that ferried Leonard to and from his meetings with team brass in Toronto.
But Steve Ballmer, the Clippers’ ambitious and deep-pocketed team owner, didn’t spend $2 billion on the franchise and recruit the Hall of Fame executive (and former player) Jerry West to his front office to play it safe. After a passionate pitch to Leonard on Monday from Coach Doc Rivers, the Clippers surrendered more for a superstar player than any team in league history. Their reasoning: The Clippers saw this as trading for both George and Leonard — while also keeping Leonard away from their Staples Center co-tenants.