The Desperate Pursuit of Kawhi Leonard
NBA games have 4 quarters. One team must score more points than the other team to win the game. The Los Angeles Clippers intend to offer Kawhi Leonard the max contract in the 2019 off season. Although the first two statements may be obvious to anyone who follows the sport of basketball, it is only thanks to Lawrence Frank and other high officials of the Clippers organization, that the third statement has become just as painfully obvious.
As reported by ESPN’s Brian Windhorst, the Clippers have sent members of their team to attend at least 75% of Kawhi Leonard’s games for the Toronto Raptors this season. Officials, including President of Basketball Operations Lawrence Frank, have flown to watch the Raptors play in 32 Raptors games this season. Kawhi Leonard himself has only played in 24. In fact, several reports have come out that Lawrence Frank has greeted the stone-faced Leonard in the arena’s halls after games only to be left hanging. Leonard when questioned by the media went on to say that he did not recognize nor know who Frank was. Nevertheless, the transparent approach of the Los Angeles Clippers walks a very thin line with the NBA’s rule for tampering, one which led to the $500,000 fine given to the Lakers organization in 2017 for their pursuit of then Pacer Paul George. According to the NBA regarding the fine at the time:
“The conduct at issue involved communications by Lakers General Manager Rob Pelinka with the agent representing Paul George that constituted a prohibited expression of interest in the player while he was under contract.”
More specifically, tampering, according to Article 35 of the NBA’s Constitution and Bylaws, occurs when a team or its representative attempts to persuade a player, coach, trainer, general manager or any other person who is under contract with another team to join the tampering team. Although there is certainly no rule prohibiting NBA organizations from sending members of their team to scout other players and potential free agents throughout the regular season, it is clear that the NBA strictly imposes its anti-tampering rule on “prohibited expressions of interest” towards a player. A very ambiguous term to say the least, the Clippers are certainly lucky that the bar for expression of interest is held low and that contact is nevertheless required. Magic Johnson, general manager for the Los Angeles Lakers was fined $50,000 for his tweets as well as his wink-wink interview on Late Night with Jimmy Kimmel amongst other things.
That being said, the Clippers new free agent acquisition strategy is not unintentionally transparent as many NBA analysts have praised it to be. Rather, its very intention is to create a spectacle. It wishes to draw attention to the Clippers pursuit of Leonard. With the modernity and advancement of technology in the NBA, there is simply nothing that Clippers personnel can potentially gain from physically being in attendance at Kawhi’s games as opposed to merely watching them on tape. Since they are not allowed to interact with Leonard, it is clear that the Clippers game plan is not to gain intel, since there is no intel to be gained with in the first place, but rather it is to send a message. By attending Leonard’s games, ones in which he isn’t even playing, the Clippers are publicly manifesting their desire to have Kawhi play for their organization come next October and they are sending this message loud and clear to all 29 other teams in the league. It is an attempt to bring attention to themselves and to let the media, NBA Twitter and other GMs indirectly do the tampering for them. So long as there isn’t direct contact between the Clippers and the player, no case for tampering exists. However, if they can drum up speculation simply by being in attendance for no reason at Leonard’s games, the media frenzy and the rumor mill will undoubtedly do the rest of the work as has already been evidenced in several of Leonard’s post-game interviews.
When the Clippers get their eventual sit down with Leonard next off season, undoubtedly one of the main talking points they will lead with will be the franchise’s commitment to getting to know Leonard an entire season prior to free agency. The team has been so dedicated to landing Leonard that they’ve even attended all of his games. Talk about a franchise that is willing to put you at the center. This sense of urgency by the Clippers and their staff however isn’t commendable as many have made it out to be. Rather it’s desperate. Perhaps rather than mission 2519 miles to watch Leonard play, a notoriously reserved player who is unlikely to offer any information regarding his free agency decision until the moment he makes it, resources can be better used to focus on the 17-13 start the team has had, one which was unforeseen considering the short term rebuild from the Lob City era. When the clock strikes 12:00 on June 1st , its game on for the Clippers just as it is for any other franchise with enough salary space.
Until then, the Clippers are no different than the one kid in high school who decides to profess his love for a girl way out of his league in front of the whole cafeteria. We all get that you like her, there's just no reason to create this whole spectacle in public. The same goes for the NBA free agency geniuses over at Staples Center. No other team is chasing players a whole year before they enter free agency nor are they casually running into them in halls after games. Although they are free to do so as much as they wish, it is the media’s duty to not fuel this seemingly innocent fire that the Clippers are choosing to set. By not feeding into the speculation and the rumours surrounding Kawhi Leonard’s free agency, the 5000-mile roundtrips many of these officials choose to undertake become nothing more than unnoticed cries for attention.
Avel Ivanov is a columnist at The Bench. He can be reached on Twitter at @av3ll.