How Kawhi Leonard's partially torn ACL could affect his free agency outlook and his next contract

by 24USATVJuly 14, 2021, 6 p.m. 16
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When Kawhi Leonard initially joined the Los Angeles Clippers, he did so on a deal that lasted only two years with a player option for a third. It was a wise maneuver, one that perfectly balanced his financial and professional empowerment. The short length of the deal kept the Clippers accountable for their on-court product and off-court compliance with his demands, but it sacrificed very little in the way of security. Players like LeBron James and Kevin Durant have taken one-year deals in the past for the sake of leveraging that organizational accountability to the fullest, but doing so exposed them to a fair degree of financial risk. Leonard struck a greater balance.

In the short-term, he guaranteed himself $103 million ... if he wanted it. As a superstar in his prime, he surely believed another max contract would be waiting for him at that point, and he wanted to maximize its value. He strategically placed the option after his 10th NBA season. When a player reaches 10 years of experience, they become eligible for the highest possible max contract, one that starts at 35 percent of the salary cap. That price point would be available not only to the Clippers, but to opposing teams in free agency as well. Had he decided he wanted to leave the Clippers after two years, he would have done so without leaving too much money on the table.

If he wanted to stay with the Clippers, he again left himself several options. A four-year deal starting at that 35 percent figure was almost certainly going to be available to him, but if he wanted a fifth year on that deal, he could have gotten one by remaining with the Clippers for one extra season. Teams need full Bird Rights to give that fifth year, and it takes three years to earn those rights. Leonard could have gotten to that third year through his player option. The deal, as a whole, gave Leonard the flexibility to pursue practically any team or scenario that he would have wanted.

That flexibility still exists to an extent. We only need to look to Kevin Durant in 2019 to see how eager most teams are to sign injured superstars. A torn Achilles is far more dangerous than a partially torn ACL. Leonard will probably return to the floor at some point next season. Durant missed the entire 2019-20 campaign. It didn't matter. He was still arguably the NBA's best player last season. Teams will expect the same out of Leonard. The upside of an MVP candidate is going to outweigh the risk of injury most of the time.

But it might not forever, especially for a player with as many injuries to his name as Leonard. He has played 70 games in a season only twice in his career, a figure that probably won't change next year. It still isn't fully clear what led to him playing only nine games in the 2017-18 season as a Spur, and the same mystery shrouded his knee injury during the postseason before the Clippers disclosed his torn ACL following surgery. Players tend to get less durable as they age. Leonard might still be worth a max contract today. How many years and injuries will it take to change that? If he returns next season only to re-injure that knee, will suitors still be as eager to max him out then?

That is the question that Leonard will need to answer before deciding on what kind of contract to sign this offseason. Had he emerged from the postseason unscathed, the financial answer would have been obvious. If he'd wanted to remain with the Clippers, the prudent path would have been returning on his option before getting the five-year max next offseason. Before this injury, there was little doubting his leverage in demanding such a deal.

Now, it's worth asking if he's willing to take such a risk, and what the financial ramifications of doing so might be. If he wants the security of a long-term deal now, that is probably still available to him. The Clippers can use Leonard's Early Bird Rights to pay him his max on a four-year deal that includes eight percent raises annually. In total, such a deal could pay him as much as $176 million under the projected $112.4 million cap.

If Leonard wanted to leave the Clippers, he could do so on a very similar deal from another team. The only difference would be that the opposing team could offer him only five percent raises annually, lowering the total compensation to around $169 million.

That is a lot of money, especially to a player like Leonard, who hasn't earned nearly as much as you'd think. Remember, he was not a lottery pick, and he signed his rookie extension a year before the cap spiked in 2016. Either of the deals above would more than double his estimated $149 million in career earnings, yet in theory, would also amount to leaving a fair bit of money on the table.

If Leonard can maintain his superstar standing for just one more year, his earning power skyrockets for a variety of reasons. The cap will rise again next offseason. He'll become eligible for a fifth season on his deal and an accompanying eight percent raise on that last season. But perhaps most importantly, he'll delay the signing of the contract for a year, essentially giving himself a sixth season.

Doing so would cost him a bit in the short term. Early Bird free agents must re-sign for at least two years, so if Leonard only wanted to commit to one, he'd have to pick up that $36 million player option (deadline is reportedly Aug. 1). That's roughly $3.3 million below his max for next season, but he would more than make up that loss on the back end. Assuming the cap rises by three percent again next offseason and he signs a five-year max in 2022, Leonard could guarantee himself a whopping $271 million over the next six years. That's almost $100 million more than he'd get by locking in a four-year deal now.

There is a tipping point with injuries, though. It's not an exact science. Durant was able to get the max despite his torn Achilles. When DeMarcus Cousins suffered the same injury, he was relegated from an almost automatic max player to one whose offers were low enough for him to decide to take Golden State's mid-level exception. That tipping point relies on hundreds of variables. How old is the player? What is his playing style? How many other injuries has he suffered? How good is he when healthy?

But it exists, and leg injuries tend to snowball. Just ask Klay Thompson how relieved he is to have locked in a five-year max when he only had a torn ACL to worry about. Had he hit free agency after tearing his Achilles, such an offer may not have been available to him. For all we know, a similar injury could have such an impact on Leonard's market value.

That is what he is going to have to weigh this offseason. Is he willing to bet on his own health and go for the jackpot? Will he play it safe and lock in the sure thing? Or will he continue to emphasize flexibility on short-term deals?

There are credible arguments on all sides. Remember, the Clippers gave up Shai Gilgeous-Alexander and five first-round picks just to secure Leonard's signature. They're in for a penny, they might as well stay in for a pound no matter the risk. They'll be capped out regardless and lack the assets to trade for a replacement. Their only path to a championship for the foreseeable future involves Leonard. He knows that. He can extort them accordingly.

But different players have different appetites for risk. We know so little about Leonard's priorities that guessing at them would amount to pure speculation. The last time he ventured into free agency, he tried to find the right balance between risk and reward. His own personal level of risk has increased substantially since this injury. There's just no telling how much that will impact his desired reward.

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