Kawhi Leonard leaving the reigning champion Raptors surely will have ripple effects in the Eastern Conference along with the Knicks.
On July 10th, a Woj Bomb lit up the phones of everybody plugged into the NBA, letting them the know highly coveted free agent Kawhi Leonard had decided to sign with the Los Angeles Clippers.
The Southern California native decided to take his talents back to his home state—and was even able to quietly convince fellow Angeleno Paul George to facilitate a trade out of Oklahoma City and join him in L.A.
The usually reserved, private, and non-verbal Leonard is obviously more connected and calculated than we gave him credit for, and pulled off one of the most notable superstar recruiting ploys in basketball history.
In his one season as a member of the Toronto Raptors, the 27-year-old Leonard ran through the Eastern Conference playoffs in impressive fashion, ripping Sixers fans’ hearts out with his Game 7 buzzer beater, then defeating Giannis Antetokounmpo and the Bucks, who had the best record in the NBA last season, in six games. Kawhi carried the team and the whole country of Canada on his back en route to a competitive Finals victory over the Warriors in which he captured his second Finals MVP award.
In a short period of time, Leonard became one of the biggest heroes in Canadian sports history, all while giving us all some awesome social media content (“What It Do Babyyy”).
Now that Kawhi has departed, the door is open for more Eastern Conference teams to reach their goals of making it to the NBA Finals. So how does Leonard’s move West affect Eastern teams, especially the Knicks?
Thin Eastern Conference
In recent memory, the East has paled in comparison to the West in terms of competitive basketball. The West has been absolutely loaded—this year perhaps more than ever. Kawhi rejoining the Western Conference was a paradigm shift that weakened the East and brought even more firepower to an already intense conference.
Below, I broke down the tiers of the Eastern Conference, and where each team will likely end up.
Tier 1: In serious contention for Finals
Milwaukee Bucks: The only roadblock stopping Giannis and the Bucks from getting to the Finals was Kawhi. They had a decent offseason and are one of the deepest teams in the East. Expect Milwaukee to come out and play angry this season—and don’t be surprised if they make the Finals.
Philadelphia 76ers: Philly lost Jimmy Butler and J.J. Redick but re-signed Tobias Harris and acquired Al Horford. Don’t forget: they were a fortunate Kawhi Leonard bounce and overtime away from being in the conference finals. If Joel Embiid stays healthy and Ben Simmons actually improves his shooting this year, Philly could end up in the Finals.
Brooklyn Nets: Yes, I know Kyrie Irving, Caris LeVert, and Spencer Dinwiddie aren’t enough to be serious NBA Finals threats—but Brooklyn has one of the best pure scorers in NBA history in KD, on the road to recovery from his devastating Achilles injury. If Durant can find a way to get off of the shelf and back to being the superstar that he is, watch out.
Tier 2: Very good, but cannot picture them in Finals
Boston Celtics: Losing Horford was big, and of course Irving’s departure hurt, but it needed to happen. They replaced Irving with the less talented but still incredible Kemba Walker, who will be much less noisy and more available than Kyrie. Add Walker to a solid core of Jayson Tatum, Jaylen Brown, Gordon Hayward, and some solid role players, and you have yourself a highly competitive team.
However, Boston may not be good enough to take down any healthy Tier 1 team in the playoffs.
Indiana Pacers: Indiana showed how disciplined and well coached they are in their impressive run last season without Victor Oladipo. They are good defensively and have brought in some underrated players in Malcolm Brogdon and T.J. Warren. With ‘Dipo back, expect the Pacers to be around the 45-50 win mark. However, they lack the star power of the Tier 1 teams.
Toronto Raptors: Losing Kawhi was a tough loss, but Raptors fans will be forever grateful for what he gave to the northern nation. Clearly Toronto isn’t a contender anymore, but they aren’t going to be bottom-feeders by any stretch. Pascal Siakam is developing into a really good forward, while cerebral veterans Kyle Lowry, Marc Gasol, and Serge Ibaka are still there. Expect a decline in the win column, but don’t expect a complete drop off from We The North.
Tier 3: Fringe playoff teams
Miami Heat: Miami for the past few years has just been average, and seeing Dwyane Wade retire is a bit deflating. Overpaying for Butler was sort of a mistake, but he will keep them in the mix. To me, the Heat are just a collection of Butler, some O.K. forwards and an exciting rookie in Tyler Herro.
Detroit Pistons: Detroit, like the Heat, have been a whole lot of nothing in recent memory. They were annihilated by the Bucks last year in a quick first-round exit and didn’t improve too much in the offseason. Blake Griffin and Andre Drummond are a very good frontcourt, but the overall talent on the roster doesn’t stack up to other teams in the conference.
Orlando Magic: The Magic surprised some people last year by winning a game in the playoffs, before getting stomped by who else but Kawhi and the Raptors. They have some intriguing bigs in Nikola Vucevic, Mo Bamba, Jonathan Isaac, and Aaron Gordon. Terrence Ross isn’t a bad shooting guard either. Despite some promise, Orlando wont be winning more than 45 games and are likely to be overwhelmed by more quick and talented teams. It will be interesting to see if Markelle Fultz can resurrect his career down in central Florida, though.
Tier 4: Not very competitive
Charlotte Hornets: Charlotte lost their best player in franchise history in Kemba Walker because they decided to be cheap. Now they’ll pay the price of being awful. Terry Rozier is a career backup who won’t move the needle as much as Michael Jordan believes. The rest of their roster is a weird mix of underachievers (Malik Monk, Cody Zeller, Michael Kidd-Gilchrist, Marvin Williams) and some athletic but raw young guns (Miles Bridges, Dwayne Bacon).
Chicago Bulls: The Bulls actually have some good young talent on the roster in Lauri Markkanen, Coby White, and Zach LaVine. White is only a rookie and will likely have a big learning curve, while LaVine can’t shoot that well. The roster just doesn’t appear to be good enough to make the playoffs.
Atlanta Hawks: I really love what the Hawks are doing with the infusion of young talent into their roster. Trae Young, Kevin Huerter, De’Andre Hunter, Cam Reddish, and John Collins are an exciting bunch to keep an eye on. All of these guys are in their early 20’s though, and are still a couple years away from molding into stars. Expect some wow moments from the Hawks this year, but they likely won’t come close to playoff contention.
Washington Wizards: A couple years back, I would’ve placed Washington in Tier 2. However, the catastrophic injury to John Wall set the franchise back. The Wizards are handcuffed paying Wall $40 million plus over the next few seasons and have little flexibility to do much else. Bradley Beal is a stud shooting guard, but even he can’t elevate the Wiz to the playoffs by himself. Who knows what Isaiah Thomas is anymore. Maybe if Wall comes back they can fight for the eighth seed, but as of now it’s not looking good.
Cleveland Cavaliers: Cleveland is still reeling from the departure of LeBron James (twice) and the loss of Kyrie. They did have a good draft in 2019, and have some young athletes in the fold who have potential. Collin Sexton showed promise in his rookie year but has a lot of work to do. With Kevin Love and Jordan Clarkson as the only established starters on the team, the Cavs will not be contending for much this season.
In terms of the Eastern Conference this season, Kawhi’s departure only really affects the top tier. With the Raptors regressing this year, there was a void at the top of the conference—but the Brooklyn Nets filled it with authority by making a huge splash acquiring KD and Kyrie.
Aside from the elite, most Eastern teams are what they are, and were largely unaffected by Kawhi leaving for California.
Impact on the Knicks
The Knicks are a Tier 4 team in the Eastern Conference, despite some Knicks fans who might try to convince you otherwise. The future does seem bright for the Knicks, though, as they finally have some competent people running the team and an intriguing young core of players.
Kawhi Leonard’s move to the West will have no effect on what the Knicks do this year—they were going to be pretty bad anyway. Maybe they’ll beat the Raptors once or something.
However, in the summer of 2021, the Knicks will have another shot at big-time free agents, with Kawhi Leonard having the flexibility to move on after year two if he isn’t satisfied with how things are shaping up in L.A.
Nobody really knows what Leonard is thinking, but he has shown us that he isn’t scared to move, and in a player mobility–driven league, anything seems possible. Who knows, maybe he will realize he preferred the easier path of the East and will try to capture yet another Finals MVP with a different squad, possibly the Knicks.
It’s a pipe dream at this point, but it is something to keep an eye on down the road.
Another thing to keep in mind is that Giannis, LeBron, and Beal among others are eligible to be free agents in the summer of 2021 and could really affect the balance of power in the NBA. If Giannis doesn’t want to play in Milwaukee anymore he could move west, opening the door for more free agents to target the easier path to the Finals that the Eastern Conference has laid out.
Again, we don’t know what these free agents will do and where the heads will be in a few years, but Kawhi is for sure one of the few paradigm shifters we have in basketball. His decision to move west (for now) could have a lot of free agents bolting to the East.
The NBA is one of the most unpredictable leagues in sports. But for this season, don’t expect the departure of Kawhi to really affect anyone in the East aside from the Bucks, Sixers, and Nets, as they are the only real threats to reach the Finals as currently constructed.