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How the Kawhi Leonard investigation could affect the Thunder

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The league is investigating the Clippers for how they landed Kawhi Leonard in 2019.

Los Angeles Clippers v Los Angeles Lakers Photo by Harry How/Getty Images

On Dec. 16, the NBA opened an investigation on the Los Angeles Clippers three days after Kawhi Leonard's recruitment allegations surfaced when Johnny Wilkes filed suit against executive board member Jerry West.

TMZ reported that Wilkes is part of Leonard’s inner circle and helped the Clippers land the former Finals MVP in exchange for $2.5 million. Wilkes claims that West never held his end of the bargain and never received the financial compensation he was promised.

After a verbal agreement, Wilkes began working on pitching the Clippers to Leonard and his notorious uncle, Dennis Robertson. Wilkes advised the Clippers that they would need to get Paul George in order to land Leonard, which they eventually did in a blockbuster deal that saw the Oklahoma City Thunder gain a historical amount of first-round picks.

Wilkes also helped West and Robertson agree to a deal where the latter would be gifted a Californian home and a travel expense account.

Finally, Wilkes told West and Clippers head coach Doc Rivers what exactly they should do and say during their free-agent meeting with Leonard and Robertson.

A couple of minutes after the news broke that Leonard was signing with the Clippers, the Paul George trade was agreed upon.

Nearly 18 months later, Wilkes claims he has not been paid his $2.5 million and is suing West for a breach of contract.

This news is obviously significant because if the NBA finds enough evidence that proves these claims to be true, then a punishment on the Clippers will soon follow.

There are a couple of situations similar to this that the Clippers can reference and see what type of punishments await them if they are found guilty by the league. The Minnesota Timberwolves and Joe Smith all the way back in 2000 and the Bucks and Bogdan Bogdanovic just this past month. Both investigations saw two extreme sides of the spectrums in terms of punishments.

In summary, the Timberwolves and Smith were found guilty of manipulating the salary cap by promising Smith a future multimillion-dollar contract if he signed three, one-year deals for less than $3 million. The Timberwolves wanted this because they wanted to stay financially flexible to improve the team around their young franchise player Kevin Garnett.

Smith agreed to this because the Timberwolves would own his Bird Rights at the end of the three years, which would have allowed the team to go over the cap to keep him. Smith would have been rewarded for his participation in the scandal with an extension worth as much as $86 million.

Smith would sign two one-year deals in 1998 and 1999 for a combined $3.9 million with Minnesota. But then in 2000, Smith’s agent, Andrew Miller, left the sports marketing agency owned by Eric Fleisher and took Smith and Garnett with him in his exit. Fleisher sued Miller and the scandal surfaced to the public. The NBA opened an investigation and NBA Commissioner David Stern severely punished the Timberwolves for their under-the-table deal.

The franchise was fined $3.5 million, Smith’s contract was voided, thus eliminating his Bird Rights, owner Glen Taylor was suspended until August 31, 2001, and VP of basketball operations Kevin McHale was forced to take an unpaid leave of absence until July 31, 2001.

But the most severe of the punishments was the loss of five consecutive first-round picks from 2001 through 2005. This loss crippled the franchise as the team was not able to surround Garnett with young, cheap players. Garnett would get traded to the Celtics in 2007.

This is obviously the worst-case scenario for the Clippers. They have already traded five first-round picks with two more eligibles for swaps in the 2020 decade to the Thunder in the Paul George trade. If the Clippers have to vacate more first-round picks, it would cripple their franchise’s future.

This could affect the Thunder because if the league finds just cause in their Clippers investigation, the possibility of the NBA forfeiting the Clippers’ future first-round picks and possibly nullifying the Paul George trade enters the realm of possibility. The Thunder losing their treasure trove of first-round picks because of something out of their control would essentially be a death blow to the franchise.

George’s recent five-year, $226 million extensions would also complicate this route and make it nearly impossible.

George’s value will never be as high as it was in July 2019, when he was needed for the Clippers to land one of the best players in the league. The leverage Sam Presti had will never reoccur. The Thunder were in the right place at the right time and Presti realized that and was able to cash in and traded a Top 15 player for a package that garners a unanimous, first-ballot Hall-of-Famer; which George is not.

The other major difference between the two situations is that Leonard is only under contract with the Clippers this season and will most likely decline his option for next year. With Smith, he had not started his third contract with the team, thus making it easier for the league to void his contract.

The only real thing the league can do is void Leonard’s contract right now and let him become a Free Agent now. But knowing how player-friendly Adam Silver is and how the rise of player control is here, I just do not see this happening.

The Smith situation is the Dooms Day scenario for the Clippers. But not the real one. If the Clippers want a realistic reference point as to what punishment they could receive if found guilty, just look at what happened with the Milwaukee Bucks and Bogdan Bogdanovic last month.

In essence, the Bucks and Kings agreed to a sign-and-trade deal on Nov. 17 that would have sent Restricted Free Agent Bogdan Bogdanovic to Milwaukee. But the deal was eventually nixed due to the league’s investigation and Bogdanovic reportedly getting cold feet to being the fourth option on offense behind Giannis Antetokounmpo, Khris Middleton, and Jrue Holiday. Bogdanovic ended up signing with the Hawks for four years and $72 million.

An investigation opened and the league found evidence that the Bucks engaged in talks with Bogdanovic and his agent before they were legally allowed to on Nov. 20. The league punished the franchise by taking away their 2022 second-round pick.

Now obviously, Leonard and Bogdanovic are in two completely different tiers of players, the former is one of the best in the league while the latter is a good, young starter who can stretch the floor. This is not an apple to apple comparison, but it is not an apple to oranges comparison either.

The league will deny that the caliber of players influenced their decision with the Bucks, but it is hard to see how that did not play a factor in their decision.

If the Clippers are caught red-handed, I do not think the league would destroy their franchise by handing them out a Joe Smith-like punishment, but I also do not see them giving the team a slap on the wrist by taking away just one second-round pick. The punishment will most likely be in the middle where they lose more valuable picks — but not enough to ruin their future, especially since the Thunder own a majority of them — and a heavy fine. But with Steve Ballmer as your owner, the fine will need to be heavy for it to hurt his pockets with his $74.1 billion net worth.

I could also see Jerry West become a martyr and get suspended even though this was a team effort that included West, Rivers, and Ballmer.

Some might argue that this type of punishment would not be enough and would be another example of a big market privilege. But I disagree, the Clippers are in a big market but are not a big market team. They are in the same realm as the Los Angeles Chargers and the New York Mets, where they all suffer from Little Brother Syndrome.

If the league does not severely punish the Clippers if found guilty, it will be because Silver is very lenient and realizes that this type of stuff happens all the time throughout the league. The only difference being that the Clippers got caught up in legal troubles, according to TMZ.

The league needs to keep in mind that if they punish the Clippers and remove their first-round picks, then they will also punish the Thunder and their future. It will be a bad look for Silver to sacrifice a small-market team’s future just to send a message for something that probably already happens all the time anyway.

The Thunder should not suffer for the Clippers’ sins.