Friday, July 12, 2024

All-NBA Superstar Drops Out of Team USA Prior to 2024 Paris Olympics

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Six-time All-NBA L.A. Clippers small forward Kawhi Leonard is quitting Team USA before the club even departs Las Vegas training camp and heads to Paris for the 2024 Olympics, report Shams Charania and Joe Vardon of The Athletic.

Per Charania and Vardon, Boston Celtics All-Defensive guard Derrick White is considered a leader in the clubhouse to replace him on Team USA. White would add some perimeter defense to a starry, older team that could desperately use it. Were the reigning NBA champ to join, he’d be the third Boston player on the 12-man roster, along with All-NBA combo forward Jayson Tatum and All-Defensive guard Jrue Holiday.

Kawhi Leonard LeBron James Anthony Davis
Team LeBron is introduced before the 69th NBA All-Star Game at the United Center on February 16, 2020 in Chicago, Illinois. Kawhi Leonard, among these players, will depart the Team USA Olympic squad.

Stacy Revere/Getty Images

The 33-year-old Leonard would have been playing in his first-ever Olympics.

Leonard has had a busy 2024. In January, amidst one of his healthier seasons in a while, the 6-foot-7 two-time Finals MVP agreed to terms with the Clippers on a three-year, $153 million extension through the 2026-27 season. He missed postseason time due to health for the fourth consecutive season, appearing in just two games for L.A. in its first round matchup against the Dallas Mavericks. The underdog Mavericks would go on to beat the Clippers in six games, and would eventually advance all the way to the NBA Finals, where they would fall to the Celtics.

During the offseason, failed contract negotiations would see Leonard’s Clippers All-Star teammate Paul George jump ship, signing a maximum contract with the Philadelphia 76ers instead.

Heading into the summer, questions abounded about just how available Leonard would be for Team USA, given that his knee had ultimately precluded him from finishing out the Dallas series.

As recently as this past weekend, Leonard claimed that the joint had recovered enough for him to be able to partake in the Olympics, on a loaded Team USA club that also boasts future first-ballot Hall of Famers LeBron James, Kevin Durant, Stephen Curry, Anthony Davis, Tatum, Joel Embiid, plus young All-Stars Bam Adebayo, Devin Booker, Anthony Edwards and Tyrese Haliburton. The 34-year-old Holiday, himself a two-time All-Star, six-time All-Defensive Player, and a starter on two different NBA championship teams, could be carving out a Hall of Fame career himself, though he is more of a fringe case in terms of his individual accolades.

“But I took the time, and I was able to turn around over the last two weeks,” Leonard informed gathered media on Sunday, per Tim Bontemps of ESPN. “So, I’m out here now and, yeah, I’m having a good time.”

Leonard acknowledged that health issues have been a major problem for his career ever since he reached an All-Star level while still with the San Antonio Spurs, where he won his first title and Finals MVP honor in 2014, in large part for his work locking down James on the Miami Heat. He was also twice named the Defensive Player of the Year with San Antonio. After forcing his way off the Spurs following a dispute over how the team handled an injury, Leonard won his second title and Finals MVP in 2019 on the Toronto Raptors, defeating Durant and Curry’s Warriors in six games.

“Yeah, but this is just my journey, so whatever … I can’t lay out the perfect script for me,” Leonard said. “Last year, I tried to play as much as possible, felt great. And at a certain period of time I couldn’t go. I tried the best that I could, but it’s just my journey. I don’t want to be in a situation that I do be in, but I got to take it for what it is. And a lot of people are watching, supporters or doubters, but I motivate a lot of people.”

For its part, Team USA did not explicitly blame Leonard’s knee injury for his decision to withdraw from competition this summer, when it released its own official press statement about the move.

“Kawhi has been ramping up for the Olympics over the past several weeks and had a few strong practices in Las Vegas,” the statement declared. “He felt ready to compete. However, he respects that USA Basketball and the Clippers determined it’s in his best interest to spend the remainder of the summer preparing for the upcoming season rather than participating in the Olympic Games in Paris.”

Last year, Leonard averaged 24.9 points on a .525/.417/.885 slash line, 6.4 rebounds, 3.8 assists, 1.7 steals and 0.9 blocks a night. He played in 68 regular season games, his most since the 2016-17 season, when he was still with the Spurs.

White is not the offensive superstar Leonard may be, perhaps, but he could be a more helpful complimentary fit on this All-Star-laden roster, taking on tough defensive assignments while also serving as a supplemental ball handler and release valve three point shooter (he connected on 39.6 percent of his 6.8 triple tries a night last year).