It seems obvious now why Kawhi Leonard signed with the Clippers last year. Los Angeles gave the two-time Finals MVP an opportunity to continue competing for championships while playing closer to home, and he maintained financial flexibility by agreeing to a three-year, $103 million deal with a player option for the 2021-22 season.
At the time of his free agency, though, Leonard choosing the Clippers was far from a certainty. The famously private superstar offered no indications about his feelings toward the Clippers, Lakers, Raptors or any other team. There were daily rumors and questions about the Leonard sweepstakes until the Clippers finally secured him and then-Thunder forward Paul George via a trade with Oklahoma City.
That crazy process is back in the news after a man who claims to be close to Leonard recently filed a lawsuit against the Clippers and team consultant Jerry West, according to a TMZ Sports report. Johnny Wilkes says he is owed a whopping $2.5 million for helping the Clippers land Leonard.
Here’s what we know about those allegations, and how the Clippers and NBA have reacted:
MORE: NBA predictions for 2020-21 season, including Finals picks
Who is Johnny Wilkes, and why did he file a lawsuit against the Clippers?
Wilkes, 58, played basketball with Leonard’s uncle Dennis Robertson at Dorsey High School in Los Angeles. The lawsuit claims Wilkes is Robertson’s “best friend” and that he used his relationships with Leonard and Robertson to assist the Clippers in their pursuit of Leonard.
According to the lawsuit, Wilkes told West he could provide key information to the Clippers, and Wilkes claims West agreed to pay him $2.5 million for his assistance. Wilkes says he stressed the importance of acquiring George in order to secure Leonard’s commitment, helped connect West with Robertson and explained how the team should pitch Leonard at a July 2019 meeting.
“This information was vital because it was the exact information Kawhi Leonard wanted to hear at the time in order to effectuate his signing with the Clippers,” Wilkes said in the lawsuit, per TMZ Sports.
Additionally, Wilkes alleges he facilitated a deal in which West would give Robertson a house in Southern California and a travel expense account.
Wilkes is now seeking $2.5 million plus damages.
How have Kawhi Leonard, Jerry West and the Clippers responded?
Leonard, West and the Clippers each addressed the controversy in separate statements prior to the start of the 2020-21 NBA regular season.
— “That has nothing to do with me, swaying my mind to go somewhere,” Leonard said. “I’m from LA, and I grew up here my whole life, and out here people try to find any way to get some money. So, he probably won’t be the last. I know a lot of people out here.”
“Not at all. That has nothing to do with me coming here… I’m from LA. I grew up here my whole life. Out here, people try to find any way to get some money. It probably won’t be the last. I know a lot of people out here.”
Kawhi Leonard shuts down the Johnny Wilkes rumors. pic.twitter.com/mg0sxlRXfa
— Tomer Azarly (@TomerAzarly) December 18, 2020
— “I am not aware of any lawsuit being filed against me and I deny engaging in any improper conduct in connection with the signing of Kawhi Leonard,” a representative for West told TMZ Sports.
— “The lawsuit filed by Johnny Wilkes is replete with inaccuracies and the allegations are baseless,” the Clippers said in a statement. “The Clippers are fully cooperating with the NBA in its investigation, which is standard when these types of allegations are made. They are providing the NBA with evidence that the allegations are false.”
How is the NBA handling Johnny Wilkes’ allegations?
When asked by ESPN’s Stephen A. Smith about the NBA’s investigation into Wilkes’ claims, commissioner Adam Silver didn’t offer any definitive updates. But it seems unlikely the Clippers will be punished based on what the league currently knows.
“All I can say there is everyone is entitled to the presumption of innocent,” Silver said. “Obviously, someone who is not known to me or the league office has made an allegation against the team. So, we’ll look into it. It’s our obligation on behalf of all 30 teams that, if something comes to our attention, we look into it and we see if there’s anything there.
“I have no reason to believe, based on what’s been alleged so far, that there’s anything inappropriate that took place. But that’s why we follow up on whatever leads come to the league office.”
An NBA lawyer says the league has received a copy of the complaint but stressed at this point these are “just allegations.”