Kawhi Leonard wants out of San Antonio, and suddenly what projects to be the wildest offseason in years just got supercharged. LeBron James will be a free agent, Paul George, too, and now a top-five talent is available to the highest bidder.
That happened fast, didn’t it? In the last week, fuzzy cellphone photos of Leonard and Spurs boss Gregg Popovich at different locations in New York surfaced, sparking rampant speculation that a reconciliation was imminent. By early Friday afternoon, reports had Leonard wanting to punch his ticket out of town.
Is anyone surprised? Leonard played nine games last season. He spent the rest of it battling Spurs management over when his quad injury would be well enough for him to be ready to play in his 10th. There doesn’t appear to be any trust between Leonard and the Spurs’ medical staff, and the public digs Popovich took at Leonard – asked for a Leonard update in April, Popovich replied, “You’ll have to ask Kawhi and his group that question” – had to be damaging.
Remember when San Antonio’s operations were as interesting as a PBS special? Lately, they have been more of a daytime soap.
Let’s not do the trade-machine thing, OK? There are obvious trading partners. Boston kicked the tires on a Leonard trade in February, and they will do it again now. Philadelphia makes sense (time to hire a GM, Josh Harris), and the Clippers have a pair of first-round picks and (possibly) DeAndre Jordan to deal. And don’t dismiss Sacramento. The Kings have made calls about their No. 2 pick, league sources told Yahoo Sports, and are just bonkers enough to roll the dice on Leonard as a rental.
But is anyone happier today than the Lakers?
Leonard is under contract for next season, but make no mistake: In trade talks, he will have plenty of clout. It’s easy to point to the Pacers offloading of Paul George on small-market Oklahoma City as an example of a team having the power to trade a player with an expiring contract anywhere, but that situation was unique. The Thunder, desperate to pair Russell Westbrook with another star, needed to take a big swing.
Is another Oklahoma City out there?
Realistically, Leonard is unlikely to be dealt to a team he doesn’t want to play for. And while his list of preferred destinations could expand beyond Southern California, for now it’s one of the few regions we know he wants to play in.
And wouldn’t you know, there are the Lakers, semi-functional for the first time in years, with the assets to piece together an interesting trade package. San Antonio has zero interest in Lonzo Ball — or, more accurately, the circus that Ball brings with him — but a Brandon Ingram, Kyle Kuzma, draft-pick(s) deal (with Luol Deng tossed in to make the money work) is compelling, particularly if other teams, wary of Leonard walking in 2019, don’t go all-in with offers.
Would the Spurs want to deal with the Lakers? Probably not. San Antonio knows L.A. isn’t trying to build a cute No. 7 seed backboned by Leonard and Ball. Leonard makes the Lakers infinitely more appealing to James, who would still be able to recruit another star to play with him. (L.A.’s cap space, without knowing details of a Leonard trade, is a little murky, but would be around $60 million-plus.)
San Antonio wouldn’t just be dealing Kawhi in conference. It could be helping to create another superteam in the process.
Ideally, the Spurs would probably prefer to send Leonard East, out of conference, like the Pacers did with George. Boston — someday we are going to get to a point where we don’t have to mention Boston’s ability to acquire anyone because of its proverbial Iron Bank of assets — could float a Jaylen Brown/picks-centric package, while Philadelphia could offer more cap relief than anyone else.
But would Leonard want to play there?
There are a lot of unknowns. What we do know is one of the NBA’s best players, a 26-year-old two-way threat, is about to hit the trade block. Don’t get twisted: If healthy — and we’ll save for another day the very relevant discussion about Leonard’s shaky quad and the paralyzing fear some executives have about investing $40 million annually in a player who missed almost an entire season because of it — Leonard is one of the most tantalizing players ever available. In 2016-17, Leonard averaged 25.5 points, connected on 38 percent of his threes and was third in MVP balloting. You don’t get much better than that.
James’ free agency threatens to reshape the league. Leonard’s availability could do the same.
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