Kawhi Leonard is no longer a Spur, but none of the marquee young players tossed around in potential trade returns — Jaylen Brown, Brandon Ingram, Markelle Fultz — are coming to San Antonio.
The Spurs settled on a package that will send DeMar DeRozan, Jakob Poeltl, and a top-20 protected 2019 first-round pick south from Toronto in exchange for Leonard and useful wing player Danny Green.
Despite DeRozan’s All-Star pedigree, that’s not the type of return one expects for a player like Leonard that is one of the NBA’s elite players when healthy. San Antonio swapped a perennial MVP candidate for a soon-to-be 29-year-old guard with $85 million owed to him for the next three years, a throwback lane-clogging center whose lack of shooting limits his value, and a late pick in what appears to be an upcoming draft of average talent.
Or, as my colleague Matt Ellentuck puts it:
Just to recap:— Matt Ellentuck (@mellentuck) July 18, 2018
- Toronto gets Kawhi AND Danny Green
- If Kawhi no-shows, sucks, doesn't fit etc. -- Toronto gets to keep its pick (top 20 protected)
- Toronto doesn't lose ANY of its best assets, keeps OG and Siakam
This, folks, is a robbery
Wednesday’s deal is proof of Leonard’s limited trade value. The newly-minted Raptor, for all his talent, left San Antonio at one of the worst possible times for his former club. He missed all but nine games of the 2017-18 season thanks to a leg injury that left teams questioning both his health and his effort. More importantly, the fact he’ll be a free agent after the 2018-19 season and has made his desire to go to Los Angeles clear gives him the opportunity to leave the team that acquires him after just one season.
The Spurs hoped his otherworldly two-way skills would eclipse those concerns from other teams. As reported offers came rolling in, it became clear they wouldn’t. The most obvious buyers on the Leonard market had the young assets to move the needle in a deal with San Antonio. They just never made them available in exchange for what could have been a one-year rental of a player dealing with injury issues.
The 76ers didn’t offer Markelle Fultz
Philadelphia may have been one big star away from rising to the undisputed top spot in the east, but opted to keep a young core intact rather than chase Leonard. It’s easy to understand why.
The 76ers emerged as a legitimate threat this spring behind foundational pieces Ben Simmons and Joel Embiid. Those two were always going to be untouchable. A third star could already be on the roster in Fultz, the No. 1 overall pick in last year’s draft. While a bum shoulder and possibly broken shot marred his rookie campaign, reaching even 80 percent of his potential would give Philly another playmaker who can score from anywhere on the court and give the club above-average distributors at point guard, point-forward, and center.
The club isn’t yet sure what it has in Fultz, but it knows what he could be. That was enough to take him off the table in a potential deal for Leonard. Without the young point guard in the mix, the best the Spurs were going to get from the Sixers was something like Dario Saric, Robert Covington, and others— if Philadelphia was willing to go that far.
The Celtics weren’t willing to part with their young (or old) stars
Boston ran all the way to the breaking point of the Eastern Conference Finals in a season where two of their top players, Gordon Hayward and Kyrie Irving, missed the postseason. Jaylen Brown and Jayson Tatum developed into stars despite coming into the season with one combined year of NBA experience between them. They set their floors at borderline All-Star play and have tremendous room to grow.
That would have made either one a major target for San Antonio, but neither was on the table. Nor was Hayward, Irving, or Al Horford. While the Celtics may have offered players like Marcus Morris, Terry Rozier, or a signed-and-traded Marcus Smart, the biggest assets they could have offered were a bevy of future first-round picks, starting with their own at the back of the round and ranging all the way to the Kings’ top-1 protected selection in 2019.
It’s unclear whether talks got that far, but Wednesday’s deal suggests the Spurs valued an established star like DeRozan over future picks. Leonard could have been the piece that led to a Celtic breakthrough, but the club decided to bet on its homegrown talent instead.
The Lakers weren’t going to offer Brandon Ingram
Los Angeles has LeBron James for at least three years, so they have time to build around the city’s biggest free agent acquisition since Shaquille O’Neal. The Lakers were in no rush to mortgage a future star for Leonard, not when they’ll have the opportunity to add him or another established player in the loaded 2019 free agent class without having to give up any roster assets in return. That meant Ingram, the No. 2 pick in the 2016 NBA Draft, was never on the table.
It’s easy to see how Leonard fits in L.A.’s free agency plans next summer. The club signed a handful of players to serve as James’ support network this upcoming season, including Rajon Rondo, Kentavious Caldwell-Pope, and Lance Stephenson. Each is inked to a one-year contract, however, which clears more than $27 million in cash from the team’s salary cap in 2019. That leaves enough room, with some creative deck-shuffling, to fit a maximum contract for Leonard onto the Lakers’ books.
The lure of Los Angeles is real; James just proved it. Now the club will have the chance to use its big market advantages to land another marquee free agent. It’s possible they regret not making a move — Paul George was in a similar situation after being traded to the Thunder with just a year left on his contract, then declined the urge to leave Oklahoma City for L.A. this summer — but it’s easy to understand why dishing out assets for Leonard in 2018 didn’t make sense for a team hoping to sign him straightaway in 2019.
The Raptors offered a legitimate All-Star in return for a player who would have been a Spurs ghost in 2019
No team was willing to part with blue-chip, under-22 talent for one year of Leonard. That forced the Spurs to sell a homegrown superstar for pennies on the dollar — but it still may have been the best deal the club was going to get.
In DeRozan, the Spurs got a two-time All-NBA talent in return for Leonard, who had made it abundantly clear his tenure in Texas wouldn’t last beyond 2019. They also got a pair of lottery scratchers in Poeltl, a promising young big man who would have held much more value in 1998, and the kind of late first-round pick San Antonio has turned into players like Tony Parker, Dejounte Murray, George Hill, Kyle Anderson, Cory Joseph, and Tiago Splitter in the past. That’s not totally awful. This version of the team, with something like a Murray-DeRozan-Lonnie Walker-Rudy Gay-LaMarcus Aldridge lineup, can still compete for a playoff spot.
But the Spurs are no longer the Spurs after being put in an impossible position by a superstar who wanted out. The club couldn’t find the blue chip young talent a player like Leonard should have returned via trade, and instead settled on a four-time All-Star who just led the Eastern Conference’s top seed in scoring.
That’s not nothing. It’s not fair value for a player of Leonard’s caliber either.