How did you like your offseason? Was it good? Get a lot done in that almost-a-week between the end of the Finals and the start of transaction season? Good, cause spring is almost over and it’s time to get down to serious NBA business.
Word came down on Friday afternoon via various well-connected reporters that Kawhi Leonard was done with the San Antonio Spurs. That this was made public before the Spurs themselves were informed, speaks to the gulf between superstar player and the franchise he was supposed to lead for the next decade.
Nothing is real in the NBA until the trade call with the league, but there appears to be no going back now. Kawhi season is officially upon us, and with the draft less than a week away, so begins the most important month of the NBA calendar. Remember, the only thing better than blockbuster trades is speculating about blockbuster trades.
First, how did we get here? San Antonio appeared to be a perfect fit for Kawhi and he, in turn, looked like the perfect player to lead the Spurs in the post-Duncan era. Things change.
One year after leading the Spurs to the conference finals and finishing third in the voting for Most Valuable Player, Leonard missed 73 games with an injury to his right quad. Take note because that’s the last time everyone will agree on anything here.
As detailed by ESPN’s Ramona Shelburne and Michael C. Wright, the Spurs called the injury quadriceps tendinopathy, while those in Leonard’s camp (specifically his agent, Mitch Frankel, and his uncle, Dennis Robertson) believe it’s a muscle issue. Each diagnosis carries a different form of treatment and Leonard chosen to follow the advice of his own medical counsel.
That led to an exceptionally weird situation throughout the year where updates on Leonard’s progress were shrouded in ambiguity, and apparently distrust. In March, Spurs legend Tony Parker told reporters that his quad injury was “100 times worse.” Parker had offseason surgery to repair a ruptured tendon and returned to the team in late November.
There were reports of emotional team meetings and an attempt to get the relationship back on track, but apparently things are too far gone for a reconciliation.
Leonard wouldn’t be the first player to want a trade over medical concerns, but his motives in wanting out are a bit mysterious. With Leonard and a revitalized LaMarcus Aldridge the Spurs would have been in a position of strength to make another run. Additionally, Kawhi has never seemed like someone who craved the national spotlight. Yet, here we are.
Contrary to popular sentiment, the Spurs are not immune to the whims of the league. Star players have constantly flirted with the idea of moving. Tim Duncan seriously considered the Magic in free agency, Parker was linked to the Knicks for years before re-signing, and Aldridge wanted out just last year before a come-to-Pop meeting.
What’s new is that they could do nothing to change Leonard’s mind. It’s tempting to turn this situation into some larger construct about the state of the league, but it’s just business and it happens every year. The Spurs are no more exceptional than anyone else.
Leverage is a moving target in this situation. With one year left on his contract before he can opt out and become a free agent, Leonard has some measure of autonomy. He can dictate which teams go full bore into negotiations by indicating his preference for signing on for the long term. Already the Lakers and Clippers have been mentioned prominently as preferred destinations.
Still, there’s nothing stopping the Spurs from making the best deal available to them, and indeed there’s no reason why they should acquiesce to Leonard’s desire for a return to his hometown. Leonard’s trade value may be relatively low, given his injury and his contract, but he’s still a top-5 player and the Spurs aren’t in the habit of making shortsighted deals.
The Celtics will definitely make a run at Kawhi — they already did at the trade deadline — and the Sixers could enter the fray if they were so inclined. (It would help if they had a general manager, of course.)
The Kings? Sure, the Kings could get involved with the second overall pick and a roster full of unproven youngsters. That would be very Kings to give up on a rebuilding effort without ever giving it a chance to succeed and with no guarantee that Leonard would want to stick around. That would be so very, very Kings.
Hell, even the Cavs could offer Kevin Love and the eighth pick in this year’s draft. When a player of Kawhi’s stature becomes available, you come with your best offer or not at all.
What would a deal look like? The Pacers got two young players and no picks from OKC for one year of Paul George. The Bulls got two young players and a pick swap from Minnesota for two years of Jimmy Butler.
Kawhi Leonard is a better version of both players, and even with only one year left before his opt-out, three premium assets would seem like the going rate.
The Celtics could probably put together the best offer. Here’s an interesting scenario: package Kyrie Irving, who also has one year left on his deal before an opt out, along with some of the stash of premium picks they have coming to them. The salaries match up and everything. This is not a rumor, merely a scenario.
The more likely course would be to work a deal around their young talent, but that gets a little tricky. The one roster weakness they have is a lack of veterans on mid-level deals to make the salaries work. Also: Do they really want to give up Jaylen Brown? (One assumes that Jayson Tatum is close to untouchable, although no one is ever truly off limits for Danny Ainge.)
That would also leave them with a prohibitively expensive team given the presence of four max-players in Leonard, Irving, Gordon Hayward, and Al Horford. Add to that a high level of uncertainty as Leonard, Irving, and Horford can all opt out after next season and that may be too much of a risk even for Ainge.
One thing’s for sure: A blockbuster trade between Ainge and R.C. Buford would be manna for front office nerds.
The Sixers could also put together a strong proposal. Just spitballing, but say Markelle Fultz, Dario Saric, and the 10th pick in next week’s draft would be an intriguing offer. Having a general manager would be a good idea, though.
The Lakers are the most fun choice on the board just to imagine a team with Kawhi and LeBron James challenging the Warriors. The problem is that while the Lakers have cap space and a handful of young players, they don’t have anything in the way of premium picks. Their own first rounder is routed to Philly and one would assume a LeBron-Kawhi squad would be drafting in the 20s. Buford would have to really like Brandon Ingram and/or Lonzo Ball for a deal to make sense.
Still, LeBron and Kawhi!
Poor Paul George may have played himself. Let’s say the Lakers are able to pull off the Kawhi-Bron exacta, unless they can find a sucker to take Luol Deng’s contract they don’t have enough room to afford a third superstar. That leaves PG on the outside looking in, and a return to Oklahoma City would be in play.
Of all the scenarios, the one where LeBron and PG team up in Los Angeles still makes the most sense.
The Clippers should not be taken lightly. Remember that Jerry West is calling the shots now and that changes their outlook considerably. The Clippers have a pair of late lottery picks to dangle and a roster full of mid-level salaries to offer. That may not be better than what Boston or Philly could offer, but if either of those teams blink, the Clippers have no reason to stand pat.
Of course, this could spiral in a number of different directions. As much as Kawhi may be the first offseason domino to fall, the specter of LeBron James hovers over everything. If he wants the Lakers, or anywhere else, he can have them. That’s the benefit of working free agency to your means and no one has ever done a better job of dictating terms than LeBron.
There’s a lesson there. As players execute pressure over their teams, their exit strategies get messy and ugly. By signing a series of short-term deals, LeBron has always had leverage and as such, he gets to call the shots with no outside interference.