It’s official. After months of drama and speculation, Kawhi Leonard reportedly wants out of San Antonio.
At just 26 going on 27, in the middle of his prime, Leonard already has a career resume worthy of a hall-of-fame level basketball player:
- NBA Champion (2014)
- NBA Finals MVP (2014)
- 2× NBA All-Star (2016, 2017)
- 2× All-NBA First Team (2016, 2017)
- 2× NBA Defensive Player of the Year (2015, 2016)
- 3× NBA All-Defensive First Team (2015–2017)
- NBA All-Defensive Second Team (2014)
- NBA All-Rookie First Team (2012)
- NBA steals leader (2015)
- Consensus second-team All-American (2011)
- 2× First-team All-MWC (2010, 2011)
- California Mr. Basketball (2009)
In an offseason where hugely valuable free agents, LeBron James and Paul George most notably, will be making decisions, Leonard’s destination could be the first domino to fall if he is indeed traded. A player of his caliber can change the dynamic of the league when he switches teams, and free agents will be on watch.
Just what is Leonard’s caliber? When he’s healthy, he is a true MVP candidate. In 2017, his last full season, he finished 3rd in voting, while also finishing 3rd for Defensive Player of the Year (an award he took home the previous two consecutive seasons). In the playoffs, he led the Spurs past James Harden’s favored Rockets and famously was up big in Game 1 of the Conference Finals against Golden State, before being injured in a collision with the notorious Zaza Pachulia. Leonard hasn’t been healthy since, at least in his opinion – perhaps the biggest reason for the schism between him and the Spurs organization.
Needless to say, Leonard’s resume and age make him a highly coveted player, but there obviously are huge concerns with his health. He only played in 9 games all season, and played in back to back games just once, when there were two rest days in between (December 12th and December 15th). His contract is also less-than-ideal – he can opt out after next season and become a free agent less than a year from today, while he would be on the books for over $21 million the following year in a worst case scenario considering his injury. One of the most amazing parts of him wanting out of San Antonio is the fact he’d be eligible for a $219 million “supermax” contract in 2019, which he’d be giving up if he is traded.
Regardless of the baggage, there will likely be 29 teams looking into ways to acquire Leonard before this article is even published. Here’s a summary of some of the most talked-about destinations:
Los Angeles Lakers
Kawhi Leonard is from Los Angeles, and Adrian Wojnarowski reports he’d like to return there, preferably with the Lakers.
It’s no secret Lakers President Magic Johnson has been gearing his franchise for this coming offseason for a while. He’s stockpiled young assets like Lonzo Ball, Brandon Ingram, and Kyle Kuzma, alongside clearing cap space in the Timofey Mozgov deal and the inevitable Luol Deng contract stretch. Trading for Kawhi Leonard could cause enormous ripple effects throughout the NBA, especially considering the Lakers would still be able to sign both LeBron James and Paul George. If the Lakers were to acquire Leonard, they’d certainly be a very attractive destination for the two superstars – any roster with James, George, and Leonard would immediately become one of the three or four best teams in all of basketball, regardless of the supporting cast.
How could the Lakers acquire Leonard? The Spurs would certainly want top-notch young talent in return for their star, and luckily for the Lakers, they have some. Lavar Ball might not want to move out of the City of Angels, but he might not have a choice:
Both Lonzo Ball and Brandon Ingram are just 20 years old, and have shown flashes of high potential in their early NBA years. Under Gregg Popovich, perhaps they could both become All-Stars in the near future.
If the Lakers got cold feet on either Ball or Ingram, they could swap one or the other out for Kyle Kuzma, and the trade would still work financially, but it’s unclear what the relative values of the three prospects are in the eyes of Popovich (Kuzma is older than both Ball and Ingram), and he may ask for all three. However, if the opportunity were there, the Lakers likely wouldn’t hesitate – the potential of a James/George/Leonard big 3 is too enticing to not go all-in, and the Lakers have tried coups like this before. If it all came to fruition, the league might have to strongly consider re-seeding the playoffs.
It’s well known the Celtics have plenty of trade assets, and Danny Ainge was already interested in Leonard in February. Leonard doesn’t have a no-trade clause, so his requests to the Spurs for Los Angeles or any other destination need not be honored – San Antonio just needs to find the best possible return. If Ainge is willing to really come to the table, there’s no doubt he could provide a haul that could help Gregg Popovich forget all about his stone-faced wing:
Al Horford and LaMarcus Aldridge would be an excellent two-way frontcourt, but the real gem in this deal would be Jaylen Brown, who is still just 21 years old and showed flashes of becoming an elite two way player in the 2017 playoffs, where he averaged 18 points per game on an efficient 47% from the field and 39% from three.
If the Celtics want to hold on to their rock in Horford, they’d probably have to part with rookie sensation Jayson Tatum instead of Brown:
Losing Tatum and fellow playoff darling Rozier would be a tough pill to swallow, and it’s up to Danny Ainge whether Leonard, especially considering his injury history, would be worth this kind of package. If Ainge’s past is an indicator (see Jimmy Butler and Paul George), he probably won’t be willing to part with too much for Leonard.
However, the clock is ticking for the Celtics. It’s a good problem to have, but they have a lot of assets that need to be consolidated sooner or later – Brown and Tatum won’t be making $5 million a year for too long, and they both play a similar position as Gordon Hayward, who’s locked up at $30 million for four years. Considering they also have two upcoming top picks in the pipeline from Sacramento and Memphis, trading Brown or Tatum could be worth it. In either scenario, Kyrie Irving, Hayward, Leonard, and the remaining young wing could well be enough to win the East this year, especially considering the man holding the clipboard in Boston, and with future potential to boot.
The Celtics could also use the picks in a potential trade, but things get complicated with the salaries. In order to match Leonard’s salary, the Celtics would likely have to give up either Horford or Hayward, whose contracts are in turn too big for the Spurs to absorb outright. It’s hard to envision Gregg Popovich giving up Kawhi and another asset for Horford/Hayward and a pick or two.
But, you know, a certain point guard has recently said he won’t sign an extension with Boston, and maybe there’s a way Ainge can hold onto Brown, Tatum, and the rest of them…
New York Knicks
Just when the Knicks were ready to rebuild! New York has the 9th pick in the upcoming draft (and all of their first round picks moving forward), a 22-year old star in Kristaps Porzingis, and a promising (to what extent, it depends on whom you ask) 19-year old defensive prospect in Frank Ntilikina. With Porzingis out for potentially the entire season due to his ACL injury this past year, the Knicks were looking likely to tank and embrace the future. However, the Knicks have never been known to take the long approach , and when a superstar like Leonard is available, especially when people close to him are reportedly pushing for New York as a destination, things can change. Like the Celtics, the Knicks are not in the Spurs’ conference, so they could be a palatable trade partner for Gregg Popovich – they might even be a more enticing partner than Boston, as they are a good deal further from contending than the Celtics.
Assuming the Knicks take their unicorn off the table, any offer for Leonard would have to start with Ntilikina, the 9th pick in this year’s draft, and probably another future pick. That’s a lot of inexpensive, high-potential assets to give up for one year of an injured star who probably wouldn’t be enough to take the Knicks to the next level if he were completely healthy. The Knicks have mortgaged their future like this for way less in the past (see: Andrea Bargnani), though, so it’s hard to predict their true motives, no matter how much it seems like they’re ready to tear it down and rebuild. Of course, there is a way they can keep Ntilikina and their picks:
Would the Knicks really trade Kristaps Porzingis? It seems impossible – they weren’t willing to move him when Kyrie Irving was on the trading block last August. However, if healthy, most people agree Leonard is a different level of player than Irving, and Porzingis has some serious injury concerns of his own. If Popovich makes clear to the Knicks he wants his hands on the Latvian sensation, general manager Steve Mills might just pull the trigger.
The Process is coming to fruition. Now that Philadelphia has established themselves as a playoff contender, they’re ready to make moves to put themselves over the top. They’re definitely in play for LeBron James or Paul George, but neither are a guarantee, and the Sixers could provide maybe the most enticing package for the Spurs of any of the favorites in the Leonard sweepstakes, while still holding onto Ben Simmons and Joel Embiid:
The Sixers could become the favorites in the Eastern Conference with a three-headed two-way monster like Simmons-Embiid-Leonard, while the Spurs could again keep Leonard out of the West. A change of scenery for Markelle Fultz, not to mention the tutelage of people like Gregg Popovich and Tony Parker, could allow him to blossom into the player so many thought the 2017 number 1 overall pick could be. Covington and Saric, too, are very valuable starter-level pieces that could allow the Spurs to continue to compete in the West next year as Fultz developed next to young stud Dejounte Murray.
As mentioned earlier, considering Leonard’s acumen, just about every team in the NBA will make a push to acquire him. The Clippers have the LA connection Leonard craves. The Kings have the number 2 pick in the draft and are pining for a superstar of Leonard’s caliber. The Spurs don’t even have to trade him if they don’t want to. This saga is just beginning to unfold, with powerful free agents watching closely and powerful teams one piece away, and where the 26-year old 2-time Defensive Player of the Year and Finals MVP ends up could change the NBA for years to come.
by Derek Reifer, Northwestern University