San Antonio has reportedly reached agreement with small forward Kawhi Leonard on a five-year maximum contract worth approximately $90 million, according to Yahoo Sports and ESPN.com. The deal will kick in for the 2015-16 season and run through the 2019-20 campaign, although terms have not yet been finalized.
Leonard, 24, averaged 16.5 points, 7.2 rebounds, 2.5 assists and 2.3 steals last season, earning Defensive Player of the Year honors. The 2011 first-round pick went to back-to-back Finals with the Spurs in 2013 and 2014, winning the championship and taking home Finals MVP honors in 2014. He was named Defensive Player of the Year in for the 2014-15 season.
The brightest star in this year's restricted free agency pool, Leonard ranked No. 2 overall on SI.com's "Top 25 Free Agents of 2015" list, trailing only Cavaliers forward LeBron James. San Antonio re-signing Leonard was viewed as a foregone conclusion since last fall given his elite defensive ability, his expanding offensive game, his Spurs-ian demeanor, and his strong development under coach Gregg Popovich.
The two sides reportedly tabled negotiations until this summer so as to maximize San Antonio's flexibility: with Duncan and Manu Ginobili nearing the end of their careers, postponing a commitment with Leonard aids the Spurs' pursuit of outside free agents, like All-Star forward LaMarcus Aldridge. No real anxiety developed between player and team during the course of the season, as Leonard worked through an early-season eye infection to perform at an All-NBA level down the stretch. A somewhat disappointing 2015 postseason, for both the Spurs as a team and Leonard individually, had no meaningful impact on this negotiation given the scope of Leonard's rookie-deal production. We're talking about the youngest Finals MVP since Magic Johnson, for goodness sake.
Leonard has increased his scoring average in each of his first four seasons, a sign of his growing comfort on offense and increased trust from Popovich. As his second contract unfolds, and as Duncan and Tony Parker age, Leonard is expected to take on even more scoring responsibility. This season was evidence that he's up for that challenge, as Leonard worked more often in isolation situations and found points in a variety of ways, whether it was off the dribble, in transition, or out of post-ups against smaller wings.
As it stands, Leonard is already arguably the league's third-best small forward behind James and Kevin Durant, thanks to excellent size/strength/quickness combination and his incredible defensive instincts and timing. Finding such a talent midway through the first round of the 2011 draft amounted to a steal. Securing Leonard's A-list talent through his 29th birthday is a major step for San Antonio's long-term planning, as one of the league's steadiest ships is headed for major roster turnover whenever Duncan calls it quits.
Indeed, it's not hyperbolic to suggest that Leonard's new deal, by itself, ensures that the Spurs will avoid a "bottoming out" rebuild following Duncan's exit. This continuation of consistent excellence is worth the highest possible grade.