- The drama between Kawhi Leonard and the San Antonio Spurs has reportedly run its course. Here are seven thoughts on the pending divorce.
On Friday afternoon several outlets reported that Kawhi Leonard would like to be traded from the Spurs, and now the NBA offseason is real. After a year of mysterious injuries, conflicting rehab timelines, sniping from teammates, and general weirdness that reached a fever pitch when Leonard was nowhere to be seen during the Spurs first–round playoff series, the Kawhi era in San Antonio will likely come to a close within the next two weeks.
Here are seven thoughts as we process the news.
1. Kawhi Leonard at his peak is absolutely incredible. It can't be overstated. He's in an entirely different tier than stars like Kyrie Irving, Jimmy Butler and Paul George. When Kawhi is healthy, he's a perennial MVP candidate and generally a good bet to land somewhere in top three for Defensive Player of the Year. We throw around "top 10" or "top 15" to describe at least 20 different players in the NBA, but healthy Kawhi is safely top five.
His offense has become every bit as lethal as his defense over the past few years, and during the last full season he played in San Antonio, he's grown into perhaps the most reliable isolation scorer in basketball. So, yeah: Kawhi is probably the most dominant player to hit the trade market since Kevin Garnett 10 years ago. This is a big deal.
2. Trading for Kawhi is scarier than it should be. Teams trading for him will have no idea exactly how healthy he is or how healthy he may be for the rest of his career. He's struggled with nagging injuries at various points along the way in San Antonio, and his absence this past season was dramatic enough to give anyone pause. Per a May report from ESPN and Ramona Shelburne, multiple specialists have disagreed about his diagnosis. The Spurs believed it was a deep bone contusion, while Leonard's camp—namely, his agent and his uncle and separate doctors he's consulted with in New York—contends that "the issue has more to do with an ossification, or hardening, in the area where the muscle has been repeatedly bruised, and then an atrophy, which in turn affected the tendons connecting the muscle to the knee."
In any case, Leonard didn't look like the same player in the few games he did play this season, and the nature of the injury will prompt any teams trading for him to issue an exhaustive physical in the process. And even then, there may not be 100% certainty regarding his health going forward. He's so good that almost any team in the league will be able to talk themselves into the deal, but there are real questions that make the conversation more complicated than it should be.
3. The Lakers are the rumored favorite. Here we go.
San Antonio’s Kawhi Leonard has Los Angeles — preferably the Lakers — at the center of his preferences for a trade destination, league sources tell ESPN.— Adrian Wojnarowski (@wojespn) June 15, 2018
This was always going to be a monumental summer for the Lakers—the only question was whether it would be triumphant or deeply embarrassing. And now it looks like we're heading toward the former. Adding Kawhi would immediately put L.A. at the front of the line for every other free agent on the market, including LeBron James. I have no idea what prompted this tweet from owner Jeanie Buss earlier in the week, but I like to think it came after an intimate night of dinner and tampering with Kawhi's uncle.
Do not ever underestimate— Jeanie Buss (@JeanieBuss) June 14, 2018
Nothing else to say
4. The Lakers have the best trade package for Kawhi. Aside from the inevitable "Kawhi Leonard wants a bigger market and grew up in California" dot-connecting, the most compelling reason to believe in the Lakers here is that L.A. can probably offer the best trade package on the market. They can include Kyle Kuzma, a player the Spurs reportedly coveted in last June's draft, a player like Josh Hart, another overachieving rookie from last season, future first–round picks. Most notably, L.A. could include Brandon Ingram or Lonzo Ball, or possibly both. Ingram and Ball both have varying degrees of superstar potential, but Ingram, in particular, would provide San Antonio with a building block to help anchor the next generation of Spurs teams.
The additional threads of the story will be interesting. Even if L.A. can offer the most attractive collection of young assets, there are other factors to consider. First of all, does anyone on the planet believe Gregg Popovich wants to spend the twilight of his career working with LaVar Ball? And if the Lakers intend to blow up their young core to add stars this summer, they'll need cap space. That probably means offloading Luol Deng's contract to someone around the league. Would San Antonio do a deal structured around Ingram, Kuzma, picks, and Deng? That may well be the most attractive offer in a vacuum—especially if Kawhi makes it clear he's destined for L.A. in 2019—but it's unlikely the Spurs are in a hurry to facilitate a Lakers dynasty.
5. Anything can happen. This time last year, the Pacers were weighing Paul George offers from half the league before eventually trading him to one team that hadn't been mentioned as a possibility at any point during the process. We have no idea how this will play out, and the insanity of the Spurs clearing the way for a Lakers dynasty isn't the only reason to pause before we photoshop Kawhi in Lakers uniforms. If there's an alternative, Pop will pursue it. Having followed the situation in San Antonio this year—Popovich rolling his eyes and referencing Kawhi and "his group" a hundred times in six months—it's hard to imagine San Antonio is in a hurry to accommodate the wishes of a superstar who just skipped out on an entire season.
The Sixers will likely make some calls, but unless Ben Simmons is on the table, they don't have any player who compares to Ingram or even Lonzo. Markelle Fultz has too many question marks, the 10th pick is probably not valuable enough, and while Dario Saric would be a delightful addition to the Spurs family, he's not a star who could anchor the next era. Even bundled together, those assets may not match a deal for Ingram.
Kawhi has reportedly expressed interest in playing in New York City, but if the Knicks are unwilling to offer Porzingis, that will probably be a short conversation. The Kings are reportedly interested in shopping the No. 2 pick and could enter the fray themselves. What if Luka Doncic ends up in San Antonio? Then again, it's unlikely that Kawhi would re-sign with a rebuilding Sacramento team when he hits free agency next summer, so that scenario would be a massive risk for the Kings.
That Kings' worry is what complicates the market for everyone: with only a year left before free agency, next summer Kawhi has the ability to leave any situation that he finds undesirable. That means he can dictate terms over the next few weeks, and if he sincerely wants to be in L.A., he can make it happen. Of course...
6. The Celtics could get involved. Because the Celtics can always get involved. According to Adrian Wojnarowski and ESPN, Boston made an offer for Kawhi prior to the trade deadline in February. The Spurs elected not to counter at the time.
It's a good bet the Celtics still have some interest—Danny Ainge always has interest—but the calculus has likely changed since February. The presumed centerpieces of any Kawhi deal now have significantly more value. Jayson Tatum went from "impressive rookie" to "potential superstar" over the final few months of the season, while Jaylen Brown looks like he'd be overqualified to be the fifth starter on next year's team—and far more afforable than Leonard, who will be due a max extension next summer.
If the Celtics decide they want to go all in for next year's title and enter the fray with Kawhi, they can do it. Tatum, Brown, and even potentially Hayward or Kyrie would be enough to get San Antonio's attention and put talks with the Lakers on hold. Maybe that's worth it? If the Spurs look at a player like Brown—himself due for a sizable extension soon—and decide he's more attractive than Ingram, then Boston can also offer next year's unprotected Kings lottery pick, an asset that trumps any of the role players L.A. would be using to sweeten the Ingram deal.
Still, Ainge would be shaking up a foundation that already looks better than anyone in the East for the foreseeable future. Boston would be risking significantly more than a Lakers team that won 35 games last year. Likewise, there's still the matter of inspecting Kawhi's injury and convincing him that he'd be better off signing in Boston than he would be in Los Angeles. While the promise of a 60–win season probably helps the cause, it may not be enough to dissuade Kawhi from going home, especially if LeBron is headed West as well.
7. Whatever happens, the NBA offseason began in earnest on Friday afternoon. How does this trade request affect LeBron's decision? What about Paul George? If L.A. can land Leonard, could the Lakers be planning an additional trade for a third superstar? Or if they're still to planning to sign two max players: who takes the Deng contract, and how do the Lakers sweeten that deal? What is Boston thinking here, and how serious will they get in these talks? How much of this will be decided before next week's draft? And where does that leave the Spurs, the most successful franchise of the past 20 years?
It was just a few days ago when news broke that Gregg Popovich planned to sit down with Leonard to clear the air and attempt to repair the relationship that seemed to unravel this season in San Antonio. Whether that meeting happened or not, a solution for both sides never came. And now things get interesting.