Why the Celtics might stand in the way of a LeBron-Kawhi Lakers superteam

Magic Johnson’s contentions about a two-summer timeline to the contrary, someone sure seems to be putting pressure on the Los Angeles Lakers to turn their super-team dreams into reality right bleepin’ now. The first step in that process, evidently: swinging a deal for sub-gruntled two-way superstar Kawhi Leonard, and doing so by 11:59 p.m. ET on Friday, before The Pressure-On Putter LeBron James’ deadline to inform the Cleveland Cavaliers whether he’ll opt into the final season of his current contract, or if he plans to enter unrestricted free agency and possibly seek a new address … like, say, Staples Center, where he’d start anew in Southern California, joined by another All-NBA wing. (Or two.)

Marc Stein of the New York Times reported Thursday morning that — despite hopes they’d be able to rebuild their relationship with their centerpiece star, whether through conversation or with the carrot of a five-year, $219 million super-maximum-salaried contract next offseason — the Spurs might now be “ready” to trade Leonard. The former NBA Finals MVP and two-time Defensive Player of the Year played only nine games this season during a year-long saga in which his struggles with a lingering right quadriceps injury evolved into a battle between his “group” of representatives and the San Antonio organization over the handling of the injury.

If indeed the Spurs are ready to move on, it’s time to find out which teams are going to come up with the best bids for his services. With the heat reportedly on, Johnson and general manager Rob Pelinka have reportedly put the Lakers in the mix … but, according to ESPN’s Adrian Wojnarowski, they’re not alone.

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Lakers vs. Celtics: Vol. 1,000,000

Quoth Woj:

The San Antonio Spurs are engaged with several teams in trade talks on All-NBA forward Kawhi Leonard, including the Los Angeles Lakers and Boston Celtics, league sources told ESPN. […]

For now, the urgency of the Lakers’ July 1 free agent push for LeBron James and Paul George places a clock on its talks with the Spurs.

The Spurs have long been most intrigued with Boston’s trade assets, but it remains unclear how rich of a package the Celtics are willing to offer without a full understanding of the long-term implications of Leonard’s quad injury, nor an assurance that they can be certain of Leonard’s willingness to consider a long-term commitment next summer, league sources said.

Uncertainty over Kawhi Leonard’s health and long-term plans could make it less likely that the Celtics, Lakers or other suitors present the Spurs with major trade offers. (AP)
Uncertainty over Kawhi Leonard’s health and long-term plans could make it less likely that the Celtics, Lakers or other suitors present the Spurs with major trade offers. (AP)

Leonard doesn’t have a no-trade clause in his contract, so he doesn’t technically have much leverage in terms of trying to steer himself to a preferred trade destination. He does, however, have a $21.3 million player option for the 2019-20 season, meaning he can choose to enter unrestricted free agency next summer.

Celtics boss Danny Ainge might absolutely believe that, given a year to show Leonard all Boston has to offer (including a potential NBA Finals berth and another NBA championship), he could convince Kawhi to stick around for the long haul. But given his widely reported interest in going to L.A. come the summer of 2019, that’s something prospective suitors would have to weigh heavily when considering forking over the kind of assets they’d have to put on the table.

The Celtics have tons of chips, but maybe not the desire to cash them in

Blessed with an excellent roster featuring stars on big contracts, enticing young pieces on inexpensive rookie deals, and a war chest of future draft picks topped by the Sacramento Kings’ top-one-protected 2019 first-rounder and a Memphis Grizzlies pick that could wind up unprotected in 2021, the Celtics have a lot of different ways to get into the Leonard sweepstakes. That includes a player ESPN’s Zach Lowe recently considered the crown jewel of Kawhi talks: rising third-year forward Jaylen Brown, a legitimate starter on a conference finalist at just 21 years old and a gifted two-way wing with perennial All-Star potential.

If Boston really wants Leonard, it’s unlikely any other suitor could match what they can offer. But after Leonard’s injury-wrecked 2017-18 season and with no guarantees of anything beyond the summer of 2019, the Celtics are reportedly slow-playing their hand:

While they’re biding their time to see how things shake out — this is the privilege you enjoy when you’ve already got a final-four squad with a pair of in-their-prime All-Stars (Kyrie Irving and the nearly-cleared Gordon Hayward) set to join the crew next season — the Celtics might be doing something else, too. Namely: making the Lakers sweat, and driving up the eventual price they might have to pay to get what they want.

We’re about to find out how ready for the big time Magic Johnson and Rob Pelinka are

According to Wojnarowski, the Lakers’ opening offer includes intriguing forward Brandon Ingram and a future first-round pick. As much as you might like Ingram — and I like him plenty — that’s reportedly nowhere near enough to get traction on a deal:

The price for Leonard would be substantial. The Lakers could have to surrender a combination of former first-round picks — from Ingram, Kyle Kuzma and Josh Hart — and future first-round picks and perhaps restricted free agent Julius Randle in a sign-and-trade agreement.

The Lakers have expressed a willingness to teams to take on 2018-19 salary for the chance to secure a future first-round pick, league sources said. That pick could be used to sweeten a prospective trade opportunity.

The Spurs could also push the Lakers to take an unappealing contract off their books.

If four good young rotation players, multiple future picks and salary relief seems to you like an awful lot for the Spurs to be asking for a guy who’s reportedly adamant that he won’t set foot in San Antonio’s locker room … well, you’re not wrong. But the Spurs already have Leonard under contract for another year, and they’re not the ones in danger of seeing their cap space turn into a pumpkin if LeBron balks come midnight Saturday.

Besides: if you’re the Lakers, the prize on the other side of this negotiation is LeBron Freaking James, the player you’ve been waiting ages to get a crack at draping in purple and gold. Landing him makes every risk worth it. Right?

That pressure, plus the looming presence of the Celtics, gives L.A.’s braintrust three enemies to beat: Ainge, widely considered perhaps the NBA’s shrewdest and fleeciest operator; the Spurs’ rumored desire to send Kawhi anywhere but his preferred destination; and the clock. The tick-tick-ticking clock.

The Lakers can see the instant-juggernaut team of their dreams coming into focus, just beyond their grasp. Unless something makes the Spurs blink, though, it seems like the price to actually reach out and touch it might be everything L.A.’s got.

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Dan Devine is a writer and editor for Yahoo Sports. Have a tip? Email him at devine@yahoosports.com or follow him on Twitter!

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