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LeBron James moved to Los Angeles, Kevin Durant stayed in Oakland, and the rest of the NBA has seemingly convened in Las Vegas for summer league. Save for Isaiah Thomas’ wistful Brink’s truck chase and a few restricted free agents searching for offer sheets in a salary cap-strapped market, the dog days of NBA summer are nigh — but for one potential association-tilting unanswered question …
What in the world is going on with Kawhi Leonard?
For the most part, the San Antonio Spurs superstar’s situation remains the same as it did prior to midnight on July 1. A year before he can become a free agent, Leonard wants out of San Antonio and into his hometown of L.A. — to the point that some NBA executives told ESPN’s Stephen A. Smith that they believe the two-time Defensive Player would sit out yet another season to force such a trade.
Leonard is holding the NBA summer hostage, as Kyrie Irving did a year ago, and San Antonio doesn’t want to be stuck holding the same package Boston dumped at Cleveland’s door. As one Western Conference executive told The Undefeated, “It’s like the entire league is just waiting on the shoe to drop.” The Spurs, being the Spurs, have kept intentions quiet, engaging in a staring contest instead.
But recent reports might force one side to blink quicker than San Antonio might want you to think.
“You gotta expect that he’s gone sooner than later,” that same West exec told The Undefeated. “You don’t want that dragging into the season. And for someone like Kawhi, you absolutely have to get something in return.”
Wanting to maximize that return and perhaps even holding out hope coach Gregg Popovich can mend Leonard’s broken fence as he did with LaMarcus Aldridge’s, the Spurs have resisted initial offers for the former Finals MVP. San Antonio might want teams to believe they are willing to keep Leonard on the roster, but should he sit or begrudgingly stay, the closer we get to the trade deadline, the less likely suitors will be to part with assets, knowing he could be had for cap space in a few short months.
Even now, knowing Leonard can leave for nothing in unrestricted free agency next summer, the three most capable suitors have yet to put their best offer on the table. According to reports, the L.A. Lakers, Philadelphia 76ers and Boston Celtics have not included Brandon Ingram, Markelle Fultz or Jaylen Brown in their respective proposals. But the Spurs want even more, so everyone is locking eyes again.
ESPN’s Zach Lowe last week listed a few reasons why the Leonard trade stare-down might soon turn to meaningful discussion — LeBron James urging the Lakers to pull the trigger, more legitimate suitors emerging for his services and/or Kawhi demonstrating a willingness to re-sign outside of L.A. LeBron reportedly hasn’t applied pressure on Magic Johnson to go all in for Leonard yet, but those other two options might soon be on the negotiating table, if they aren’t there already, according to reports.
First, there was this from ESPN’s Michael C. Wright on the Back to Back podcast, via Bleacher Report (Leonard reports sure aren’t easy to keep track of, so it’s a good thing we’re here to sort them out):
“The Lakers are not Kawhi’s preferred destination anymore. He wants to go to the Clippers. Because he doesn’t want to go and be second fiddle to LeBron. That’s what I was told. I was told by somebody that would know. So right now the Clippers are where he wants to go.
“But I’m also told — I talked to people within the Spurs organization — and they’re like, ‘Yeah he wants to go to the Clippers, but their assets are s*** at this point.'”
Those “s***” assets: Tobias Harris, rookies Shai Gilgeous-Alexander and Jerome Robinson, and a future first-round pick, none of which compares to the best offer the Lakers, Sixers or Celtics could put forth.
Then, not long after Lowe included the Toronto Raptors on his theoretical list of mystery suitors for Leonard, The Washington Post’s Tim Bontemps suggested the Raptors “generated buzz as a potential destination for Leonard.” Bontemps did not share what that buzz was, exactly, or how much it buzzed.
Here’s how Lowe originally imagined it:
The most logical all-in play on the board is Toronto offering DeRozan, one of Pascal Siakam, Delon Wright,Jakob Poeltl, and OG Anunoby, and a future first-round pick. Upgrade from DeRozan to Leonard, and the Drakes have a real shot to make the NBA Finals. Maybe Leonard would love Toronto, and enjoy playing in May and June in front of that nutty crowd.
If Leonard walks, the damage isn’t so severe. After this season, DeRozan will either opt in to $27.7 million or enter free agency seeking a mega-contract as he turns 30. But DeRozan is really good, Leonard is a huge flight risk, and my hunch is the Spurs would demand too much future stuff for Toronto’s taste (if it has any interest in the first place).
But before Canadians could work up their excitement over this hypothetical deal, ESPN’s Chris Haynes poured some cold water on it. “Los Angeles [the Lakers and Clippers] are his preferred destinations,” Haynes said on “The Jump.” “He will consider Philly. That’s the only Eastern Conference team that he would consider if they’re able to put a package together. … I think Philly has a really good chance.”
We should note that the Spurs don’t need Leonard’s permission to trade him anywhere. He can certainly steer negotiations in his direction by refusing to play for teams or insisting he’ll leave in 2019, but he does not have a no-trade clause and cannot dictate his future until next summer. So, we’re left to wonder whether Haynes meant Leonard would consider re-signing in Philadelphia.
And that’s the key. The Raptors and Celtics won’t mortgage futures for the slim chance they can change Leonard’s mind by fielding a title contender around. L.A. or Philadelphia it would be, then.
Of course, there is also the possibility that these reports — reported on podcasts and TV shows and everywhere but in writing — are just smokescreens sent from San Antonio to get the Lakers and 76ers to bid against each other. With all this smoke, you’d think somebody will blink “sooner than later,” as that one exec said, and we know Popovich and Leonard well enough to know they’ll hold their stares.
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