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Well, damn. Kawhi Leonard made it clear on Friday that — while he has reportedly yet to lodge a trade request — he no longer wants to play for the San Antonio Spurs, according to Yahoo Sports NBA Insider Shams Charania.
We knew that there’d be plenty of interest in Leonard’s services this offseason. Still, that’s a jaw-dropper and a potential league-shifter, the latest and most stunning turn of events in a season-long saga that has seen the All-NBA forward’s struggle with a lingering right quadriceps injury evolve into an ongoing battle between Leonard’s “group” of representatives and the Spurs organization over the handling of the injury, how Leonard communicated with his Spurs teammates throughout his treatment, what the injury even is, and a slew of other matters.
Two days ago, we were waiting on a planned meeting between Leonard and Spurs head coach Gregg Popovich to shed some more light on the San Antonio centerpiece’s status with the franchise. Now, Leonard “has become uncomfortable with any future with the Spurs […] and is prepared to move on immediately,” according to Charania, despite the fact that only the Spurs have the ability to offer Leonard a five-year, $219 super-max contract extension next summer. That would suggest that we blew past the “lunch with Pop will smooth things over” exit a few miles ago.
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. Given the Los Angeles native’s reported interest in returning home, that’s something prospective suitors would have to weigh heavily when considering forking over the kind of assets they’d have to part with to get San Antonio to ship out a two-time All-NBA selection and two-time Defensive Player of the Year.
Taking all that into consideration, along with reports that he’d be looking to play in a bigger market than San Antonio and the assumption that a former NBA Finals MVP would also want to land in position to contend for titles, here’s a quick look at 10 Leonard landing spots that might make sense:
The return of Lakers exceptionalism
Los Angeles Lakers get: Kawhi Leonard, Bryn Forbes
San Antonio Spurs get: Brandon Ingram/Lonzo Ball, Kyle Kuzma, Luol Deng, 2018 Cleveland Cavaliers first-round draft pick (No. 25 overall)
The Lakers are Leonard’s team of preference, according to ESPN’s Adrian Wojnarowski. If Leonard and his representatives continue to emphasize publicly and privately that he’s bound for L.A. one way or another, whether this summer or next, and that the Lakers are the only team with whom he’ll re-sign, it could have a chilling effect on his trade market — you really don’t want to give up a ton and wind up with nothing to show for it just one year later — and put the Lakers in position to present what would wind up being the best deal available.
The decommissioned Deng, who has played just one game for rebuilding L.A. since February 2017, provides the salary ballast for a proposal built around two of L.A.’s top under-23 talents. Ingram opened eyes last season by averaging 16.1 points, 5.3 rebounds and 3.9 assists per game — one of only 15 players ever to hit those numbers before age 21 — and serving effectively as a 6-foot-10 point forward while Ball was injured in January and February. One of the steals of the 2017 draft, Kuzma proved an NBA-ready scorer at power forward from the jump, averaging 16.1 points and 6.3 rebounds per game while shooting 36.6 percent from 3-point range on his way to earning First-Team All-Rookie honors. And while Ball would bring with him a certain level of off-court intrigue that might not seem to fit well in San Antonio, his combination of elite court vision, rebounding prowess, defensive activity and size at the point just might. (Then again, maybe it won’t.)
The goal with this deal, if you’re the Spurs, would be finding a pair of young blue chippers to pair with rising third-year point guard Dejounte Murray as part of a new core for a franchise that could be set to embark on a new era without Leonard and free agents Manu Ginobili and Tony Parker. And if you’re the Lakers … well, this is Step 1 in the let’s-take-over-the-world scenario in which Jeanie Buss, Magic Johnson and Rob Pelinka enter next season with Leonard, LeBron James and Paul George. It’d be one hell of a start.
And yet … what about the Clippers?
Los Angeles Clippers get: Kawhi Leonard
Spurs get: Tobias Harris, Patrick Beverley, the Nos. 12 and 13 picks in the 2018 NBA draft
According to Woj, L.A.’s other NBA team also “interests” Leonard, and according to Marc Stein of the New York Times, the Clippers “intend to be aggressive trade bidders” for Leonard should he hit the market. A package headlined by Harris (a high-scoring and efficient 25-year-old modern power forward), Beverley (a dogged and hard-nosed point guard on a minuscule contract who, even throughout myriad injuries, has remained one of the game’s best perimeter defenders) and two late lottery picks would seem like the sort of opening bid that would qualify, and might give the Spurs both enough immediate impact and enough potential to bolster the future core (whether by using both the 12th and 13th picks, or trying to package them with their own No. 18 overall pick to potentially move up into the top 10 on draft night) to get San Antonio to listen.
A new kind of Philly special
Philadelphia 76ers get: Kawhi Leonard and Derrick White
Spurs get: Robert Covington, Markelle Fultz, the No. 10 pick in the 2018 NBA draft or Dario Saric, Fultz, Jerryd Bayless and the pick
The Sixers just won 52 games behind two of the game’s brightest young talents, All-NBA center Joel Embiid and Rookie of the Year finalist Ben Simmons, and they’re poised to make a big splash this summer. A deal to import Leonard — when healthy, a legitimate contender for the crown of best two-way player in the sport, a viable candidate for both Most Valuable Player and Defensive Player of the Year honors — would represent an uppercut swing for the fences that would also leave enough salary cap space with which to pursue additional upgrades (including, perhaps, with enough maneuvering, the room to add James or George).
San Antonio, meanwhile, walks away with an instant starter at small forward in either All-Defense selection Covington or the versatile playmaking Saric, a chance to rehabilitate 2017’s No. 1 overall pick in their player development program, and an opportunity to add either another potential core piece (Mikal Bridges, Kevin Knox, Shai Gilgeous-Alexander, et al.) with the 10th pick.
Danny Ainge finally opens the war chest
Boston Celtics get: Kawhi Leonard
Spurs get: Kyrie Irving and the No. 27 pick in the 2018 NBA draft (or any number of other deals)
We know that Ainge has eyes for Leonard; Boston reportedly made an attempt to land him back at the trade deadline, though the Celtics’ offer went uncountered, and he’s reportedly ready to mount up again should the Spurs open up for business. There are lots of versions of this that could work, with some of Boston’s insane cache of draft picks heading to San Antonio to sweeten the pot. This one, though, is a clean financial swap that gives the Spurs an immediate injection of All-Star offensive talent at a vital position of need, allowing San Antonio to remain immediately competitive while also picking up another first-rounder. Leonard would bolster Boston’s already league-leading defense, giving Brad Stevens another dynamic 6-foot-8 wing talent capable of switching every assignment inside and out.
The Spurs might balk at the idea of bringing back Irving, with his history of knee issues, or Gordon Hayward, fresh off a catastrophic leg injury, and blanche at the idea of parting with Leonard without receiving either of Boston’s prize young wings — Jayson Tatum and Jaylen Brown — in return. One wonders if Ainge would be willing to sweeten the pot with enough of his future draft goodies — Boston’s owed protected first-rounders from the Sacramento Kings, Memphis Grizzlies and Clippers next year — to steer San Antonio away from that stance, or if he’d be willing to part ways with one (likely Brown) if it means adding a potential MVP to a team that just drew within one game of the NBA Finals.
Turning up: the Heat
Miami Heat get: Kawhi Leonard
Spurs get: Josh Richardson, Justise Winslow, Goran Dragic
Never doubt Pat Riley’s willingness to push all his chips into the middle if he thinks it’d land him a superstar. Miami’s lack of future draft capital hurts here — they owe first-rounders this summer and in 2021 to the Phoenix Suns, as part of the deal that landed Dragic in South beach — but if San Antonio’s looking for an immediate contributor at the point and building blocks on the wing, a package featuring Dragic, arguable All-Defense snub Richardson and the versatile Winslow (who played some of the best ball of his career late last season) might at least get them in the conversation. Whether Leonard would be interested in Miami remains to be seen, but as recruiting tools go, the Heat’s vaunted championship culture, a year under Erik Spoelstra and the magic of South Beach seem like a decent start.
Keep Kawhi weird
Portland Trail Blazers get: Kawhi Leonard, Pau Gasol
Spurs get: C.J. McCollum, Evan Turner, Portland’s 2018 and 2020 first-round picks
I don’t know that I believe this really has a chance of happening, but a big-ass swing is needed in Portland after their utter decimation at the hands of Anthony Davis, Jrue Holiday, Nikola Mirotic and Playoff Rondo. Neil Olshey and R.C. Buford trade salary dumps. San Antonio gets another cagey wing, a lead scorer and a pair of first-round picks. (More importantly, the San Antonio Express-News gets two great new quotes.) The Blazers get the kind of player who proves to Damian Lillard that they’re serious about being something more than a bridesmaid, and Kawhi gets a fresh start flanked by another All-Star scorer who can handle the leadership role.
What this deal presupposes is … LeBron stays
Cleveland Cavaliers get: Kawhi Leonard
Spurs get: Kevin Love and the No. 8 pick in the 2018 NBA draft
If home really is where LeBron James’ heart is, then Cleveland’s still a big market in context. San Antonio gets an All-Star forward and a shot at a potential foundational talent, and doesn’t have to give Kawhi what he wants. The Cavs get LeBron the elite perimeter running buddy they missed out on last summer, and make a quantum leap toward becoming more interesting in another potential matchup with Golden State. Magic Johnson, briefly, doesn’t smile.
Kawhi takes Manhattan
New York Knicks get: Kawhi Leonard
Spurs get: Frank Ntilikina, Tim Hardaway Jr., Troy Williams, the No. 9 pick in the 2018 NBA draft, New York’s 2020 No. 1
We consider this possibility solely due to the “big market” rumblings, and this report from ESPN’s Ian Begley:
It is exceedingly unlikely that the Spurs are interested in anything New York can offer short of Kristaps Porzingis (and, given his ACL tear, maybe even including him). That said, the best package the Knicks can built probably starts with Hardaway’s scoring (and salary), 2017 lottery pick Ntilikina, and a shot at two more high draft picks. Hardaway developed into a solid wing under Mike Budenholzer’s tutelage, and French guard Ntilikina’s a burgeoning defensive ace with a sweet stroke; this would be a bet that San Antonio’s coaching staff and development arm can get the former operating at the peak of his ability, and can turn the latter into, at worst, a dynamic 3-and-D wing.
It would also be a gamble that things will go badly enough in New York’s latest attempt at an organizational restructuring/rebuild that a 2020 first-rounder would have a real shot at being a top-three pick. With all due respect to Steve Mills, Scott Perry and David Fizdale, there are worse things to bet on than “stuff won’t work out great for the Knicks.”
Give us some Raptor news!
Toronto Raptors get: Kawhi Leonard and Patty Mills
Spurs get: DeMar DeRozan, OG Anunoby, Pascal Siakam
That thing about the Blazers needing a reset after their postseason sweep goes double for Toronto. Masai Ujiri fired the most successful coach in franchise history because something needed to change, and it’d be unwise to assume that he’s done.
DeRozan’s a multiple-time All-Star and an advancing playmaker who would immediately become the Spurs’ best scoring threat. Anunoby’s ostensibly a Leonard starter kit, a physical, fearless and versatile swingman who seems to be just scratching the surface of his talents. Siakam has made great leaps as a two-way playmaker at the forward spots, and was one of the linchpin pieces of Toronto’s dominant second unit this past season. This would help San Antonio stay afloat in the Western Conference playoff chase; this would be a lot to give up. But Leonard is precisely the kind of game-changing top-tier talent the Raptors have never had during Ujiri’s tenure. Adding him would be worth virtually anything Toronto could put together.
Rockets prepare for relaunch
Houston Rockets get: Kawhi Leonard
Spurs get: Eric Gordon, P.J. Tucker, Zhou Qi, a 2020 first-round pick
All that matters to Rockets general manager Daryl Morey is stacking enough talent to beat the Golden State Warriors. We all expect him to go after an MVP-caliber small forward to pair with James Harden and Chris Paul to take another run at it next year. But what if he goes after a different one?
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