It’s yet to be clear whether or not Kawhi Leonard will actually hit the trade market this summer, but here’s what we do know: Teams will be calling about the San Antonio Spurs superstar’s availability.
“I have already talked to several general managers,” ESPN’s Brian Windhorst said Monday. “At the end of this season, teams will call the Spurs and inquire about the availability of Kawhi Leonard. And the fact that that would even happen is a dramatic shift that none of us could have foreseen coming.”
Well, none of us could have foreseen it coming last offseason, when Leonard’s right quadriceps tendinopathy was only supposed to keep him out for a portion of the preseason. We can all see it coming now that Leonard and the Spurs have spent a full season publicly disagreeing about the treatment of that injury, which has kept him from all but nine games and fractured their relationship.
Any GM who doesn’t call about Leonard’s availability this summer is doing his team a disservice.
Despite being medically cleared to play by San Antonio, according to ESPN’s Adrian Wojnarowski, Leonard has reportedly spent multiple stints in New York, seeking second opinions and rehabbing away from the team. Meanwhile, reports emerged of Leonard’s stalled shoe contract discussions over concerns Jordan Brand won’t pay him like other superstars or offer him a signature shoe, leading to questions about whether his career motives aren’t what we imagined for the soft-spoken Spur.
Back in San Antonio, Spurs coach Gregg Popovich has openly questioned whether the two-time First Team All-NBA selection will return at all this season. Veteran teammates Manu Ginobili and Tony Parker have been the most outspoken about their cryptic concerns about Leonard’s availability. The team even called a players-only meeting “imploring” Leonard to return, according to Wojnarowski.
Spurs players denied that last bit, but there’s no doubt something is amiss between Leonard and the Spurs. Does he distrust the organization for urging him to play through an injury from which he’s not prepared to return? Does he have a desire to emerge from Popovich’s shadow as a more front-facing superstar in a bigger market? As many whispers as we’ve heard, we still don’t have any answers.
It all seems so strange, because it’s the Spurs, a well-oiled machine with stars who haven’t strayed from the San Antonio way for two decades and five titles. This is the same franchise that turned last summer’s disgruntled LaMarcus Aldridge into an All-NBA player over one discussion with Popovich.
Leonard’s injury remains a concern, but teams would wait on hold for the right to bid for his services — his hometown Los Angeles Lakers chief among them. He is a 26-year-old two-time Defensive Player of the Year who finished top-three in MVP voting each of the previous two years and transformed the Spurs into a legitimate threat in Game 1 against the Golden State Warriors before an ankle injury cost him the 2017 Western Conference finals. Windhorst’s “several” GMs might as well be all of them.
That’s also why the Spurs will do everything to keep Leonard. They may make the playoffs without him, but they’re a title contender with him. He is under contract next season with a player option for 2019, and he’s eligible for a five-year supermax extension from San Antonio this summer worth roughly $219 million. Here’s where things get even trickier in this awkwardly developing relationship.
Leonard can force San Antonio’s hand by threatening to leave in free agency a year from now, a la Kyrie Irving, but the Spurs can also call his bluff, because opposing teams can only offer $89 million less on the open market (or $43 million less if he ever succeeded in forcing a trade). So, the best and most likely solution for all parties is to mend this broken fence, as Popovich did with Aldridge.
Let’s not forget, last we heard from Leonard, he “for sure” wanted to remain a Spur for life. So, maybe this is all drama for naught. Or maybe that was just lip service. Either way, the phones will be ringing.
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