The NBA is now a twelve month sport. Considering that the NFL used to be vastly more popular than its principal competitor, this would have been difficult imagine not long ago. But basketball has gained ground in recent years, becoming more important both in the U.S. and across the world. Games are now played from mid-October through mid-June, and the remainder of June is dominated by the draft and free agent predictions; July and August cover free agency and summer league games; and by August and September we are already talking about headlines going into the season.
Kawhi gets his say
This year, the NBA cycle is no different. Through June, league observers have been transfixed by a developing storyline concerning the future of Kawhi Leonard.
Until this past season, most of us assumed that a franchise as humble and business-like as the San Antonio Spurs was the perfect fit for a quiet Superstar like Kawhi. As fans, we essentially stripped Kawhi of his personality and individuality without giving him a say. But that, of course, changed dramatically last season.
It was nothing short of perplexing to watch Kawhi sit out the season and the playoffs. We already knew something was off, but more and more reports are pointing to the fact that Kawhi definitely wants out of San Antonio, and preferably, wants to go play for the Lakers. It’s a new era in the NBA, where players are nearing full control of who they play for, and Kawhi is just joining the club. With that said, let’s explore some of the trade destinations that have been put out there.
Los Angeles Lakers
Trade Scenario: Lakers get Kawhi Leonard, Spurs get Brandon Ingram, Channing Frye, Kyle Kuzma, No. 25 pick this year, Unprotected 1st round pick in 2020
This is obviously the trade that Leonard and his camp wants to happen. And I would definitely consider this if I was in the Spurs front office.
Ingram still has all star potential, and Kuzma will definitely be a quality starter over his career. You have to take on Frye’s salary for the trade to work, but his contract expires next year, so that’s not too bad. And getting two first round picks, even if they’re a little later in the draft, still has immense value.
This trade would show that you’re not tanking, but simply restructuring to build a new team around youth. And for the rumors that the Spurs won’t trade Kawhi within the Western Conference, that has always been the dumbest reason not to trade someone. Who cares if it’s in your own conference, the rivalries are less intense nowadays and it doesn’t matter if you win your division or even conference if you don’t win the title. Refusing a good trade for a principle such as conference structure is flawed and honestly very petty.
I would only be concerned about this trade from the Lakers’ perspective because it is risky to give up two solid prospects and draft picks for a guy coming off a bad injury and who could still leave after next year if he’s unhappy. That said, the Lakers should still go for it if the Spurs agreed. They have been rebuilding for long enough, and have witnessed other historic rivals that have been rebuilt in the Sixers and Celtics, and are now already title contenders for the next few years. Kawhi would immediately make the Lakers a playoff team and might even bring further attraction to LeBron and Paul George. Whenever you have a chance to form a team that can definitely compete for titles, you always go for it.
Trade Scenario: Celtics get Kawhi Leonard, Spurs get Jaylen Brown, Aron Baynes, the Kings top-1 protected pick 2019, the Celtics’ unprotected 1st round pick 2020.
If you think I’m overvaluing Kawhi too much, think back to the 2014 NBA Finals.
Face it, Kawhi was unbelievable last time he was at full health, even if his defense slipped the tiniest bit, he’s still a lockdown guy and his offense took off to new heights. His only flaw is his passing and playmaking, which wouldn’t be a problem in Brad Stevens’ easy to play in system, and with an awesome playmaker at point guard with Kyrie.
You make the trade if you’re the Celtics because it’s the exact same thing you did last offseason where you stole Kyrie when he was upset — and that worked out great for you. Boston has historically thrived off of crafty deals, so I could definitely see Ainge going for this.
Once again though, you run the risk of Kawhi being injured, and more importantly, leaving for the rival Lakers next summer. However, the Celtics with would certainly be favorites to win the East, and a Finals appearance would be hard to walk away from in Free Agency. If I’m the Spurs, I’d really like this deal, as I truly think Jaylen Brown is 100% an all star and first class defender who can become your poor man’s Kawhi, while a pick from the Kings is guaranteed value — because they’re the Kings. The one hesitation I have is the fact that I’m dealing with the Celtics. With how Ainge has swindled GM after GM, I might put down the phone as soon as I see the caller ID. Rule #1 to building your team in the NBA: Never make trades with Danny Ainge or Bob Meyers (the Warriors’ GM).
Trade Scenario: 76ers get Kawhi Leonard, Spurs get Dario Saric, Markelle Fultz, Robert Covington, and the 10th pick in this draft.
The Sixers are famous for trading for talent they want, and Kawhi is a perfect fit. Philadelphia desperately need an athletic wing after Jayson Tatum and Jaylen Brown ate poor JJ Redick and Marco Belinelli alive in the 2nd Round. They also need a wing who can shoot and spread the floor with non-shooter Simmons.
I wouldn’t be concerned about Kawhi leaving next summer because the Sixers have a great locker room, and I have a feeling that LeBron might come this way if Kawhi already joined the Process. However, as great as this would be for Philadelphia, the Spurs are not stupid. Sure, Dario is awesome and as a great passer would excel in the Spurs’ system and could be a legitimate all star by next year. And no one would complain about a top 10 pick in an interesting draft like this.
The problem, though, is the other two. Covington is so inconsistent that it’s infuriating and his lack of common sense at time could lead to Popovich actually pulling a muscle well yelling at him for a botching a play late in a close game. And Fultz, oh Fultz. The Spurs know that there is something seriously wrong with his mindset and shot, and realize that they’d be lucky if Fultz got to be as good as Dejounte Murray is right now. So most likely, the Sixers would need to offer many more 1st round picks, which I’m not sure they would.
Trade Scenario: Cavs get Kawhi Leonard, Spurs get the 8th pick in this draft, Kevin Love, Larry Nance Jr., 2020 1st Round Top-3 Protected Draft Pick
A bit of a reach. I don’t know if the Spurs would want Kevin Love, who is nowhere near an all star in the West and a clunky fit next to LaMarcus Aldridge. A front court of slow footed Kyle Andersen, Pau Gasol, LaMarcus Aldridge, and Kevin Love would collapse defensively upon coming in contact with a butter knife, much less a quick NBA guard.
Pop would love Nance Jr., but simple likability isn’t enough. And those picks probably wouldn’t be great enough to convince San Antonio either. As for Cleveland, this fits their theme of go all in for LeBron right now, which isn’t a horrible strategy, but is set to catch up eventually.
Kawhi would definitely help Cleveland’s chances in retaining LeBron, but it in no way makes it more of a certainty. Just Kawhi still wouldn’t be enough to beat the Warriors and maybe not even the Celtics, who are guaranteed to be better next year. And just think if this deal happened, but LeBron still left, and then Kawhi left the next summer — Cleveland would immediately join it’s brother the Browns as a factory of sadness. They would be without a 1st round pick for three straight years even while being possibly the worst team over that time. I just don’t see a way the Cavs could pull this off short of LeBron paying Kawhi $100 million under the table and guaranteeing him a business partnership when LeBron owns his own team in the future (which is in no way impossible).
Los Angeles Clippers
Trade Scenario: Clippers get Kawhi Leonard, Spurs get Tobias Harris, 12th and 13th Picks in this year’s Draft, Top-5 Protected 1st Round Pick 2020
A pretty interesting trade in which the Spurs decide to completely rebuild through youth and probably trade away LaMarcus after this for more youth and 1st round picks. Tobias Harris is really good and will get you between 18 to 30 points every night while playing quality defense, which cannot be undervalued. And considering that Kawhi could still leave, that pick in 2020 would be interesting.
I’d still say no if I’m the Spurs because a) I don’t know if I can assure a successful rebuild with this haul and b) I don’t want to give Kawhi to Jerry West. Speaking of West, don’t count him out in anything. A trade for Kawhi to the cursed Clippers would bring Kawhi to his hometown while giving him a chance to build his own legacy. Not to mention, Jerry West could get LeBron on the phone and maybe even shock the world of stealing James in the NBA’s biggest sweepstakes. The Spurs wouldn’t go for this and there’s just not enough that the Clippers can offer, but this still would be fun for everyone involved.
Trade Scenario: Suns get Kawhi Leonard, Spurs get the 1st overall pick, TJ Warren, 2nd Round Pick in 2019
A lot of the teams with top picks want to flip the pick for a star to help turn their franchises around, and the Suns want to do it more than anyone. They want to become relevant again, and even more importantly, they want to keep Devin Booker happy. The Suns would definitely be competitive with Kawhi, but they’re nowhere near a contender without years of building, especially with the atrocity known as Elfrid Payton still running the point. I actually might do this if I’m the Spurs, because you can take Luka Doncic and build around him to prove that the Spurs are officially Europe’s team and representation in the NBA. Just imagine Doncic’s beautiful passing in that Popovich system. It’s not going to happen, but it would once again be a fun scenario.
Where does this leave us?
Kawhi is a HUGE, HUGE risk. But basketball is the star-driven league, and it is absolutely undeniable that Kawhi is an elite level player who has proven that he can be the best player on a championship team — and those guys are very rare in NBA history.
The Spurs want a massive haul, not just one nice piece, and they’re smart enough to know that someone out there is willing to go for it. While I was at first leaning to the Lakers as Kawhi’s destination, with their young assets finding a way to make a deal work, the report that the Spurs don’t want to trade inside the Western Conference leads me to believe that the Celtics, the most clever and successful franchise throughout NBA history, will find a way to yet again steal a superstar and make the rest of the league pay for it. Just another problem for my Sixers to deal with.