With Kawhi Leonard Out Indefinitely, Will Spurs Make Splash at Trade Deadline?

Dan Favale@@danfavaleFeatured ColumnistJanuary 17, 2018

SAN ANTONIO, TX - JANUARY 5: Kawhi Leonard #2 of the San Antonio Spurs handles the ball against the Phoenix Suns on January 5, 2018 at the AT&T Center in San Antonio, Texas. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading and or using this photograph, user is consenting to the terms and conditions of the Getty Images License Agreement. Mandatory Copyright Notice: Copyright 2018 NBAE (Photos by Mark Sobhani/NBAE via Getty Images)
Mark Sobhani/Getty Images

Could this be the year the San Antonio Spurs break character and make a splash ahead of the NBA's trade deadline?

No, you have not entered the Twilight Zone. Nor have you stumbled into some alternate universe in which the Spurs aren't the Spurs but are the Los Angeles Lakers or any one of LeBron James' recent teams, futzing and fiddling with their roster at every turn.

Turn on your phone's location services. It will confirm you're still stationed in real life.

But if you then switch over to your Bleacher Report or Twitter apps, you'll find out the Spurs have announced Kawhi Leonard will be out indefinitely with a right quad injury. And that drives up their potential trade-deadline activity.

Losing the two-time Defensive Player of the Year doesn't immediately change much in San Antonio. He's played in fewer than 10 games this season due to quad and shoulder issues and only occasionally looked like his offensive self. 

The Spurs, at 29-16, have one of the league's five best records anyway, with a second-place defense to boot. Their offensive output has explored both peaks and valleys, but LaMarcus Aldridge is holding down the fort. The Spurs post a top-10 offensive rating with him on the court and have matched the Toronto Raptors' production whenever he shares the floor with Patty Mills.

Sit tight, without touching the roster, and San Antonio will cruise into the postseason as a top-four seed. The front office, true to its usual disposition, doesn't have to rush into anything. This team will keep its head and shoulders above water until Leonard recovers from his latest setback.

Then again, indefinite leaves cannot be treated lightly. They carry inbuilt pessimistic vibes for any team, and this situation is cause for more discomfort because the Spurs operate like, well, the Spurs.

That refrain typically implies a certain reassurance. The Spurs can overcome anything and everything, including the absence of their best player and top-five superstar, because they're deep and well-oiled and disciplined and forever greater than the sum of their parts.

They're also tycoons of simulated transparency. They don't always offer concrete injury timetables. The use of "indefinite" is so often implied even when it goes unwritten and unspoken. Leonard's first brush with this quad issue earlier in the season is proof.

The Spurs have no need to panic without Leonard given how well Aldridge is playing.
The Spurs have no need to panic without Leonard given how well Aldridge is playing.Dylan Buell/Getty Images

"Sure, anything is possible," head coach Gregg Popovich said in late October when asked if Leonard could return during a six-game homestand slated for early November, per the San Antonio Express-News' Tom Orsborn. "But I don’t spend a lot of time thinking about when somebody is going to come back. Because they are going to come back when they are ready, when the docs say they are ready. So when that happens, that happens."

"I don’t ask those questions," he added. "When they are back, then I know they are here."

Leonard would go on to miss the first 27 games of the season. That doesn't mean the Spurs were dishonest by design. Popovich, to his credit, told ESPN.com's Michael C. Wright he had "never" encountered anything like Leonard's touch-and-go recovery before.

And yet, this fickleness is also kind of the point: Leonard's quad injury is a pre-existing issue the Spurs, by their own admission, haven't been able to crack. That doesn't allow them to plan for now, or even bide their time for the next six to eight weeks. They have to worry about the bigger picture.

What if Leonard doesn't return until late in the year, just before the playoffs? Or what if he doesn't return at all this year? As The Ringer's Justin Verrier pointed out, Anthony Davis needed a few months to return from a similar injury. No two players are the same, but again: Leonard's rehabilitation has already defied, if confused, the Spurs' expectations.

And though they might fend off the Minnesota Timberwolves' push for third place in the Western Conference without making a move, standing pat won't bode well for them during the postseason. They've played through the NBA's second-easiest schedule and gone a combined 4-6 against the West's top eight teams. Life isn't getting any easier with a reduced version of Leonard, let alone entirely without him.

Without knowing how long Leonard will be out, the Spurs must keep all their options open—even those tied to the trade market.
Without knowing how long Leonard will be out, the Spurs must keep all their options open—even those tied to the trade market.Jim McIsaac/Getty Images

Taking to the trade market holds a certain appeal even to them—particularly with Rudy Gay also watching from the sidelines.

San Antonio isn't armed with a ton of assets, but scouts and executives are bracing for a flat deadline, according to the Washington Post's Tim Bontemps. That should open the door for midseason buyers to pick up impact players on the relative cheap, since they won't be challenging many other market aggressors.

Tyreke Evans is up for grabs, per ESPN.com's Adrian Wojnarowski. Though the Memphis Grizzlies are seeking a first-rounder, could the Spurs sway them with Kyle Anderson and a second? Anderson has been great, but he's due a raise this summer, and Evans is, by far, the superior scorer and pick-and-roll triggerman.

Stanley Johnson is not considered untouchable by the Detroit Pistons, according to ESPN.com's Ian Begley. He's oftentimes an offensive pit, but the Spurs have previously shown interest in him, per ESPN.com's Zach Lowe. Could they try doubling down on the all-defense-everything model? Or can they maybe coax Detroit into giving up Johnson and the underachieving Avery Bradley for Anderson, Gay, Derrick White or Bryn Forbes and a first-rounder?

Making the playoffs is fast becoming a pipe dream for the New York Knicks. If they turn into sellers, as they should, does Anderson, Gay and either White or this year's first get Michael Beasley and Courtney Lee?

Sensible options beyond this are in scant supply unless the Spurs knife into their core as part of a blockbuster. And opening their treasure chest for a Kent Bazemore or Evan Fournier doesn't make sense.

Kemba Walker is a different story. As the New York Times' Marc Stein wrote of the Charlotte Hornets:

"Yet we advise you to track them at least through the Feb. 8 trade deadline because Charlotte will probably be forced to consider dealing Kemba Walker. If Walker stays, Jordan risks losing his best player without compensation in the summer of 2019 —or, perhaps worse, paying big bucks to hang on to him instead of starting an overdue tear-down of a pricey but mediocre roster."

The asking price on an All-Star more than one year out from free agency will be steep, and the Spurs won't be the only team at the bargaining table. But, given the precarious spot in which the offense finds itself, they have the incentive to float Gay's could-be expiring contract (player option), Anderson, Dejounte Murray, a first and a second for Walker and Michael Carter-Williams.

Do the Spurs have the juice to chase a blockbuster at the trade deadline?
Do the Spurs have the juice to chase a blockbuster at the trade deadline?Mark Sobhani/Getty Images

Other pieces can be involved as well. The Spurs could try including more salary to absorb one of Charlotte's less savory deals—though that'd be difficult without giving up Danny Green or Tony Parker. They could fork over an extra first-rounder or dangle White and Bryn Forbes. 

It would take a lot for San Antonio to cobble together a competitive package. But Walker, at the bare minimum, is worth the exploration. He's the difference between the Hornets scoring like a top-eight offense and dead-last sad sack. He can more than handle his own in Leonard's absence, and the fit with both of them figures to be transcendent.

Of course, this comes with the caveat to end all caveats:

The Spurs have not pulled the trigger on a midseason trade since they acquired Austin Daye from the Raptors for Nando de Colo...in 2014.

Shaking things up midyear isn't their style. This latest Leonard snafu won't compel the Spurs to break rank now—even though, with the West's competitive landscape being what it is, they probably should.

      

Unless otherwise cited, stats courtesy of NBA.com or Basketball Reference and accurate leading into games on Jan. 17.

Dan Favale covers the NBA for Bleacher Report. Follow him on Twitter (@danfavale) and listen to his Hardwood Knocks podcast, co-hosted by B/R's Andrew Bailey.

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