On Wednesday, coach Gregg Popovich said he'd be "surprised" if Leonard returns this season from a quadriceps injury that has limited the forward to just nine appearances.
According to ESPN's Adrian Wojnarowski, "The injury, rehabilitation and timetable for a return has complicated the Spurs' and Leonard's relationship, causing tension and fraying the fabric of what was once a strong partnership, league sources told ESPN. The uncertainty surrounding this season—and Leonard's future, which could include free agency in the summer of 2019—has inspired a palpable stress around the organization, league sources said."
Leonard still has two years and $41.4 million left on his deal with the Spurs, but he can escape his contract in July 2019 with a player option.
This summer, San Antonio can offer the two-time All-Star a designated veteran extension worth roughly $219 million over five years (starting with the 2019-20 season). He qualified with back-to-back All-NBA First Team honors the past two campaigns, despite his struggles to stay healthy this season.
Only the Spurs can offer a supermax contract, but do they if the relationship is indeed in peril?
Popovich overcame issues with All-Star LaMarcus Aldridge, who had demanded a trade before ultimately accepting an extension through the 2020-21 season. Maybe any dissonance with Leonard will be resolved before a divorce.
That the Spurs are the only team that can offer Leonard a supermax deal may be motive enough for the forward. If traded, his max to re-sign with any other team drops to $183 million. Should he leave for a new franchise in free agency, the most he can earn will be almost $140 million over four years. All estimates are based on the NBA's $108 million salary-cap projection for 2019-20.
Lakers executives Earvin "Magic" Johnson and Rob Pelinka would be wise to monitor the Leonard situation closely. If Los Angeles is unable to land two stars this summer, saving cap room for the Riverside native may be the ultimate "Plan B."
By trading Timofey Mozgov in June and Jordan Clarkson recently at the trade deadline, the Lakers put themselves in position to chase two max free agents this summer. If they are successful in luring George (27 years old) this July but not a second star, they could look to build a devastating two-way combination with Leonard in 2019.
If so, Los Angeles would be investing in younger stars than James (33). Ultimately, it's up to the free agents to decide where they want to play. The Lakers can only be in the position to accommodate financially.
Other possible targets in 2018 might include DeAndre Jordan or DeMarcus Cousins (currently out with a torn Achilles). The list in 2019 may include Klay Thompson, Kemba Walker, Kyrie Irving and/or Jimmy Butler.
The Lakers' future depends on how patient Johnson, Pelinka and team owner Jeanie Buss are willing to be. The young core may become something special together, or they may all plateau without ever becoming All-Stars.
If Los Angeles wants to rush the process, it could offer one or two key pieces to San Antonio in June for Leonard. Brandon Ingram, Kyle Kuzma and Luol Deng work for Leonard (and Brandon Paul, for salary matching), although different combinations can be built to include ones with Lonzo Ball and/or Josh Hart. The numbers are more forgiving in July, when salaries roll over to the next season.
That would be a bold move for both teams. If Leonard intends to leave the Spurs, they land two bright prospects in return. Should Leonard waive his trade bonus, the Lakers would have roughly $63.5 left to spend in free agency, very close to the $65 million needed to pay both James and George.
It would leave the Lakers with only Ball, Josh Hart and a couple of draft picks, but it may not be difficult to flesh out the rest of the team with a core built around Leonard, James and George.
Obviously, it may be too big a leap that the Spurs are ready to part with Leonard, take on Deng's $36.8 million over the next two seasons and that they value Ingram and Kuzma as a worthy return for their trouble.
Additionally, the Lakers probably prefer to hold onto their young players, who are still on rookie contracts, with hopes of adding two All-Stars to the equation without significant subtractions.
Los Angeles may have a path to three stars via trade, be it with the Spurs or a different franchise altogether, but that likely requires the team to short-circuit the youth movement.
To a degree, they have already shown that they are willing to sacrifice their kids—dealing D'Angelo Russell, Jordan Clarkson and Larry Nance Jr.—for the financial flexibility they need to add stars.
If Johnson and Pelinka believe Ingram, Kuzma and Ball are foundational pieces, then they need to groom them, but if chasing All-Stars is paramount, the Lakers should, at a minimum, check in with San Antonio to see where they stand with Leonard.