Potential Trade Packages and Landing Spots for Spurs Star Kawhi Leonard
Fewer than 50 wins? Sitting outside the top two in the Western Conference? Imperfect dealings with Kawhi Leonard?
This must be what hell looks and feels like for the San Antonio Spurs and their fans.
Getting over the first sub-50-win season in 20 years doesn't take much. The same goes for a playoff appearance that won't include a second-place ticket. The West remains brutal, and the Spurs have been missing a top-five star for most of the year. Remaining in the playoff hunt at all, let alone within striking distance of home-court advantage through the first round, is an impressive feat unto itself.
Shaking off the apparently deteriorating relationship between Leonard and the franchise isn't as easy. Many scoffed when ESPN.com's Adrian Wojnarowski and Michael C. Wright first brought word of a growing rift in January. But those initial signs of smoke have since been traced back to real, live, actual flames.
"I don't know when he's going to feel, he and his group are going to feel like they're ready to go," Spurs head coach Gregg Popovich told reporters earlier this month of Leonard, who hasn't played since Jan. 13 while dealing with tendinopathy in his right quad. "If I knew, he'd be here. When he and his group feel he's ready, he'll be ready."
Chilly enough for ya?
Things have at least worsened to the point "several general managers" told ESPN.com's Brian Windhorst that numerous "teams will call the Spurs and inquire about the availability" of their megastar (h/t RealGM). ESPN.com's Zach Lowe confirmed this impending phone-call invasion, adding that "vultures are circling, in hopes of action around the draft."
Relocating superstars in their prime is a complicated endeavor. Leonard's contract situation doesn't help. He enters free agency in 2019 (player option), so the Spurs would be moving him as someone on an expiring deal working his way back from a serious injury.
They cannot expect to get equal value for his services in every potential case. The packages they're looking at will vary by team, depending on how confident their trade partner is that Leonard won't bolt in 2019—or how desperate the team is to make a huge splash this summer.
Each of these deals will be presented as if they're being completed after July 1. This allows certain suitors to capitalize on improved cap situations and better salary-matching tools while enabling others to ship out 2018 draft picks that have turned into players or 2019 selections they wouldn't otherwise be eligible to dangle. It also takes advantage of the extra roster spots San Antonio will have available.
Danny Ainge Throws a Superstar Party in Boston
Boston Celtics Receive: SF Kawhi Leonard
San Antonio Spurs Receive: SF/PF Marcus Morris, PG/SG Terry Rozier, SF/PF Jayson Tatum, PF/C Daniel Theis, 2019 top-eight protected first-round pick (from Boston, via Memphis)
The Celtics would be justified in refusing to mortgage the farm for Kawhi Leonard one year out from free agency. They're contending for the Eastern Conference's No. 1 seed without Gordon Hayward and while missing Kyrie Irving for the stretch run. They don't need to join this bidding war.
That doesn't give them the grounds to lowball San Antonio.
Authors of Marcus Smart sign-and-trades that also send out Terry Rozier and a first-round pick need to take their reality-check vitamins. The Celtics aren't getting Leonard without giving up at least one of Jaylen Brown or Jayson Tatum. He's Kawhi damn Leonard.
Superstar auctions seldom yield equal—or even comparable—value in return. But they're not supposed to be bloodlettings either. San Antonio can pivot to other offers if Boston isn't willing to pay more than clearance-rack prices.
In the event better proposals don't exist (they would), the Spurs might as well offer Leonard the five-year designated player extension for which he's eligible. He's not about to turn down that money after missing almost all of 2017-18, and they can always shop him later, just like the Los Angeles Clippers did with Blake Griffin after re-signing him last summer.
Negotiations wouldn't be so difficult for the Celtics a few months down the line. They could build an offer around a zillion first-rounders—including the 2019 Sacramento Kings pick—if they had the salary filler to do so. That might allow them to retain both Brown and Tatum if the Spurs are looking to begin a full-tilt rebuild.
But the Celtics won't have a more expensive Smart and, presumably, someone earning a portion of the mid-level exception until next February's trade deadline. And even then, the Spurs probably demand Brown or Tatum as part of any package.
Drawing a line in the sand at both is perfectly fine. Refusing to include either one would be inexplicable. Sacrificing Brown or Tatum is worth the roofless ceiling on a Fantastic Four of Hayward, Irving, Leonard and Horford.
Milwaukee Tries to Impress Giannis—And San Antonio
Milwaukee Bucks Receive: SF Kawhi Leonard, PG/SG Patty Mills
San Antonio Spurs Receive: PG/SG Malcolm Brogdon, C Thon Maker, SF/PF Khris Middleton, SG/SF Tony Snell, 2019 first-round pick*
Let's begin with the asterisked pick the Bucks would be parting with in this blockbuster.
This year's first-rounder is owed to the Phoenix Suns but protected for Nos. 1 to 10 and 17 to 30. As of now, the Bucks are projected to land at No. 15, in which case the pick would convey. And if they fulfill their obligations to Phoenix, they can send next year's first-round choice to San Antonio once the season resets and it's no longer considered a future selection.
If the Bucks wind up keeping their 2018 pick, the remaining protections on their commitment to the Suns—which extend to 2021—necessitate a change. The most likely outcome: offering the Spurs whomever they choose with this year's selection.
Nothing else will have to shift unless San Antonio demands additional compensation for transitioning from a four-for-two to a five-for-two. Overall, though, this represents the peak of what the Bucks have to give—provided the Spurs aren't irrationally high on a Jabari Parker sign-and-trade.
Anything resembling this framework could be a tough sell. The Spurs get finite upside with Malcolm Brogdon and Thon Maker, but they're not arming themselves with young building blocks. They're getting pieces aimed at helping them win now and into the immediate future.
That might not be a deal-breaker. Khris Middleton and Tony Snell are the eldest of the inbound bunch, and they're only 26. The Spurs open up a ton of nifty lineup combinations by landing them and Brodgon—particularly if they keep Danny Green (player option)—and getting off the three years, $39 million left on Patty Mills is youthful-injection-by-subtraction.
Having Brogdon (restricted) and Middleton (player option) reach free agency in 2019 poses some risk. But the Spurs would have to pay Leonard anyway. Re-signing them, plus one of Kyle Anderson (restricted) or Green this summer, should cost less per year than Leonard's average annual salary.
As for the Bucks, the chance to pair Giannis Antetokounmpo with another superhuman talent is too good to pass up—even if the newcomer is an imminent flight risk. They'll retain enough flexibility under the luxury tax to re-sign Parker and can worry about the financial implications attached to paying Leonard and Eric Bledsoe in 2019, after they've successfully put the rest of the East on red alert.
Cleveland Shows LeBron It Cares
Cleveland Cavaliers Receive: SF Kawhi Leonard, PG/SG Patty Mills
San Antonio Spurs Receive: PG/SG George Hill, SG/SF Kyle Korver, SG/SF/PF Cedi Osman, C Ante Zizic, 2018 first-round pick (from Cleveland, via Brooklyn)
The Cleveland Cavaliers' viability in this race is twofold.
First, their offer rests largely on where the Brooklyn Nets pick falls on the draft ladder. It would land at No. 7 if the lottery were held today and stayed true to the order.
Is that high enough to pique the Spurs' interest? Or would the Cavaliers need the Nets to jump into the top three for their best package to carry any weight at all?
All of this depends on how interested the Spurs are in shaving long-term money from their bottom line. George Hill and Kyle Korver cost them a combined $26.6 million in 2018-19 but are guaranteed a total of just $4.5 million for 2019-20.
With Patty Mills' contract off the books and Pau Gasol's salary only partially guaranteed that summer ($6.7 million), San Antonio would be set up to do some serious spending in 2019 if Kyle Anderson and Danny Green don't cost an arm and a leg this summer.
Floating free-agency hopes isn't the Spurs' usual M.O. They've long viewed it as a means of addition, not survival. They are not the Los Angeles Lakers.
Cleveland must hope the opportunity to develop the Nets pick, Cedi Osman and Ante Zizic is enough to convince San Antonio its continuing a decades-long tradition of effectively straddling two timelines. If it is, general manager Koby Altman (and owner Dan Gilbert) have nothing to think about.
Reeling in Leonard now makes up for missing out on Paul George last summer and keeps LeBron James (player option) in wine and gold. And even if he does leave, the Cavaliers would still be left with a 27-year-old cornerstone capable of playing them into relevance without their four-time MVP.
Lakers Bid Farwell to a Gradual Rebuild
Los Angeles Lakers Receive: SF Kawhi Leonard
San Antonio Spurs Receive: SF Brandon Ingram, SG/SF Josh Hart, SF/PF Kyle Kuzma, 2019 first-round pick
Targeting Kawhi Leonard is a no-brainer for a Lakers squad obsessed with acquiring established superstars—especially when they're one of the few teams who needn't send out expensive pacts to make the money work.
Bailing out on Brandon Ingram's rising stock and the promising rookie campaigns of Josh Hart and Kyle Kuzma stings, but impactful concessions are the cost of doing business at this level. Plus, Leonard is their gateway to luring another superstar.
Affording both Paul George (player option) and LeBron James is out of the question if the Lakers strike this deal first. They can still get more than $57 million in room if they renounce Julius Randle (restricted), stretch Luol Deng and keep only Lonzo Ball on the ledger, but that leaves them close to $8 million shy of the $65.7 million they need.
Finding a taker for Deng that doesn't require them absorbing money in return almost gets them there ($64.5 million), but they'd remain a little more than a $1 million short. It doesn't matter if George and James would pounce at splitting the difference. Moving Deng at all is beyond unlikely, and a roster consisting of Ball, George, James, Leonard and minimum placeholders isn't exactly deep.
Signing one more superstar won't be a problem. The Lakers can squeak past $35 million in room while keeping Ball, Deng, Randle, Ivica Zubac and Cleveland's 2018 pick after adding Leonard. They'll need one more minor move to open up James' full max—unless Randle costs noticeably less than his $12.4 million free-agent hold—but they'll have more than enough to woo George.
The Spurs could do much worse than nabbing Ingram and Kuzma as centerpieces. Both are quality scorers, and Ingram has perked up as a playmaker. Put them, along with Hart, in San Antonio's renowned developmental machine, and the Spurs should wind up with at least one future star for their troubles.
Phoenix Accelerates Its Rebuild
Phoenix Suns Receive: SF Kawhi Leonard, PG/SG Patty Mills
San Antonio Spurs Receive: PF/C Dragan Bender, PF Jared Dudley, SF/PF Josh Jackson, 2018 first-round pick
Party-crashing Kawhi Leonard trade talks would be right up the Suns' alley. As The Ringer's Kevin O'Connor wrote:
"With four top-35 picks plus Miami's 2021 first, all of their own picks and movable short-term salaries (Tyson Chandler and Jared Dudley), the Suns could build a wide range of deals if they're ready to strike."
General manager Ryan McDonough sounded like a man ready to strike in January. And though surfing the free-agent ranks results in less collateral damage, Phoenix doesn't have a track record of poaching marquee names.
A cap-starved market gives the Suns leverage they don't normally enjoy. Free agents won't be choosing from a laundry list of cash-rich admirers. But this year's talent pool isn't worthy of substantive all-in ploys.
Kevin Durant (player option), Paul George and LeBron James are the only prizes unequivocally deserving of max paydays. Everyone else after them is a crapshoot—including the injured DeMarcus Cousins and soon-to-be 33-year-old Chris Paul.
Besides which, the Suns can sponge up Leonard and Patty Mills and still wield more than $13 million in wiggle room if they renounce all their own free agents and waive Alan Williams (non-guaranteed). That number will climb if they suss out a new home for Tyson Chandler's expiring deal.
Either way, the Suns are the rare squad equipped to acquire Leonard and continue fleshing out the roster around him right away. Mills even addresses an immediate need at the point guard spot.
Leonard's free agency could be cause for pause. He's closer to exploring the open market than Kyrie Irving was last summer. The Suns didn't empty the cupboard then. Why would they pull out all the stops now?
Well, for starters, Leonard is better than Irving. He helps cover up for Devin Booker's defensive warts at the 2. Irving would have exacerbated them or, at best, not moved the needle at all.
Equally important: Leonard doesn't come across as market-aware. Jordan Brand, his sneaker company, might want him in Los Angeles or Boston or somewhere else. But Leonard isn't an in-your-face superstar. The Suns can talk themselves into him being more amenable to a future in Phoenix.
Few potential hangups can be found on the Spurs' end. Most superstar sellers would leap for joy when offered long-term cap relief and three top-five prospects—one of which could still be a top-three name from this year's draft. That won't hold the same appeal if they're leaning toward a win-now product, but an offer like this could be the push they need to favor a full-fledged rebuild.
Philadelphia Reinvents The Process
Philadelphia 76ers Receive: SF Kawhi Leonard
San Antonio Spurs Receive: SG/SF Jerryd Bayless, PG/SG Markelle Fultz, SG/SF Timothe Luwawu-Cabarrot, PF Dario Saric, 2018 first-round pick (from Philly, via Lakers)
Pulling the plug on Markelle Fultz one year after giving up the No. 3 pick and, most likely, the Kings' 2019 selection to get him would be quite the gamble by the Philadelphia 76ers.
Yes, they're ahead of schedule. A healthy Joel Embiid gives them a feasible path into, and potentially out of, the Eastern Conference Finals. They can spin aggressive talent pursuits.
Except, that's supposed to strictly refer to the free-agent market.
The Sixers have a clear path to max cap space and reportedly made LeBron James' short list of possible destinations, according to O'Connor. Consolidating so much of their future into contract-year Leonard when they have the resources to add another star at a fraction of the collateral damage doesn't entirely track.
But superstars in their prime don't reach the chopping block every day. And the Sixers have no assurances James will sign with them. Likewise for any 2019 free agents—Jimmy Butler (player option), Klay Thompson, etc.—they could be planning to chase in his stead.
Leonard, it seems, is up for grabs now. And the Sixers already have one of the NBA's most effective infrastructures in place without him. In the time Embiid, Robert Covington and Ben Simmons have played together, they're outscoring opponents by 18.2 points per 100 possessions—second-best mark among 250-plus trios to log at least 500 total minutes.
Adding a top-five player to that brew isn't something the Sixers can just dismiss. Forfeiting Fultz, Dario Saric and that Lakers pick counts as a premium, but the end result is worth it. Leonard elevates them from shot in the dark to title contender.
Jettisoning Jerryd Bayless' expiring salary is also a major win. The Spurs could balk, but they're gaining a buffet of top-flight prospects in exchange for a disgruntled flight risk. Picture what Saric could do under Gregg Popovich. Fultz, too. They can eat a year of Bayless or look for a third-party facilitator when they're so thoroughly restocking their asset cupboard.
Renounce all their own free agents, and the Sixers still get to more than $27 million in space after accounting for Leonard. They can then sneak past the $30 million threshold by rerouting some combination of their own pick, Justin Anderson, Richaun Holmes (team option), Furkan Korkmaz and T.J. McConnell (team option).
Would James consider signing for slightly under the max if it meant joining this version of the Sixers? Would Paul George all of a sudden enter their radar?
Maybe, maybe not. It doesn't actually matter. The Sixers wouldn't need either of them. They'd welcome both, but Leonard on his own is enough.
Unless otherwise noted, stats courtesy of NBA.com or Basketball Reference and accurate leading into games on Wednesday. Salary and cap hold information via Basketball Insiders and RealGM. Position designations determined using possession data from Cleaning The Glass.