Realistic Kawhi Leonard Trades That Would Create New Superstar Duos
Despite essentially losing the 2017-18 season to injury, Kawhi Leonard looks positioned to be one of this summer's biggest winners.
He's eligible for a "supermax" contract extension, which would pay him up to $219 million over five years. He's also likely to warrant that type of commitment, since he's a former NBA Finals MVP, two-time Defensive Player of the Year and two-time All-NBA first-teamer.
It's less certain which team will fit the bill, although Leonard could find himself in a favorable spot either way.
If the San Antonio Spurs keep him—a source told Marc Stein of the New York Times they are signaling they won't deal him—he'll have his wagon hitched to a franchise playing in its 21st consecutive postseason. If he gets traded—some close to Gregg Popovich think he'd pursue a trade if he feels the relationship can't be repaired, per Ailene Voisin of the Sacramento Bee—Leonard could soon have a new superstar teammate.
As an in-prime 26-year-old, Leonard should most appeal to win-now (or win-very-soon) squads. That will help with the quality of his future teammates, as it's possible to plot his path to the five following superstar pairings.
As for Leonard's current All-Star teammate, LaMarcus Aldridge, he's unlikely to receive the same assistance. Star-for-star swaps are seldom seen, particularly when one star has question marks regarding his health and future. Plus, if San Antonio opts to trade Leonard, it's probably bringing back a forward-focused package of young players and draft picks.
Kyrie Irving and Kawhi Leonard
They're still collecting first-round picks from lottery-bound clubs. And the previously paid draft debts have become sky's-the-limit prospects like Jayson Tatum and Jaylen Brown.
It's hard to say how many trade bullets team president Danny Ainge would be willing to unload, especially if the Shamrocks are dreaming of Anthony Davis. But Boston has the arsenal to move to the front of the line if it chooses.
"If Boston builds a package around Jayson Tatum, that might be the best deal San Antonio could hope to get," Yahoo Sports' Chris Mannix said on "First Things First," via NESN.com.
Using Tatum or Jaylen Brown as a centerpiece would be a significant sacrifice, but think about what's left behind. The Celtics would not only pair up Irving and Leonard—both 25-points-per-game scorers in 2016-17—they'd surround them with Gordon Hayward, Al Horford and Tatum or Brown. If that's not a stronger five than the Golden State Warriors can field right now, it could be in the near future.
Celtics coach Brad Stevens just snagged the East's second seed with no Leonard and five minutes of Hayward. It'd be incredible to see what the skipper could do with that many weapons. The system would masterfully bring them together, and when that failed, they'd have one of the Association's best one-on-one scorers (Irving, 94th percentile on isolations last season) and maybe its best defender (Leonard).
Paul George and Kawhi Leonard
The Los Angeles Lakers have a habit of dreaming big. But they'll carry more than hope into what could become a defining offseason for this organization.
"We now have real 100 percent space to do two max players if that's what we decide to do," Lakers general manager Rob Pelinka said, per ESPN.com's Ohm Youngmisuk. "... If you break it down and study the cap, we feel like we're the most strongly situated franchise in the NBA in terms of where our cap stands."
L.A. isn't in bad shape on the trade market, either. If this club knew its reward would be both Leonard and Paul George, it might not see much (if any) risk in building a trade package around Brandon Ingram, Kyle Kuzma and a future first-rounder.
A George-Leonard pairing feels like the perfect wing tandem for today's game.
Both are versatile stoppers with multiple All-Defensive selections on their resumes. Both are capable shot-creators, but neither is so ball-dominant that it would lessen Lonzo Ball's impact. In fact, their shooting range (career 37.6 percent or better from three), athleticism and scoring ability (49.2 combined points per game in 2016-17) would enhance the potency of Ball's playmaking.
This probably isn't the Lakers' first choice (we'll get to another option later), but it's an intriguing Plan 1B. And it might not be far-fetched. Leonard hails from L.A. and reportedly wants to return, an executive told Sporting News' Sean Deveney. George is from nearby Palmdale and hasn't hidden his affinity for the Lakers. The allure of restoring their hometown organization's old glory would be difficult to ignore.
Giannis Antetokounmpo and Kawhi Leonard
Apologies to any offensive coaches who come across this slide. The idea of a Leonard-Giannis Antetokounmpo tandem just destroyed your dreams for at least the next month.
It's basically a collection of limbs and appendages with impossible dimensions. Antetokounmpo is aptly dubbed the Greek Freak, as the 6'11" swingman has a 7'3" wingspan that ends with 12-inch hands, per ESPN's Kevin Arnovitz. The 6'7" Leonard sports 11 ¼-inch hands, two inches longer than 6'8" LeBron James' mitts.
It's also sure to be on the short list of the NBA's top duos.
Antetokounmpo does everything. Last year, he became the first player in NBA history with top-20 finishes in total points, rebounds, assists, steals and blocks. This year, he missed repeating the feat by falling to 28th in assists and 21st in steals. He also had a career season as a scorer (26.9 points per game) and a rebounder (10.0).
Oh, and he's 23 years old.
But his supporting cast in Milwaukee is inconsistent. It doesn't have anyone close to Leonard's caliber. He'd not only step in as the team's top defender, he'd be the 1B scorer and one of the most reliable shooters. Not to mention, he'd give the Bucks their best shot at contending for a title before Antetokounmpo's free agency arrives in 2021.
Bleacher Report's Dan Favale authored a way to bring Leonard to Milwaukee. The outgoing pieces were Khris Middleton, Thon Maker, Malcolm Brogdon, Tony Snell and a future first. That hardly reads as an exorbitant price given Leonard's present and potential impact on Antetokounmpo's future.
Joel Embiid and Kawhi Leonard (and Ben Simmons)
A healthy Joel Embiid is everything we imagined and then some. The smooth 7-footer played more than 31 games for the first time this season and promptly started the All-Star Game and became one of two players in league history to average at least 22.0 points, 11.0 rebounds, 1.5 blocks and 1.0 threes (the other is DeMarcus Cousins from this season as well).
A healthy Ben Simmons is something we didn't know exists. He's a 6'10" point guard—not a point-forward, an actual floor general—and maybe the only modern perimeter star without a perimeter shot. He had the second-most triple-doubles for a rookie (12) and joined Oscar Robertson as the only NBA freshmen to average at least 15 points, eight assists and eight rebounds.
The kicker, though, is that the Sixers aren't done building. They only have $67.4 million committed to next season's books, per Basketball Insiders, making them the rare ready-made contender with the flexibility to absorb a max-money star.
"The Philadelphia 76ers are perhaps the most fascinating potential Leonard destination," Tim Bontemps wrote for the Washington Post. "With Ben Simmons and Joel Embiid having established themselves as the franchise's cornerstones, could a package centered around Markelle Fultz and Philadelphia's two first-round picks in this year's draft entice the Spurs?"
If that package works, the Sixers lose zero current rotation players and add perhaps the league's top two-way talent. That's terrifying. Leonard would make Philly's third-ranked defense even more formidable and its 11th-ranked attack far more powerful.
LeBron James and Kawhi Leonard
It's possible no one will keep a closer eye on Leonard's situation than LeBron James. And that's coming from someone who has some of the closest eyes on James, ESPN's Brian Windhorst.
"If the Cavs get knocked out before the Finals, and LeBron has six weeks to think about things and six weeks to get in touch with Kawhi, things could get a little crazy," Windhorst said on SportsNation.
James and Leonard went toe-to-toe twice on the championship stage. Each player took home a Finals MVP from those collisions. In 2016-17, James and Leonard finished first and fifth, respectively, in ESPN.com's real plus-minus. They also both claimed top-six spots in player efficiency rating and win shares that season.
And there are no fewer than three potential trade spots where Leonard could land and team up with James.
The Cleveland Cavaliers are an option until James says they aren't. They don't have a wealth of prospects to offer, but the first-round pick they're getting from the Brooklyn Nets is likely the best 2018 draft asset San Antonio could get. Tack on Cedi Osman and Ante Zizic, and maybe San Antonio bites.
The Lakers are another. They'd look infinitely more appealing to either player with the other one coming along. Dealing for Leonard wouldn't require fully gutting the prospect collection, and there'd probably be a way to bend the books enough to retain Julius Randle, too.
The Sixers are on that list, too, as potentially the NBA's next great superpower. They're reportedly one of four teams on James' list, per The Ringer's Kevin O'Connor. They're also loaded with players making rookie-scale money, so they could actually budget for both stars.
Truth be told, the setting doesn't matter as much as the partnership. If Leonard and James share a roster anywhere, that team will be ingrained in the championship discussion.
Zach Buckley covers the NBA for Bleacher Report. Follow him on Twitter: @ZachBuckleyNBA.