Best Fits and Realistic Trade Packages for Spurs Star Kawhi Leonard

Dan Favale@@danfavaleFeatured ColumnistJune 15, 2018

San Antonio Spurs forward Kawhi Leonard (2) celebrates sinking a basket in the first half of an NBA basketball game against the Dallas Mavericks onTuesday, Dec. 12, 2017, in Dallas. (AP Photo/Tony Gutierrez)
Tony Gutierrez/Associated Press

Kawhi Leonard is breaking Tim Duncan's heart.

After seven seasons, two Defensive Player of the Year awards, one championship and one Finals MVP, the 26-year-old megastar is ready to leave the San Antonio Spurs, according to the San Antonio Express-News' Jabari Young

This is not a drill. Yahoo Sports' Shams Charania and ESPN.com's Chris Haynes confirmed news, with both citing Leonard's frustration and distrust toward the organization during his recovery from a right quad injury as the primary impetus behind his unhappiness. 

What happens next is complicated. Leonard forfeits the opportunity to sign a five-year, $219.2 million extension if he orchestrates an exit—and he apparently doesn't care, per Haynes:

Except, on the flip side, he might actually care, according to ESPN.com's Adrian Wojnarowski:

This little walk-back aside, all signs point toward a dissolution. Prospective suitors are coming out of the woodwork. Pretty much everyone wants a piece of Leonard—even, according to Yahoo Sports' Chris Mannix, the Sacramento Kings!

Leonard has some degree of control over where he lands. He will hit free agency next summer (player option) and can dissuade parties from mortgaging the farm for his services by threatening to leave in one year's time.

That doesn't indenture the Spurs to his wish list. And yes, Leonard has a wish list, per Woj. This is 2018. Disgruntled superstars email Santa Claus year-round.

Paul George tried leveraging his impending free agency into a trade to the Los Angeles Lakers last summer. The Indiana Pacers sent him to the Oklahoma City Thunder. Select teams are always willing to roll the dice. The Spurs will make their decision independent of Leonard's inclinations. Hell, if they're petty enough, they'll choose where to send him in spite of his stated desires.

These trade packages juggle every factor incumbent of shopping a top-five star. The emphasis, though, lies with finding the best fit—the destination that best suits Leonard, his contract situation and the Spurs' prospective return. 

The Kings serve as a crowning example of what won't qualify. They can cobble together packages around the No. 2 pick, but will they dangle them? When Leonard, in all likelihood, won't commit to staying long term? And when the Spurs, with LaMarcus Aldridge still in tow, will be looking for a return that balances competing now with building for later? 

They're the Kings, so they might. But they shouldn't. And we're going to assume they, like many others, default to non-factors in the Kawhi sweepstakes. Teams that make the cut will be presented in order of how much their best offer appeals to San Antonio, from worst to first.

   

New York Knicks

Julie Jacobson/Associated Press

San Antonio Spurs Receive: C Enes Kanter, PG/SG Frank Ntilikina, SF/PF Lance Thomas, No. 9 pick, 2020 first-round pick

New York Knicks Receive: SF Kawhi Leonard, PG/SG Patty Mills

Yes, the Knicks. At least some of Leonard's people want him in New York, according to ESPN.com's Ian Begley, so we have to go here.

Building a viable offer without including Kristaps Porzingis verges on criminal. The Knicks—and, frankly, the Spurs—have no choice but to navigate his absence. He's recovering from a left ACL injury. Neither team can glean a proper hold of his value.

Throwing everything else at the Spurs, plus the kitchen sink, is the Knicks' best shot at breaking into these sweepstakes.

Kanter and Lance Thomas ($1 million guaranteed in 2019-20) are expiring contracts, and they unburden San Antonio from Mills' deal. Ntilikina doesn't have the look and feel of a star prospect, but he's no bust. Good luck scoring on a backcourt that features him and Dejounte Murray and their forever arms. 

Forking over two first-rounders is the primary selling point. The Spurs are guaranteed one top-10 selection now, and that 2020 selection will be ridiculously valuable if the Knicks are unable to lock up Leonard in free agency.

   

Los Angeles Clippers

SAN ANTONIO,TX - DECEMBER 18 :  Kawhi Leonard #2 of the San Antonio Spurs tries to drive on Sam Dekker #7 of the Los Angeles Clippersat AT&T Center on December 18, 2017 in San Antonio, Texas.  NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that , by
Ronald Cortes/Getty Images

San Antonio Spurs Receive (after draft): PG Patrick Beverley, SF/PF Tobias Harris, SF Wesley Johnson, No. 12 pick, No. 13 pick

Los Angeles Clippers Receive: SF Kawhi Leonard, PG/SG Patty Mills

Leonard is interested in the general Los Angeles area, according to Woj, which comes as great news for the Clippers. 

Every offer has to start with their back-to-back lottery selections. They're not especially high, but the Spurs can attach them to No. 18 and try breaking into the top seven.

The rest of this package prioritizes flexibility. Beverley, Harris and Johnson all come off the books after next season, while Patty Mills is on the books through 2020-21. Tack on the money they'll save next summer by not paying Leonard, along with Pau Gasol's partial guarantee for 2019-20 ($6.7 million), and the Spurs will be set up to crash free agency if they're so inclined.

Harris could also be a sneaky-good piece for the long haul. He's young (turns 26 in July), can get from-scratch buckets at the 3 or 4 and knows how to work off the ball. His next contract won't cost nearly as much as what San Antonio would pay Leonard.

Conceding any part of the future after losing Chris Paul and trading away Blake Griffin is kind of a weird move for the Clippers. But they haven't yet committed themselves to a rebuild. On the contrary, they've done the exact opposite by handing extensions to Lou Williams and head coach Doc Rivers.

Mills and a soon-to-be 27-year-old Leonard fit the timeline for a team that is paying Danilo Gallinari through 2019-20 and has Avery Bradley and DeAndre Jordan (player option) coming up on free agency.

   

Cleveland Cavaliers

SAN ANTONIO, TX - MARCH 27:  LeBron James #23 of the Cleveland Cavaliers and Kawhi Leonard #2 of the San Antonio Spurs fight for position during a game on March 27, 2017 at the AT&T Center in San Antonio, Texas. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges a
Noah Graham/Getty Images

San Antonio Spurs Receive (after draft): PG/SG George Hill, SG/SF Kyle Korver, SG/SF/PF Cedi Osman, C Larry Nance, No. 8 pick

Cleveland Cavaliers Receive: SF Kawhi Leonard, PG/SG Patty Mills

After getting swept by the Golden State Warriors in the NBA Finals, the Cavaliers must search high and low to give LeBron James (player option) a reason to stay. Acquiring a fellow top-five superstar should do the trick.

In any other summer, the Spurs would get better offers. Another team or five will probably blow this package out of the water now.

But Leonard is a quasi-expiring contract working off an injury-plagued 2017-18. Snagging the eighth overall pick and a couple of young fliers while shedding long-term salary isn't nothing.

Drafting at No. 8 likely doesn't position them to land a new franchise cornerstone. It could, however, get them Michael Porter Jr. or Trae Young if either slips down the board.

Osman could end up factoring into the big picture. Nance, too. Hill and Korver help balance two different timelines. They'll help the Spurs compete for the playoffs next year, but they're guaranteed a combined $4.4 million for 2019-20—a nice alternative to funding the final two years and $25.7 million remaining on Mills' pact.

   

Los Angeles Lakers

Jae C. Hong/Associated Press

San Antonio Spurs Receive: PG Lonzo Ball, SF/PF Luol Deng, SF/PF Kyle Kuzma, 2019 first-round pick, 2021 first-round pick

Los Angeles Lakers Receive: SF Kawhi Leonard, SG/SF Derrick White

Brace yourself: The Lakers sit atop Leonard's list of preferred destinations. Surprise, surprise.

This package is structured with the Kawhi-LeBron-PG13 pipe dream in mind. Including Deng's salary lets the Lakers carve out two max slots after the fact as initially planned. They'll have to renounce all their own free agents and tinker with their non-guarantees, but they can get the $65.7 million it'll take to sign George and James.

Related: Holy wow.

Potential pitfalls abound. Deng doesn't hold any value to the Spurs, but they're being handsomely compensated for absorbing the two years left on his deal. Ball and Kuzma are legitimate building blocks, and getting two future firsts will prove huge if Leonard leaves in free agency or the new-look Lakers age out of their window by 2021.

Convincing the Spurs to take Ball might be the bigger chore, as Woj noted:

LaVar Ball, Lonzo's ever-outspoken father, is not a good match for the Spurs. But they can reroute the point guard to a different team if they're that determined to avoid the ruckus LaVar will bring with him.   

    

Boston Celtics

Michael Dwyer/Associated Press

San Antonio Spurs Receive: PG Kyrie Irving, 2019 top-1 protected first-round pick (from Sacramento, via Philadelphia)

Boston Celtics Receive: SF Kawhi Leonard

You knew this was coming.

The Celtics tried to nab Leonard around the trade deadline, and they're expected to get back at it again, per Woj. And while they have the combination of picks and prospects to jump-start another team's reset, the Spurs should be more intrigued by an established commodity like Irving. 

Flipping one star for another star ensures they won't miss a beat. Irving is a top-15 player at his peak. He doesn't come close to supplanting Leonard's top-five status, but he's younger (26) and they don't have to worry about giving him a designated veteran extension. Pairing him with Murray in the backcourt is a fantastic anchor point for their quasi-rebuild.

Grabbing next year's Kings pick more than offsets the gap between Irving and Leonard. The Spurs are effectively getting two cornerstones in exchange for one. Neither may ever be as valuable as Leonard, but their status, for now, is a nice brew of quality and quantity.

If the Spurs are bent on accelerating the post-Kawhi era and selling Irving on a future in San Antonio, the Sacramento selection makes for great blockbuster bait later on. 

   

Philadelphia 76ers

PHILADELPHIA, PA - FEBRUARY 8: Robert Covington #33 of the Philadelphia 76ers drives to the basket against Kawhi Leonard #2 of the San Antonio Spurs at the Wells Fargo Center on February 8, 2017 in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. The Spurs defeated the 76ers
Mitchell Leff/Getty Images

San Antonio Spurs Receive: SG/SF Jerryd Bayless, PG Markelle Fultz, PF Dario Saric, No. 10 pick

Philadelphia 76ers Receive: SF Kawhi Leonard

Philly should be reluctant to surrender this much unless Leonard shows an interest in hanging around past next season. Assuming he does, this offer needs to be on the table yesterday.

Shipping out Bayless' expiring contract in any Leonard trade would be a stroke of genius on the Sixers' part. This trade almost works out to a dollar-for-dollar swap.

They're actually saving money if you cake in the eventual salary of the No. 10 pick. They still enter free agency with more than $25 million of spending power, leaving them within hugging distance of George's max. And they can jettison Robert Covington's salary if James wants to join the party.

The Spurs could try extracting Covington instead of Bayless, but they shouldn't push their luck. Saric is the second-best player in this deal, and Fultz hasn't yet squandered the cachet associated with being taken first overall.

That No. 10 pick could turn into a Spursy player (Mikal Bridges) or gnarly gamble (Shai Gilgeous-Alexander). Or, along with No. 18, it could help San Antonio climb the draft-day ladder and further advance the rebuild.

    

Unless otherwise noted, stats courtesy of NBA.com or Basketball ReferenceSalary and cap-hold information via Basketball Insiders and RealGM.

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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