Blockbuster NBA Trades That Would Blow Up the Offseason
The 2018 NBA offseason is escalating to a new level as teams jockey to make major moves that could change the league's landscape for the next thee to five seasons.
Only Leonard can be traded now. However, Leonard's move could mean James or George—or in one case even both—could follow where Leonard gets dealt.
Here are the trades that either directly or indirectly could set up the next NBA superteam that will challenge the Golden State Warriors for supremacy.
Bad Contracts to Bad Teams
The least exciting but significant fact is some trades are likely to be salary dumps.
ESPN.com's Zach Lowe reported: "The legacy of the 2016 cap spike and resulting spending orgy: Only a half-dozen or so teams have pathways to meaningful cap space, and three of them—Atlanta, Chicago and Sacramento—are signaling they plan to use it to take on bad salary and extract draft picks as the price, sources say."
Just to name a couple of instances, the Los Angeles Lakers are looking for someone to take on Luol Deng's disastrous deal, per Bill Oram of the Orange County Register, and the Houston Rockets would love for someone to assume Ryan Anderson's contract, per Rockets Wire's Kelly Iko.
There is a good chance that one of them is in Atlanta, Chicago or Sacramento next year along with either a young player or an asset. For example, perhaps the Lakers send Lonzo Ball or Brandon Ingram to the Bulls to take on Deng's $18 million salary and open cap space.
None of these are trades that by themselves would be earth-shakers, but they could facilitate one, so they're worth mentioning.
Kemba Walker to the Cleveland Cavaliers
Joe Vardon of Cleveland.com reported June 19, "Cleveland has in fact inquired about Kawhi Leonard's availability from the Spurs, among others, and league sources suggested Charlotte's Kemba Walker could be in play for the Cavs."
However, if there were talks, they never gained much traction, and now ESPN.com's Brian Windhorst is reporting, "I think that door has closed."
There could be a couple reasons for that. First, it might have to do with new Charlotte Hornets general manager Mitch Kupchak's giving Walker his vote of confidence.
"Kupchak said Friday that Walker is 'revered' in the Charlotte community and that he and owner Michael Jordan look at the two-time All-Star as 'the focal point of this franchise going forward,'" per Steve Reed of the Associated Press.
Still, if the Cavaliers returned to this scenario with a package centered around Collin Sexton and Jordan Clarkson, it would indicate that they felt they could keep James, and that would break Twitter.
Kawhi Leonard to the Celtics
Now we come to the big fish, Kawhi Leonard, who wants out of San Antonio, per ESPN.com. As a top-five player who is elite on both ends of the court when he's healthy, he is sparking a lot of interest around the league.
Three teams, in particular, seem to have a shot at getting him: the Boston Celtics, Philadelphia 76ers and Los Angeles Lakers. We'll look at each of these separately.
The Celtics have the most assets to get him and accordingly, they have the least need to acquire him. No one in Boston is wondering, Who are we going to have at the wings if we don't get Leonard? Jaylen Brown and Jayson Tatum were instrumental in carrying the Celtics to the Eastern Conference Finals, even though newly arrived All-Star Gordon Hayward missed all but the opening minute of the season with a gruesome ankle injury.
According to Steve Bulpett of the Boston Herald, neither Brown nor Taytum, nor even the 2019 Sacramento Kings pick, is on the table:
"Again, from what we've heard, Tatum and Brown are not available, and it would take the right overall transaction pieces to interest the Celts in putting the Sacramento pick on the table. Absent the Celtics' willingness to move key young pieces or the Spurs deciding to accept less than what a Leonard without medical or contractual issues is worth, there seems to be nothing to indicate an agreement."
But let's say the Philadelphia 76ers are on the verge of getting something done, and it starts to seem like if Leonard is going to Philly, James will follow.
Do the Celtics pre-emptively up the ante? They're waiting for the chance to claim the throne after James leaves and would likely prefer to not see a division rival swoop in at the last minute.
If the Celtics were to offer Kyrie Irving and Brown for Leonard and salary filler, that would change the landscape.
Kawhi Leonard to the Philadelphia 76ers
The Celtics have the assets but not the need.
The Lakers have the need, but their assets aren't quite as good.
The Sixers could have both the need and the assets, and that's what could make the difference, provided they had some assurance from Leonard that he'd stick around.
"Philadelphia's internal discussions have focused on potential trade packages offering various young players and future draft selections. One team source says preliminary discussions with San Antonio revealed the Spurs have strong interest in a package involving burgeoning forwards Dario Saric and Robert Covington as well as a future first-round pick. A potential, more serious offer that Philadelphia is weighing internally includes Saric and Covington and the 2021 Miami Heat unprotected first-round pick the Sixers obtained in their draft-night deal with the Phoenix Suns. 'How do you acquire things that can attract stars and develop stars?' Sixers head coach Brett Brown told reporters that Thursday evening. 'That pick might be the key to all of this. That pick might be the thing that links a possible trade.'"
The Sixers also have the trump card, should they choose to play it, in Markelle Fultz—the No. 1 pick of the 2017 NBA draft. While a shoulder injury derailed his rookie season, he still has a higher ceiling than anyone the Lakers are offering.
Fultz, Robert Covington and the Miami Heat pick would beat anything the Lakers could offer. And they do have the incentive to offer that much.
Renouncing all unsigned players but their first-round picks would give the Sixers $31.8 million in cap space, per Cleaning the Glass, which would mean they would just have to send back $4 million more than came back from San Antonio to afford James—or alternatively, if they make an even trade with San Antonio, they could afford George.
Certainly, a team stocked with Ben Simmons, Joel Embiid and Leonard would be attractive to another star like James or George. And should the Sixers land one of them, it'd make them a team that could beat the Golden State Warriors.
Kawhi Leonard to the Los Angeles Lakers
The Lakers have an edge on the other teams: Leonard has a preference to go to Los Angeles.
Sports Illustrated's Jake Fischer presented it this way: "While Leonard's camp has made it clear the former Defensive Player of the Year prefers Los Angeles and the Lakers, a source close to the situation says the Southern California native is open to playing in other major markets."
That preference gives the Lakers a head start but not a sure win. If Leonard goes to the Finals with a large-market team such as Boston or Philadelphia, there's a good chance he sticks around.
Also, a player's preference in one instance is no assurance he'll feel the same way a year later, and the Lakers should be more than aware of that after the Paul George saga. A year after similar leaks of his preference for L.A., he's anything but a lock to go to the Lakers as a free agent this summer.
There is an all-or-nothing scenario here. It all starts with Leonard, and all the stars would have to align perfectly—both the astronomical kind and the player kind.
If the Lakers can work a swap for Leonard and do so without losing their cap space (which will mean surrendering at least some of their young talent), they could make the trade and still have the cap space they need to sign George and James. ESPN.com's Kevin Pelton breaks down that math.
If they don't, though, James could hesitate to make a move before George. The latter might prefer to stay with the Oklahoma City Thunder.
It makes sense for the Lakers to go all-in here, but the other problem is that all-in might not be enough. If the Sixers or Celtics outbid them, the Lakers don't have the chips. Players such as Kyle Kuzma and Josh Hart may have outplayed their low draft positions, but they won't be perennial All-Stars.
Brandon Ingram and Lonzo Ball might have both been selected No. 2 overall, but there are legitimate concerns that neither will vindicate their draft position.
Probably the best the Lakers can realistically offer is something based around Ingram, Hart and Kuzma, plus a pick.
All that said, if they landed a Big Three, it would be one of the most successful offseasons by any team in history.