Wednesday NBA Free Agency Roundup: What's a Fair Price for Kawhi Leonard?
Kawhi Leonard is the kind of player for whom NBA teams should risk everything.
Almost 400 players since 2015-16 have logged at least 1,500 total minutes. Leonard ranks second among that massive field in win shares per 48 ticks, trailing only Stephen Curry. He has a pair of top-three MVP finishes to his name during that time, and his 2014 NBA Finals MVP and two Defensive Player of the Year awards continue to speak for themselves.
He is, in a vacuum, worth mortgaging the future on—a top-five talent that franchises spend years, sometimes decades, trying to draft, or sign, or acquire via trade.
But the NBA doesn't exist in a vacuum, so Leonard's value cannot either. His objective standing is marred and manipulated and even envenomed by the subjective.
The entire league knows Leonard's relationship with the San Antonio Spurs is damaged, perhaps beyond repair. He will enter free agency in 2019 after declining his player option, making him either an expensive investment or one-year rental for his next team. He appeared in just nine games last season while rehabilitating from a right quad injury that remains something of a mystery, both in its severity and prognosis.
Leonard's seesawing list of preferences isn't helping matters. ESPN.com's Adrian Wojnarowski reported that he remains focused on joining the Los Angeles Lakers following their addition of LeBron James. Yahoo Sports' Shams Charania refuted as much during a recent appearance on Fox Sports' The Herd with Colin Cowherd (h/t RealGM). He called Leonard's interest in playing with James "overstated" and cited the Los Angeles Clippers as the more intriguing destination.
Wojnarowski has since kiboshed the Clippers angle. As he said to ESPN's Bobby Marks on The Woj Pod: "I think initially the idea of L.A. was fine to him. He preferred the Lakers but was open to the Clippers. But now that LeBron is in L.A., I think the idea of going head-to-head with LeBron—to have you with the Clippers, him with the Lakers, and to maybe feel dwarfed by that is...I'm told that's become far less appealing to him."
Oh, and for good measure, Leonard is not particularly interested in "the Boston Celtics scenario," according to Charania. So, knowing all of this, what actually is a fair price for him?
Every piece of contextual and anecdotal evidence plays a part in shaping Leonard's going rate on the trade market—and not for the better. Even the most ambitious packages will be constructed accordingly. Let's see what some of the best offers could and should look like.
Potential Trade Packages for Kawhi Leonard
Each of these packages are proposed from a Bird's-eye view. They take into account both the Spurs and the Leonard bidders, with the goal of establishing something close to a happy medium.
For salary-matching purposes, assume any deal that includes a rookie is being pushed through 30 days after they sign their contract.
- Boston Celtics, No. 1: Kyrie Irving and 2019 top-one protected first-round pick (from Sacramento Kings, via Philadelphia 76ers) for Kawhi Leonard
- Boston Celtics, No. 2: Jaylen Brown, Marcus Morris, Semi Ojeleye, Terry Rozier, Guerschon Yabusele, 2019 top-eight protected first-round pick (via Memphis Grizzlies) and 2019 first-round pick (from Sacramento, via Philly) for Kawhi Leonard
- Los Angeles Clippers: Patrick Beverley, Shai Gilgeous-Alexander, Tobias Harris, Wesley Johnson, Jerome Robinson and 2021 first-round pick for Kawhi Leonard and Patty Mills
- Los Angeles Lakers: Luol Deng, Brandon Ingram, Kyle Kuzma, Moritz Wagner, 2019 first-round pick, 2020 pick swap and 2021 first-round pick for Kawhi Leonard and Patty Mills
- New York Knicks: Kevin Knox, Courtney Lee, Frank Ntilikina, Lance Thomas, 2019 first-round pick and 2020 pick swap for Kawhi Leonard and Patty Mills
- Philadelphia 76ers, No. 1: Jerryd Bayless, Robert Covington, Markelle Fultz, Timothe Luwawu-Cabarrot, 2019 first-round pick, 2020 pick swap and 2021 first-round pick (via Miami Heat) for Kawhi Leonard and Patty Mills
- Philadelphia 76ers, No. 2: Jerryd Bayless, Markelle Fultz, Dario Saric, 2019 first-round pick, 2020 pick swap and 2021 first-round pick (via Miami) for Kawhi Leonard
The Lakers are a wild card in these proceedings. They've burned through all of their cap space after signing LeBron James, so they need to send out roughly $15.1 million in salary to make the math work.
That demands they give up both Ingram and Lonzo Ball to start if the Spurs aren't willing to swallow Deng's deal. But the Lakers should push for his inclusion while offering to take back Mills. If they were going to empty their war chest for Leonard without sneaking in Deng, they would've been more aggressive with their post-LeBron cap space.
Boston and Philly have no real incentive to field their best offers. They're set up to run the Eastern Conference as currently constructed now that James is gone.
Still, if Leonard is actually souring on his Hollywood prerogatives, he might be willing to guarantee his long-term loyalty. And that, in turn, would invite more frisky overtures from the Celtics and Sixers.
Neither the Clippers nor Knicks have real leverage in these talks. They're thinner on trade assets compared to their direct competition. They'll need to pony up if they want Leonard. They might even need to include additional sweeteners in the suggested packages.
Damian Lillard: Universal Happy Camper
Because this is the year 2018, Damian Lillard was asked on Twitter if he would be happy playing with LeBron on the Lakers. And because this is the year 2018, he responded with: "I'm typically a happy camper."
And because this is the year 2018, we're entitled to freak out and wonder whether Eric Bledsoe should be taking lessons in trade-demand subtly from the Portland Trail Blazers' All-NBA floor general.
Look, this could be nothing. It could be less than nothing. Lillard engages with fans on social media all the time. Spinning typical behavior as a red flag is patently unfair.
Then again: Really, Dame?
Lillard is no stranger to the NBA news cycle. He understands that everything he says and does and tweets is put under a microscope. It comes with territory of being a superstar. He knows Get More Sports' Chris Sheridan heard that his name is being "bandied about" the Lakers organization. And he chose to answer this particular question anyway, without declaring his allegiance to the city of Portland.
To interpret this as an unofficial trade request oversteps our interpretative license. At the same time, Lillard doesn't have the complete benefit of the doubt. Shrugging this off entirely is disingenuous to his intelligence and totally ignores the significance of the closed-door meeting he had with owner Paul Allen last season.
Hold off on custom-ordering Damian Lillard Lakers jerseys. Again: This could be nothing more than a momentary lapse in word choice or fleeting pang of displeasure. It could be him trying to light a fire under Blazers brass. But don't altogether write this off as a non-development.
Lillard's future in Portland may yet become worthy of further dissection.
Rajon Rondo: LA's Flex over Big Baller Brand(?)
Rajon Rondo is probably on the Lakers because he was willing to sign a one-year deal that didn't mess with their 2019 cap space, and because LeBron values high-IQ teammates. But he also might be around to keep the Big Baller Brand (i.e. LaVar Ball) in check.
According to Woj, the Lakers didn't want news of Lonzo Ball's torn left meniscus becoming public, and "there's a belief around" the organization that people from the guard's camp leaked the report to prevent him from getting traded.
The Lakers' response, apparently? Signing Rondo.
Sure, Los Angeles could view him as a mentor to young Lonzo. For all his warts, Rondo has ridiculous vision and a great feel for playmaking in the half-court.
Except, he's not in Hollywood to be Lonzo's sensei. He's in town to compete for the starting point guard spot, according to ESPN.com's Ramona Shelburne, Yahoo Sports' Chris Mannix and the Los Angeles Times' Tania Ganguli.
Smoke, fire, etc.
Lakers training camp should be fun—assuming Lonzo isn't dealt to San Antonio or rerouted to a third-team facilitator as part of a trade for Kawhi.
Amir Johnson Returning to Philadelphia 76ers
Overpaying Amir Johnson last season is paying off for Philly now. He has agreed to return on a one-year deal worth the veteran's minimum, according to Woj.
Retaining Johnson is pretty big for the Sixers. They need another option at center behind Joel Embiid after losing Ersan Ilyasova to the Milwaukee Bucks.
Richaun Holmes is a tantalizing offensive player, but he's not the answer. The Sixers coughed up 113.5 points per 100 possessions last year whenever he played the 5, according to Cleaning the Glass.
Johnson is the more seasoned rim-runner, has dabbled in three-point shooting and, most importantly, doesn't compromise the defense. Philly allowed a more palatable 105.0 points per 100 possessions with him in the middle—a mark much closer to its 100.6 defensive rating with Embiid.
Sacramento Is Seriously Interested in Zach LaVine
Sacramento is "pretty serious" about trying to poach Zach LaVine from the Chicago Bulls, according to Woj—which, ya know, wow.
Restricted free agents are getting a raw deal in this summer's market. The league-wide cap-space shortage has bilked almost everyone of meaningful leverage. The Kings join the Atlanta Hawks and Bulls themselves as the only three squads with consequential wiggle room.
But, like, are they for real?
There's no way the Kings passed on drafting Luka Doncic so they could pay LaVine to play with Bogdan Bogdanovic and Buddy Hield. They're not that far gone, are they? They know it's smarter to conserve their cap space for next summer or to lease out cap space to desperate teams in need of dumping salary, right?
Top Remaining Free Agents
Free agency has, for the time being, slowed to a relative halt. But that only means a gaggle of quality names are still left on the board. Here are the top five available players, as determined by our original big board.
1. Clint Capela, C, Restricted
Clint Capela tweeted a pensive-face emoji without context on July 1. Was he simply reacting to LeBron James joining the Lakers a full 14 minutes before it became official? Thinking about what to have for dinner? Or could he and the Houston Rockets be at an impasse in contract negotiations?
Hitting a snag in talks wouldn't bode well for Capela. He doesn't have any obvious leverage after the Dallas Mavericks burned their cap space on DeAndre Jordan. Only the Atlanta Hawks, Chicago Bulls and Sacramento Kings can afford to sign him outright.
Now, I'm not saying Atlanta should offer him a near-max deal and see what happens. I'm not not saying it, either. (For the record, USA Today's Sam Amick reported that Houston remains committed to keeping Capela.)
Best fits: Atlanta, Houston, Washington (sign-and-trade)
2. Marcus Smart, PG, Restricted
Marcus Smart's market is dwindling by the day. The Indiana Pacers loomed as a potential destination, but they're out of the picture after landing Tyreke Evans. Hardly anyone has the space to offer Smart more than his $6.1 million qualifying offer.
He could probably coax a sizable short-term offer out of the Boston Celtics, but that begs them to use him as a blockbuster-trade anchor. The longer he remains unsigned, the more likely he is to accept his qualifying offer and reassess the landscape in 2019.
Best fits: Boston, Orlando, Sacramento
3. Isaiah Thomas, PG, Unrestricted
Isaiah Thomas is having himself one helluva year. Last July, he was talking about his desire to snag a max contract this summer. Then he was traded to the Cleveland Cavaliers as part of the Kyrie Irving blockbuster. Then, after not making his 2017-18 debut until January, he was sent to the Lakers. And now, he's without a home, verging on an afterthought.
League sources told HoopsHype's Alex Kennedy that Thomas is "negotiating a possible deal" with the Orlando Magic, which makes sense. They won't give him anything close to max money; he'll be lucky to get most of their mid-level exception. But they need a point guard, and he needs a team that'll invite him to stuff the box score and recoup some of the luster he's lost over the past 12 months.
Best fits: Miami, Memphis, Orlando
4. Jabari Parker, PF, Restricted
Aaron Gordon received a four-year, $84 million contract from the Magic. Julius Randle is getting two years and $18 million from the New Orleans Pelicans. Where does this leave Jabari Parker, a fellow restricted free-agent power forward? Good luck figuring that out.
Parker is a tantalizing offensive prospect. He has expanded his arsenal to include more three-pointers and off-ball work while retaining his appeal as a from-scratch creator. But his defense is a problem. He's too slow to guard 3s and isn't strong enough to pester 5s. His fit with Giannis Antetokounmpo has fluctuated between weird and downright poor. The Milwaukee Bucks will have a no-thanks breaking point if Parker gets the right offer, but he won't solicit big-money dalliances unless Atlanta, Chicago or Sacramento gets frisky with their cap space.
Best fits: Atlanta, Brooklyn (sign-and-trade), Milwaukee
5. Kyle Anderson, SF/PF, Restricted
The league-wide cap shortage has left virtually all restricted free agents without leverage. Kyle Anderson is no exception.
In another summer, he might have a more robust market. His three-point touch is a work in progress, but he can jump-start half-court sets and has improved his finishing around the rim. What he lacks in speed, he makes up for in length and IQ. He can comfortably rotate between 2s, 3s and 4s on the defensive side. Expect him to re-sign with the Spurs even if they punt on Kawhi Leonard's future.
Best fits: Atlanta, San Antonio, Chicago