Kawhi Leonard Trade Talks Carry Enormous Ripple Effects for NBA

Sean Highkin@highkinFeatured ColumnistJuly 15, 2018

San Antonio Spurs forward Kawhi Leonard (2) moves the ball up court during the second half of an NBA basketball game against the Denver Nuggets, Saturday, Jan. 13, 2018, in San Antonio. San Antonio won 112-80. (AP Photo/Eric Gay)
Eric Gay/Associated Press

No one knows when the San Antonio Spurs' long-running Kawhi Leonard drama will be resolved. It's been almost a month since his widely reported trade request, and the Spurs still appear no closer to finding a trade.

The Los Angeles LakersLeonard's preferred destination, per ESPN.com Adrian Wojnarowski—haven't shown much urgency to make a trade involving any of their young prospects in the wake of landing LeBron James in free agency. Other teams with the kinds of young players and picks the Spurs want have been hesitant to make compelling offers without a commitment that Leonard, who can become an unrestricted free agent next summer, will stick around long-term. The only thing that seems certain is that Leonard will be somewhere besides San Antonio by the time training camp starts; his relationship with the Spurs appears too far gone for any other outcome.

No matter how the Leonard situation resolves itself, there will be widespread ripple effects and consequences for many parties—for the Spurs, for any team that does or doesn't trade for him, for Leonard himself.


The end of the Spurs mystique?

OAKLAND, CA - MAY 12: Manu Ginobili #20, Kawhi Leonard #2, Danny Green #4, Tony Parker #9 and Head Coach Gregg Popovich of the San Antonio Spurs face the Golden State Warriors in Game Four of the Western Conference Semifinals during the 2013 NBA Playoffs
Rocky Widner/Getty Images

It's a testament to Gregg Popovich's brilliance and the Spurs' long-running organizational culture that they managed to win 47 games and snag a playoff spot in 2017-18 season with Leonard limited to just nine games and no other stars outside of LaMarcus Aldridge. Even assuming they trade Leonard before the start of training camp in September, they can't be ruled out of the playoff picture next season—unless they trade Aldridge and completely rebuild, which they've given no indication is in their plans.

This Leonard saga marks the first time in their 20-plus-year run under Popovich where the Spurs have faced the kind of drama most teams face on a yearly basis. The retirement of Tim Duncan before the 2016-17 season signaled the end of an era, and while the Spurs have remained competitive in the two seasons since then, it's hard to shake the notion that the mystique is gone. Leonard was supposed to be their next-generation superstar to carry the franchise forward. However, his trust level with the organization appears to be irreparably broken. Tony Parker, another Spurs lifer who was there for four of their five championships under Popovich, signed a two-year deal with the Charlotte Hornets last week. Manu Ginobili has yet to decide whether he will retire or return for another season.

And that's before we get to Popovich's long-term future. The legendary coach turns 70 in January and recently suffered an unthinkable personal tragedy this spring with the death of his wife, Erin. It's fair to wonder how much longer he'll want to coach if the Spurs aren't going to be contending for titles. Popovich is committed to taking over for Mike Krzyzewski as head coach of USA Basketball for the 2020 Summer Olympics in Tokyo, so it's reasonable to assume he'll stick around in San Antonio for at least two more seasons. Beyond that, with the Spurs' unprecedented run of dominance in the rear-view mirror, would it be much of a surprise if he decided to call it a career?

There isn't a clear successor in waiting once Popovich decides to retire. His two top assistants, Ettore Messina and Ime Udoka, were in the running for several head coaching jobs this spring and could be poached by another team in the next round of musical chairs. Becky Hammon was recently promoted to the front of the bench after James Borrego left to take over as head coach of the Hornets. Depending on who's on Popovich's staff by the time he retires, they'll likely have several solid internal candidates to replace him. But just like Duncan, Popovich has been a constant presence in San Antonio—and in the NBA—since the late 1990s, and it remains to be seen how the Spurs will fare once he calls it quits.

Given his advancing age, Popovich's day to hang up the clipboard was always coming. The inevitable exit of Leonard in the next few months could expedite it.


The Lakers' free-agency plans

A mural of LeBron James in a Los Angeles Lakers jersey is viewed in Venice, California on July 9, 2018. - It was originally revealed July 6, 2018, and then vandalized over the weekend, and re-touched up again with the word 'of' not repainted from the orig

Right now, Leonard is still putting out the message that he wants to play for the Lakers and only the Lakers. Because of that, it's smart that the Lakers are slow playing trade talks with the Spurs under the assumption that they'll at least have a good shot at signing him next summer when he hits the open market. James signed a four-year deal, which takes some pressure off Magic Johnson and Rob Pelinka to build a contender right away. They can see what they have with their young core of Lonzo Ball, Brandon Ingram and Kyle Kuzma—and which of that group is a long-term fit next to James.

However, this strategy could also burn them in the same way their reluctance to trade for Paul George last summer came back to haunt them. Like Leonard, George made it known that he wanted to join the Lakers, so the Lakers (reasonably) assumed that they could hold off on making a trade and just sign him this summer. Of course, it didn't work out that way—George enjoyed playing with Russell Westbrook in Oklahoma City and re-upped with the Thunder in the opening hours of free agency, taking him off the board by the time James committed.

If the Lakers decide not to trade for Leonard this summer while he wants to go there, they run the risk of San Antonio making a trade with another team that is able to convince him to stick around long-term.

Since coming to an agreement with James, the Lakers have made a series of one-year deals with players like Rajon Rondo, Lance Stephenson and Kentavious Caldwell-Pope, essentially putting off their acquisition of a second big-name superstar to pair with him until next summer. Unless Kevin Durant decides to leave Golden State, Leonard will be the best player up for grabs, and the Lakers are banking on him still wanting to go there a year from now.

Unlike this summer, however, they'll have other options if Leonard isn't coming. There's a long list of All-Star names who could be on the market next summer, including Durant, Klay Thompson, Jimmy Butler, Kemba Walker, Kevin Love, Marc Gasol and DeMarcus Cousins. It's a fair assumption that the combination of playing with James and playing in Los Angeles will be enough to lure at least one of that group, even if it's not Leonard. But a fully healthy Leonard is the most impactful player they could sign, and not trading for him now carries the risk that they miss their window of opportunity to add him at all.


The Eastern Conference playoff picture

Charles Krupa/Associated Press

Outside of the Lakers, the three teams with the most buzz about a Leonard trade happen to be the top three teams in the Eastern Conference: the Celtics, Sixers and Raptors. All three could put together solid packages of picks and young players that would appeal to San Antonio. If one of them lands him, the playoff race in the East instantly becomes more interesting.

As of now, the Celtics are the front-runners to be the first non-LeBron team to make the Finals out of the East since 2010. Fresh off taking the Cavaliers to seven games in the Eastern Conference Finals in May, they're expected to go into training camp with a healthy Gordon Hayward and Kyrie Irving. They're in a good place no matter what Danny Ainge decides to do—they could sit out the Leonard sweepstakes and feel good about the group they have going into the season, or they could become even more dangerous in the short term by trading for Leonard to play alongside rising star Jayson Tatum on the wing. They'd likely have to include Jaylen Brown in a trade package to make it worth the Spurs' while to trade him there, but Hayward is another intriguing option given the abundance of wings on their roster.

The 76ers will be a worthy challenger to Boston with or without Leonard, but adding him makes them especially dangerous. Right now, they're reluctant to include former No. 1 overall pick Markelle Fultz in trade discussions, but when it comes down to it, they'd probably be willing to ultimately part with anybody not named Ben Simmons or Joel Embiid. Adding Leonard to that group would make them a nightmare defensively, assuming he's back to full health.

Toronto is a bit of a wild card. The Raptors have no shortage of intriguing young pieces they could dangle in a trade package, including Jakob Poeltl, Pascal Siakam and Norman Powell. But it would be hard for them to pull off a trade without convincing San Antonio to take on the hefty contract of one of Kyle Lowry, DeMar DeRozan or Jonas Valanciunas. After their second consecutive playoff sweep at the hands of James, the Raptors fired head coach Dwane Casey and elevated assistant Nick Nurse to the top spot. Trading for Leonard would give them some added firepower to prove they're still relevant in the group of elite NBA teams.

Any of these three teams—or any team that isn't the Lakers, for that matter—would be taking a gamble that it can convince him to stay, as the Thunder were able to do with George. Sam Presti's success on that front should give each at least a little bit of hope that it can win Leonard over, but he's never been forthcoming about his intentions. If his heart is completely set on playing in Los Angeles, the Celtics or Sixers could do everything right and still lose him for nothing after this upcoming season. Only they can decide whether it's worth the risk.


Kawhi Leonard's standing among NBA stars

OAKLAND, CA - MAY 14:  Kawhi Leonard #2 of the San Antonio Spurs dribbles the ball while guarded by Kevin Durant #35 of the Golden State Warriors in Game One of the Western Conference Finals during the 2017 NBA Playoffs on May 14, 2017 at ORACLE Arena in
Noah Graham/Getty Images

Over the previous four years, Leonard's rise up the ranks of NBA superstars was nothing short of meteoric. He won Finals MVP in 2014, Defensive Player of the Year the following two seasons and was an MVP candidate in 2016-17. Last year, with his recovery from a quad injury shrouded in uncertainty, he was largely a non-factor. He appeared in just nine games for the Spurs and didn't look like himself physically when he did play. There still isn't clarity as to the nature of his injury—his camp and the Spurs' doctors have differing opinions on the severity and treatment plan, which led in part to the falling-out between the two parties, according to a report from ESPN.com's Ramona Shelburne and Michael C. Wright.

In addition to the flight risk that comes with his impending free agency, any team that trades for Leonard is taking a significant roll of the dice on his health. No one knows what he'll look like when he does take the court again. With a big payday coming up, he'll be motivated to prove that he's still in the best-players-in-the-NBA conversation with the likes of James, Durant, Stephen Curry, Anthony Davis and James Harden. If he is, he'll be in line for a massive raise next July, be it with the Lakers or another team. If he struggles and gets hurt again, he could end up signing for much less money.

One must only look to the plights of DeMarcus Cousins and Isaiah Thomas this summer to see the downside for Leonard. A year ago, both Cousins and Thomas were seen as locks to receive max or near-max money on the free-agent market. Instead, Cousins signed with the Warriors for $5.3 million and Thomas signed with the Nuggets for the minimum after both players suffered serious injuries.

If Leonard can get healthy in the next year, he'll enter free agency in a summer in which teams will have more cap space than they had this year. He'll have his pick of nine-figure offers from the Lakers, Knicks, Nets and more. If he struggles, his earning window and standing among the elite group of superstars could be in jeopardy. His own future is just one of many moving parts in what has been one of the most uniquely fascinating stories in recent NBA history.