On June 15, a single tweet by the San Antonio Express-News’ Jabari Young sent the basketball world into a tizzy. It read:
That tweet was soon confirmed by some of the biggest names in NBA reporting: Kawhi Leonard had indeed requested a trade from the San Antonio Spurs. Then came other reports, mentioning different suitors who believe they have a chance to land the two-time All-Star.
Because Leonard only has one year left on his deal and is coming off a quad injury that forced him to miss almost all of the 2017-18 season, it’s a bit tricky to get a good read on his market.
Will teams still be willing to shell out a king’s ransom in order to land him, despite these troubling factors? It’s tough to say.
To help break things down, we listed the various landing spots that reporters mentioned for Leonard and examined what type of packages they could put together for the Spurs wing.
New York Knicks
Shortly after the original reports came out stating Leonard’s desire to leave San Antonio, ESPN’s Ian Begley said people in the small forward’s circle would like to see him playing in the Big Apple:
Though the New York Knicks haven’t experienced much success in their recent history, they still play in one of the two biggest markets in the league, and their home arena, Madison Square Garden, is considered by many to be the mecca of basketball.
So they have that going for them.
Basketball-wise, a move to the Knicks may not make a ton of sense (though the idea of a Kristaps Porzingis/Leonard pairing does sound downright thrilling). But if Leonard’s associates want his brand to expand, there aren’t many better places for that to happen than playing for New York’s main team.
As far as what type of package the Knicks could be put together to get a Leonard deal done, something along the lines of the following could work:
- Knicks get: Leonard
- Spurs get: Tim Hardaway Jr., Frank Ntilikina and New York’s 2018 first-round pick (No. 9 overall)
The most exciting part of this trade for San Antonio would, obviously, be landing the lottery pick. Using that selection, the Spurs could target their Leonard replacement as there are a few wings projected to go in that range such as Mikal Bridges (who has great 3-and-D potential), Miles Bridges (who’s a freakish athlete with a burgeoning outside game) and potentially even Michael Porter Jr (who has been described as a Kevin Durant Lite, but injury concerns have caused him to fall on some draft boards).
Hardaway is part of the deal mostly for salary-matching purposes, although the Spurs could stand to get younger at the 2-guard spot (and with Danny Green contemplating entering free agency this summer, they could wind up needing a new shooting guard anyway). And the Michigan product has shown to be a serviceable player, as he’s coming off a 17-plus-point-per-game campaign.
The tricky part of this trade is what to do with the young French floor general, Ntilikina. Still merely 19 years old, Ntilikina has already shown encouraging potential as a defender, but his total lack of an outside shot could make his skill set superfluous for San Antonio, who’ve already invested so much in developing Dejounte Murray.
The Spurs could decide to ship Ntilikina to a third team in exchange for a more established player or more assets. Either way, this wouldn’t be a bad haul for San Antonio, who could use the draft picks to initiate a moderate rebuild.
(For those wondering why we didn’t mention Porzingis as a potential part of a Leonard trade, the fact that the Spurs small forward is coming off such a serious injury and is only signed through 2018-19 will likely make it difficult for San Antonio to receive an A-plus package from any team. And including Porzingis would make this deal New York’s A-plus package.)
Another team (somewhat shockingly) mentioned as a potential Leonard suitor were the Sacramento Kings, when Yahoo Sports’ Chris Mannix tweeted the following:
This has legs, as Sam Amick of USA TODAY Sports tweeted about the Kings’ interest minutes later. Sacramento being interested in Leonard shouldn’t come as a surprise. They’ve consistently been one of the worst teams in the league for the past decade, failing to finish a season over .500 since 2005-06. Also, general manager Vlade Divac might be one more failed draft pick away from being out of work.
Swinging for the fences to land a superstar talent like Leonard could not only buy Divac some job security, it could make Sacramento relevant for the first time since Chris Webber was still around.
Deciphering what a potential Kings package for Leonard would look like isn’t difficult thanks to Mannix and Amick mentioning Sacramento’s willingness to part with their No. 2 pick:
- Kings get: Leonard
- Spurs get: Bogdan Bogdanovic and Sacramento’s 2018 first-round pick (No. 2 overall)
This agreement works financially even though the salaries don’t match because once Vince Carter’s contract expires this offseason, the Kings will have around $25 million in cap space (even if Garrett Temple opts into the final year of his deal). Since Leonard is due just $20.1 million for 2018-19, Sacramento would have more than enough room to absorb his money into their books.
With the second-overall selection, San Antonio would essentially have their pick of the litter as far who their next franchise cornerstone is going to be. Luka Doncic, who some have compared to a bigger version of Manu Ginobili, would make a ton of sense at that spot, for example.
And Bogdanovic, meanwhile, had an excellent rookie season, showing a lot of promise as an efficient wing with great shooting touch. He would certainly continue to thrive under head coach Gregg Popovich.
This package may be the best San Antonio could hope for, as the No. 2 pick in a talented draft is a fantastic asset, and on top of that, they’d be getting a promising 25-year-old shooting guard on a team-friendly deal through the next three seasons. But would Sacramento really be willing to move their pick without a long-term commitment from Leonard? That remains to be seen.
The Boston Celtics were also mentioned, by multiple reporters, as a potential Leonard suitor.
Celtics general manager Danny Ainge has been hoarding uber-valuable assets for years, only opting to use a small portion of them last summer when trading for Kyrie Irving.
Could it be time for Ainge to strike again?
While his team does have a strong trio of wings at the moment in Jayson Tatum, Jaylen Brown and Gordon Hayward, Boston likely wouldn’t hesitate if given the chance to add a Top-5 player (when healthy) like Leonard. The thing is, they’re going to have to be sure Leonard is finally over the quad injury that forced him to miss most of 2017-18 before agreeing to a deal of this magnitude. They’d likely want a long-term commitment as well.
If those assurances don’t arrive, Ainge may not be interested in making this move. He’s displayed his patience before and it’s unlikely he’d be willing to part with such valuable pieces if Leonard’s health doesn’t check out or if it’s possible that the wing would only be donning a Celtics jersey for one year.
But let’s say Ainge does want to strike. For salaries to match, and if the Celtics don’t want to move any of their three highest-paid players (Hayward, Irving or Al Horford), a Spurs/Celtics deal would have to look something like this:
- Celtics get: Leonard
- Spurs get: Brown, Marcus Morris, Terry Rozier, Guerschon Yabusele, Abdel Nader, Semi Ojeleye and the Kings’ Top-1 protected 2019 first-round pick
Aside from Brown and maybe Rozier, the rest of that package can be seen as salary filler. Odds are, the trio of Yabusele, Nader and Ojeleye would likely get waived by the time training camp is wrapping up, unless any of them impresses Popovich enough to earn a spot on the Spurs’ roster.
That’s why we included the Kings’ top-pick protected 2019 first-rounder, a very nice asset that could land San Antonio an elite prospect next summer. Without the selection, it’s doubtful that package would be enough for Boston to land Leonard. With it, the trade immediately becomes more plausible.
With a starting five of Irving, Hayward, Tatum, Leonard and Horford in the fold, the Celtics would finally have a team strong enough to knock LeBron James off his Eastern-Conference perch and they’d have a legitimate chance to compete for a title.
Meanwhile, the Spurs would receive a very promising young wing who’s still on his rookie-scale deal for another two years and a fantastic asset in the form of Sacramento’s barely-protected 2019 first-rounder with which to rebuild.
Los Angeles Clippers
According to reports, Leonard has eyes for Los Angeles. Many have linked him to the team that wears purple and gold, but some pundits believe the squad that wears red, white and black could have a shot as well:
Thanks to the Blake Griffin trade from January, the Los Angeles Clippers are actually decently stocked as far as assets go. At the moment, L.A. owns the two late lottery picks (No. 12 and No. 13) in this year’s stacked draft.
To make salaries work, a deal between the Clippers and Spurs could look like this:
- Clippers get: Leonard
- Spurs get: Tobias Harris, Clippers’ 2018 first-round picks (No. 12 and No. 13 overall)
The two late lottery selections would help the Spurs quickly rebuild post-Leonard, and Harris, who has one year left on his deal, would have his Bird Rights transfer over to San Antonio (giving them the ability to go over the cap to re-sign him long-term if they so choose). Harris is coming off a career-year in which he averaged 18.6 points and 5.5 rebounds while shooting a pristine 41.1 percent from three, the 18th-best mark in the league.
If that’s not enough to entice the Spurs (it probably would be), the only other first-rounder the Clippers could attach is their 2021 first-rounder, with some sort of protection on it, as sweetener.
Were this deal to go through, the Clippers would become more appealing to prospective free agents and resemble a contender sooner rather than later.
A team that, at times last season, already appeared quite close to legit title contention, the Philadelphia 76ers were also mentioned as a potential Leonard landing spot.
It makes sense, considering they have an excellent young core and various assets they can throw in to make a deal work.
The simplest way to get a deal done between the two parties is as follows:
- 76ers get: Leonard
- Spurs get: Dario Saric and the 76ers’ 2018 first-round pick (No. 10 overall)
In Saric, Popovich and Co. would be receiving a 24-year-old wing with a ton of promise – one who can handle the rock at 6-foot-10, create for teammates, defend, knock down open jumpers and get to the rim with aplomb. Truth be told, Saric’s skill-set is a bit too similar to Philadelphia rookie Ben Simmons’, thus making him somewhat expendable in exchange for a star player like Leonard.
If he were to be placed in a bigger role, it wouldn’t be shocking to see Saric become an 18/6/5 type of player – a forward who can do a bit of everything, including (maybe most importantly) score at an efficient rate while providing value on the other side of the floor as well.
On top of Saric, the Spurs could use the No. 10 pick on a promising young backcourt player, like Lonnie Walker out of Miami or Shai Gilgeous-Alexander out of Kentucky.
The 76ers, on the other hand, would be getting an elite wing to pair with Simmons and Joel Embiid, which would help them form a core so potent it could challenge for the Eastern Conference crown by next season.
Los Angeles Lakers
The odds-on favorite to land Leonard, according to both reports and Las Vegas oddsmakers, are the Los Angeles Lakers.
That shouldn’t come as a surprise, as part of the reason many believe Leonard wants to leave San Antonio, on top of the behind-the-scenes ugliness that came about after his injury, is that the 2014 Finals MVP would like to play in a more visible market.
Well, it doesn’t get bigger than the Lakers.
It also doesn’t hurt that Leonard was born and raised in Los Angeles, a factor that also ties the Lakers to another star wing on the market this summer.
Helping their cause is the fact Los Angeles has a few assets they can move around in potential trades, both in the form of young players and draft picks. A deal between the two sides could resemble something like this:
- Lakers get: Leonard
- Spurs get: Brandon Ingram, Josh Hart, the Lakers’ 2018 first-round pick (No. 25 overall) and the Lakers’ 2019 lottery-protected first-round pick
Basically, it would come down to who the Spurs prefer between Ingram or Kyle Kuzma. But considering they already have LaMarcus Aldridge on the roster for the foreseeable future, Ingram may make more sense, as he can defend perimeter players and is more of a pure wing than Kuzma. On top of Ingram, an exciting 20-year-old forward coming off a season in which he averaged 16.1 points, 5.3 rebounds and 3.9 assists, San Antonio would also get Hart, who showed promise as a stout two-way shooting guard in the mold of the Spurs’ current shooting guard, Green.
Because the Lakers’ first-rounder is the No. 25 overall selection, this deal would probably require another first-round pick from Los Angeles, even one that’s lottery-protected, for the Spurs to truly consider accepting it. Especially since many don’t believe San Antonio is all that willing to help the Lakers in their mission to form a contender (or all that excited to send Kawhi to his preferred destination):
Though the haul seems pricey for L.A., not only would they be getting back one of the best small forwards in basketball, they would also immediately become a much more appealing landing spot for prospective free agents this offseason.
It’s also worth noting that Leonard could try to force his way to the Lakers by refusing to give other suitors a long-term commitment (thus decreasing the likelihood that they’ll part with significant assets and match Los Angeles’ offer).
Signing a Paul George or a LeBron – perhaps even both – is the Lakers’ primary goal this summer. Well, that becomes a whole heck of a lot more likely with a guy like Leonard already in the fold, and for that reason, general manager Rob Pelinka and team president Magic Johnson may be willing to fork over a package as rich as the one we listed in their efforts to land the two-time All-NBA wing.
Follow Frank Urbina on Twitter @FrankUrbina_.
HoopsHype’s Alberto de Roa contributed to this article.