There may be no historic parallel for the bizarre Kawhi Leonard situation, which veered away from the San Antonio Spurs when LeBron James, the game's greatest star, ventured solo to the game's starriest franchise.
Potential suitors for Leonard have no clue how healthy he is, when they may gain permission to talk with his representatives, or how seriously they should take the word of those representatives. Rival executives sniffing around Leonard have joked they would settle for an Instagram workout video, just to know Leonard is fully ambulatory.
The Spurs have a few ways to gain more leverage:
LeBron pushes the Lakers to make a splash now.
The Spurs understood LeBron's June 29 opt-in deadline with the Cleveland Cavaliers gave them an opening, since opting in would have complicated LeBron's path to the Los Angeles Lakers: You'd better get Kawhi in the door before then. As our crack team of Adrian Wojnarowski, Brian Windhorst, and Ramona Shelburne reported June 27, at least some within the Lakers organization considered that a serious-enough threat to re-engage the Spurs.
The Lakers called San Antonio's bluff. Maybe they knew LeBron was coming. Maybe the Spurs asked too much; cap guru Larry Coon reported Monday that their current price may be Brandon Ingram, Kyle Kuzma, Josh Hart, two first-round picks, and the right to swap first-rounders in two other drafts. That is almost everything other than Lonzo Ball. The Lakers should be hellbent on keeping Ingram -- and willing to trade almost all that other stuff, including Ball, for the security of avoiding another Paul George scenario by landing Leonard now. The Spurs should be, and are, insisting on Ingram's inclusion.
But LeBron is a Laker, and he is not pressuring L.A. to acquire a second star now, per sources familiar with his thinking. His decision to come alone for three guaranteed seasons speaks for itself. He knows Ingram has at least borderline All-Star potential, and that the 2019 free-agency class is loaded beyond Leonard. He has faith in the combined powers of his supernova talent and the Lakers brand.
His patience will have limits. But reading between the lines, the Lakers probably have the next calendar year before LeBron applies urgent pressure.
The pool broadens: Leonard expresses a willingness to re-sign with someone other than the Lakers, or L.A.'s other team dives in.
The Philadelphia 76ers have not included Markelle Fultz in trade talks, sources say. If the 76ers miss out on Leonard now, they could enter next offseason with about $40 million in cap space -- a nice consolation prize.
The Boston Celtics haven't included Jaylen Brown, sources say. As I wrote here, it might make more sense to offer Kyrie Irving or Gordon Hayward before Brown, but I don't see either happening. Boston is confident it can re-sign Irving despite chatter -- credible chatter -- that Irving and Jimmy Butler would like to play together, per league sources. They've earned such confidence.
Boston rarely cares about optics, but it must know how it would look to trade Hayward -- star free-agent acquisition, longtime Brad Stevens favorite -- coming off a traumatic leg injury.
No team will put its best chips in until it gets some reassurances about Leonard's health and chances of re-signing him. Every day between now and the trade deadline is a day that a Kawhi rental team does not get to spend introducing him to its culture -- a day the Spurs lose leverage. The per-day cost is relatively low in the summer; players spend most of it away from their teams.
San Antonio's crisis moment -- its potential "last call" moment -- won't come until camp opens at the earliest. Only the Spurs can know their chances of healing the relationship between now and then, or during camp. Only they can know how far gone it is. They still have the five-year, $219 million super-max.
But there is some value to rental teams in trading for Leonard now -- in starting the sales job immediately. That value would be highest for the LA Clippers, since they and Leonard are summertime neighbors.
They just don't have the assets to stress the Lakers. A package of Tobias Harris, Shai Gilgeous-Alexander, Jerome Robinson and a distant first-round pick isn't netting Leonard unless the Spurs do it out of spite. The picks that became Gilgeous-Alexander and Robinson were more valuable before the draft, when they represented any player the Spurs might want. And the Clippers, like everyone else, are wary of Leonard bolting to the Lakers.
Side note: I kind of want the Clippers to tank. The opening is there. Everyone in the Western Conference is trying to win. The Clippers owe Boston a lottery-protected pick (thanks, Jeff Green). They have solid veterans on good contracts they could easily trade for future assets. Danilo Gallinari will get injured.
This appears unlikely. Re-signing Avery Bradley and, per sources, devoting a portion of the midlevel exception (not a minimum contract) to Mike Scott represent win-now moves. Steve Ballmer, the Clippers' owner, has made no secret of his desire to remain competitive as a means of appealing to free-agent stars.
"You consider all your options," Ballmer told me in the fall. "But I don't want to lose. I like winning. Winning is good. Losing is bad. We think we have a unique opportunity to be a free-agent destination. If you want that, you have to be doing your best every year."
A mystery suitor for Leonard emerges, dangling a blue-chip asset.
For the Spurs, that likely means a young-ish veteran who can help them win now. In preliminary trade talks, the Spurs have shown less interest in packages that tilt too far toward rebuilding -- packages loaded with young players and picks. That is the sort of package they should want: stock up on future assets who fit around Dejounte Murray, deal LaMarcus Aldridge for even more of them, go all-in on a deep rebuild.
Dynamics in San Antonio cut against that path. Trading Aldridge for high value won't be easy. Gregg Popovich probably doesn't want to spend his final seasons winning 25 games.
Let's bounce around some potential mystery teams:
• Toronto (DeMar DeRozan): The most logical all-in play on the board is Toronto offering DeRozan, one of Pascal Siakam, Delon Wright, Jakob Poeltl, and OG Anunoby, and a future first-round pick. Upgrade from DeRozan to Leonard, and the Drakes have a real shot to make the NBA Finals. Maybe Leonard would love Toronto, and enjoy playing in May and June in front of that nutty crowd.
If Leonard walks, the damage isn't so severe. After this season, DeRozan will either opt in to $27.7 million or enter free agency seeking a mega-contract as he turns 30. But DeRozan is really good, Leonard is a huge flight risk, and my hunch is the Spurs would demand too much future stuff for Toronto's taste (if the it has any interest in the first place).
• Portland/CJ McCollum: I don't see it.
• Minnesota/Andrew Wiggins: This is interesting. Wiggins is a divisive player. He probably carries negative trade value on his max-level deal. But he's 23 and undeniably skilled, and the Spurs still have a jones for midrange jumpers. Toss in a couple of picks, and the Wolves could make a compelling offer.
It's hard to see Minnesota going into 2018-19 with both Leonard and Butler on expiring contracts. That is too much risk. It's logical to then flip the discussion to a Butler-for-Leonard deal -- expiring for expiring -- but that seems unworkable.
• Oklahoma City/Steven Adams: Go all-in again, Sam Presti! Eh. Presti has taken enough gambles, and Adams is more grunt guy than blue-chip trade headliner.
• Miami's platter: The Heat can put together a juicier package than you'd expect for capped-out mediocrity: Josh Richardson, Justise Winslow, Bam Adebayo, and their pick in either 2019 or 2023 (or, if the former is unprotected, both). Pat Riley always hunts stars. The Heat believe in their culture, and the lure of South Beach. Depending on San Antonio's taste for Winslow, this is not uninteresting. Adebayo is going to be really good. Still: This is probably not enough. Richardson is almost 25, a third- or fourth-option type on a great team.
• Morey strikes! The Rockets could sign-and-trade Clint Capela along with Eric Gordon and two first-round picks for Leonard, Derrick White and Brandon Paul -- provided the Spurs guarantee Paul's contract and Leonard waives his trade kicker.
The math barely works if Houston re-signs Capela within a narrow salary range around $15 million, per several cap experts, even though base-year compensation rules make trading any restricted free agent absurdly complex. This is spicy. Daryl Morey is always all-in for stars, and faraway Houston first-rounders could have value if Paul and Leonard suffer health issues.
Still: It feels too crazy. The Spurs probably think they can do better.
• The forgotten Buck: Milwaukee could build a similar deal around Jabari Parker, but base-year compensation complexities here are even more gruesome.
• Denver/Gary Harris: The Nuggets were ready to fling assets away for LeBron, so they have some appetite for a star-driven insta-team. But they presumably envisioned LeBron coming on a long-term contract. Harris alone doesn't move the needle enough, and the Nuggets don't have an obvious second player they'd send without some assurance from Leonard's camp.
• Golden State/Klay Thompson: Stop it.
• Sacramento doing something wacky: Never discount the Kings doing something wacky. (I don't think the Kings are going to do something wacky.)
What do the Spurs do if they arrive in camp with an embittered Leonard, and a best offer of Robert Covington, Dario Saric, and the Heat's unprotected 2021 pick? (By the way: I'm not convinced Philadelphia has even offered that.) They could ride it out, hoping to patch things up with Leonard. They could ask teams right then and there for their absolute best offers, and push Leonard to at least grant suitors some face time. They could wait into the season, hope Leonard plays like gangbusters and that a title contender decides, "Screw it, let's get him!" Someone will juice up the bidding at some point. Leonard is too good.
They could wait until Dec. 15, when teams can trade free agents signed this summer. At that point, the Lakers would be able to trade Rajon Rondo, Lance Stephenson and Kentavious Caldwell-Pope -- though Caldwell-Pope would have the right to veto any trade.
Right now, almost any plausible Lakers offer would have to include all of their young players for salary-matching purposes -- including both Ingram and Ball. (Ball and Murray would make for a strange fit in San Antonio.) That was one cost of letting Julius Randle walk. They have only $5.6 million left in cap space, so they can't make a lopsided Leonard trade in which they send out only a little salary unless they use the stretch provision on Luol Deng.
No matter how they rationalize it, ditching Randle and using almost all their remaining resources -- $21 million in space, and the $4.5 million room exception -- on Caldwell-Pope, Rondo, and Stephenson is suboptimal. Jettisoning Randle is understandable; he needs the ball, he can't shoot, and he's a so-so screen-setter who prefers to pop into space instead of diving to the rim. Opponents would have just switched the LeBron-Randle pick-and-roll.
If Caldwell-Pope replicates last season's career-best (by far) 3-point shooting, he fits as a switchable 3-and-D type. In a bullish market for wings, the price for Stephenson is fair, especially if both Magic Johnson and LeBron agreed that James needs more playmakers and stout defenders around him. The $9 million to Rondo, a consistently awful defender for more than a half-decade now, stings.
The Lakers could have used it on another shooter (Wayne Ellington, anyone?), a quality reserve big (Ed Davis, Brook Lopez, Nemanja Bjelica) -- or even two such players if they scaled down from Ellington's likely salary range into Glenn Robinson III/Seth Curry/James Ennis territory.
None of those guys will interest the Spurs when they become trade eligible. In the end, only one Laker might as a centerpiece: Ingram.
It's tempting to scoff at the idea that Ingram should be the holdup in acquiring an MVP candidate who just turned 27. The Lakers should happily flip anyone else, including Kuzma, who is probably overvalued at almost 23 and coming off a sort of hoggy rookie season in which he played minimal defense. (To be clear: Kuzma is solid -- a nice shooter to have around LeBron, with tippy-tap footwork that suggests he could be a decent and versatile defender if forced. He also may profile as a nice backup long-term.)
But every team needs sustainability, and Ingram has a chance to be really, really good -- a perfect fit alongside LeBron. He entered the league with nice playmaking feel, and built atop that in important ways last season. Ingram hit 39 percent from deep, got to the rim much more often, and drew about five free throws per 36 minutes -- a tidy number for a string bean kiddo.
He sees one pass ahead, and has the patience to get defenders on his hip while he reads the floor. He even developed a handy step-back midranger for such tight predicaments:
If his shooting proves real, watch out. His killer pump-fake -- foul-drawing bait already -- will become more convincing. Defenders won't be able to duck under screens.
Ingram is a good athlete, not a great one. He can struggle blowing by bigger guys on switches. Moves that look like they should work get nowhere:
As he gains strength, defenders won't be able to bump Ingram off pathways to pay dirt. Muscle will help Ingram shoot better than the disgusting 21 percent he put up last season on shots from between 3 and 10 feet out. If he shoots well enough to drag defenders further outside, he'll toast them more easily. Shooting will in effect make Ingram faster and more explosive.
If anything, the Lakers overextended Ingram. He'll thrive as a secondary ball handler next to LeBron, rocketing off screens on the wing, catching passes, and zooming right into a pick-and-roll with a head start. He's a savvy cutter on the baseline and in skulking around the 3-point arc. The Lakers missed him a lot. LeBron won't.
The Lakers have the power, for now, to draw the line at Ingram if they want. They have the leverage of Leonard's peculiar situation, LeBron's commitment, and the depth of the 2019 free-agency class. It takes only one variable to flip that equation -- one suddenly rabid suitor, one friendly conversation between Popovich and Leonard, one hint that an upcoming free-agent superstar plans to stay home.
Without such leverage, the scoffing at Ingram as deal-breaker would be justified. Right now, it's not. Ingram is that good, and the Leonard situation is that funky.
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