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Far Fetched Friday: Kawhi Leonard Leaves San Antonio
Author: Ryan Stein
Far-Fetched Friday: Is the Kawhi Leonard Era Coming to an End in San Antonio?
A franchise as well-respected and player-friendly as the San Antonio Spurs is not accustomed to making the news for anything other than their typically spectacular play (for which they admittedly do not receive enough credit.) However, this season has seen a slight blemish to their perfect image, due to a developing news story that has followed the team all year. The situation to which I am referring is the strange injury status of their resident superstar, Kawhi Leonard. Leonard, who initially injured his right quad in the offseason, missed the first 27 games of the Spurs' season. After that he played an inconsistent 9 games, in which the injury was clearly still giving him trouble. He was shut down 'indefinitely' so that he could take care of any lingering quad issues. That was on January 13th, and he has still yet to return to the court, despite being medically cleared.
The situation has gotten so weird that Head Coach Greg Popovich said he would be surprised if Leonard returned AT ALL this season, which is a huge shock considering the amount of time for recovery that has already been given for such a caliber of injury. And while it has since been reported that Leonard is targeting a late March return to the court, it would not be ridiculous to wonder if there might have been some communication miscues between Leonard and the Spurs, leading to the confusion and uncertainty surrounding one of the game's top players.
All this being said, it is possible that Leonard has grown weary of the Spurs, which could have huge implications in the near future, considering he is set for free agency in 2019 (Player Option for 2019-2020.) If the Spurs fear that Leonard could leave for another team once he hits free agency, it may in fact be in the best interest of the team to trade their superstar and second greatest player in franchise history. Even if the friction between Leonard and the Spurs is overblown, Leonard still has a significant injury history and, great as he may be, his talent is of no use to the team if they cannot rely on him to be on the court when it matters the most. There is also no guarantee that he will return to his MVP-caliber play for which he has become known. Where could the Spurs trade Leonard? I have a few suggestions that could work if the team cannot right the course by the end of the season.
The Los Angeles Lakers and their fans for years have believed that they will attain every star player available through free agency, almost always to no avail. That being said, Leonard might provide a unique situation for Hollywood's most notorious sports team. Leonard was born and raised in Los Angeles, even attending college at San Diego State University. His ties to the area are real, and although the team in its current state is not competitive, it is not outside the realm of possibility for Leonard to be interested in a return to his hometown. This especially rings true if the Lakers can also manage to snag a star free agent in this year's free agency, such as Paul George (who is also from California) or even LeBron James. A potential trade would almost certainly have to include some combination of Brandon Ingram, Kyle Kuzma, a sign-and-trade for Julius Randle and/or a pick. The price would be tough to handle, but a player of Leonard's caliber is not often on the trade block. Pairing him with LeBron James, while admittedly a long shot to say the least, would make the Lakers instant title contenders, even in the stacked Western Conference. For the Spurs, they would be able to hit a soft reset, acquiring young talented players with the potential to become stars in the league. Especially if they are able to acquire Brandon Ingram, the Spurs' future would be in good hands, and they would still be able to compete in the present with the team's incumbent players and the infusion of young blood they would receive with this trade.
The longstanding rival of the Lakers and current Eastern Conference powerhouse, the Boston Celtics, is another team that, somehow, has the assets to execute a trade for Leonard. Despite already having three star players on its team in Kyrie Irving, Gordon Hayward, and Al Horford, there is always room on a roster for a top-5 NBA player, which Leonard is. With the draft picks that the Celtics have stockpiled over the years thanks to GM Danny Ainge's genius savvy moves, they would not have to give up too much in the way of current talent to get a trade done. Some of the assets the Celtics would have to give up would include: Jayson Tatum/Jaylen Brown, (most likely) the Sacramento Kings' 2019 1st round pick, the Los Angeles Clippers' 2019 or 2020 1st round pick, the Memphis Grizzlies' future 1st round pick, and their own 1st round picks. One of Tatum or Brown, plus probably two of the 1st round picks, plus other contracts to make salaries match, would be needed to appease the San Antonio Spurs. Depending on how the season ends for Leonard and the Spurs, this offer might be too much to give up for the Celtics, and it is certainly one of the top offers that can be made by any team. A core of Irving, Tatum or Brown, Hayward, Leonard, and Horford would make the Celtics instant title favorites, even over the likes of the Golden State Warriors and Houston Rockets. Knowing Danny Ainge, he already has multiple deals in mind for when Leonard or any star player potentially hits the trade block.
The Spurs would be hard-pressed to find a deal for more quality assets, with the combination of a young talent with high future 1st round draft picks. It may seem like such a trade would mean the Spurs would be opting to head toward a rebuild, however it is important to remember that they are still a top-4 seed in the Western Conference this season (as of March 1), even without Kawhi Leonard. Plus, with the incredible ability the Spurs franchise has with finding valuable role players late in the draft, it is scary to think what they could accomplish with high draft picks.
What is one thing that is missing from both the Lakers' and Celtics' offers? That would be a current star player. Star-for-star trades are risky for both sides, as you risk ruining team chemistry and they can be too present-focused. However, there is another team in the West with a superstar player that may be looking to find his way off his current team in the near future: Anthony Davis of the New Orleans Pelicans. While contracts would have to be added to a trade to make the salaries match, a Leonard-for-Davis swap would be a earth-shattering trade that would still leave both teams with a positive outlook for the present and future.
For the Pelicans, the fit of Leonard is better, especially if DeMarcus Cousins is re-signed this offseason. A frontline of Leonard, Nikola Mirotic, and Cousins would give the Pelicans a great blend of size, defense, shooting, and interior presence. The fit between Davis and Cousins was always a bit clunky, even though their immense talent helped mask much of that. With Leonard, the Pelicans would receive a top-5 player to replace their own and a proven winner and champion.
On the side of the Spurs, a trade like this is uncharted territory. Star players that start their careers with the Spurs almost always finish their careers with the Spurs (David Robinson, Tim Duncan, Tony Parker, Manu Ginobili.) If the Spurs front office believes it is time to pull the trigger on a Leonard trade, however, they will not be able to acquire a single player of the talent and youth that Davis possesses. There's no telling how much Davis would blossom under Greg Popovich, one of the greatest coaches in American sports history. The Spurs would be able to continue their run of dominance, which has spanned from 1997 when Tim Duncan was drafted until now. A change of scenery could do wonders for everyone involved, settling past issues and starting fresh.
Agree or disagree with my takes? Let me know in the comment section and let your voice be heard!
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