If you haven’t already heard, the first bomb of the 2018 NBA off season was officially dropped Friday afternoon: Kawhi Leonard wants out of San Antonio.
Kawhi Leonard wants out of San Antonio, league sources tell ESPN.
— Chris Haynes (@ChrisBHaynes) June 15, 2018
San Antonio’s Kawhi Leonard has Los Angeles — preferably the Lakers — at the center of his preferences for a trade destination, league sources tell ESPN.
— Adrian Wojnarowski (@wojespn) June 15, 2018
Everyone and their mother (seriously your mom probably is aware of this) is penciling in a super trio of LeBron James, Kawhi Leonard and Paul George on the Lakers next season, and if the Lakers are able to pull off a trade for Leonard then that is likely a done deal.
There is no denying that trio would be able to seriously compete with and defeat the Golden State Warriors next season and help LeBron win multiple titles over the last five or six years of his NBA career.
There is one thing blocking that dream from becoming a reality and that is the fact that the Spurs have complete autonomy over where Kawhi Leonard is traded to if they decide to trade him this summer.
If the Lakers are willing to offer up Brandon Ingram and Lonzo Ball in order to get a deal done (and they should be) this whole conversation may be for naught, but if they withhold one of the two or the Spurs decide they don’t want to create another western conference superpower, the Spurs could balk and look elsewhere.
The Spurs also may have little to no interest in Ball and the circus that surrounds him and can find better offers than Ingram and Kuzma more than likely.
Also, do you really think the Spurs and Gregg Popovich want to do anything to facilitate the Lakers to start another dynasty potentially out west? I honestly doubt it.
That would leave two other logical possibilities, the Boston Celtics and Philadelphia 76ers.
The Celtics possess the trump card here with the ability to offer up Jayson Tatum or Jaylen Brown in a package featuring the Kings 2019 1st round pick as well. If the Celtics decide to go that route, I truly believe they are in the driver’s seat to acquire Leonard.
But would they be willing to part with one of the young superstars and assets from a team that already was a game away from the NBA Finals and has Kyrie Irving and Gordon Hayward back next season? I am not sure. They would also have to do some contract gymnastics to make the salaries match up as they are over the cap. Tatum, Morris and Rozier feels like the most likely way to make that happen.
The 76ers best offer would likely be Fultz, Covington and the No. 10 pick of the draft, which could be enticing, but what really is Markelle Fultz’s value in NBA circles right now and would the Spurs want to acquire a potential bust and no salary cap relief for Leonard? I feel like that offer may not fully grab their attention.
There is one other team that has a combination of draft picks and young assets to be able to enter the Kawhi sweepstakes: the Phoenix Suns.
I know it sounds ludicrous but hear me out…
The Suns are far away from playoff contention at the moment and the Spurs likely wouldn’t see them as a threat even with acquiring Leonard to do much beyond making the playoffs. The Suns also have plenty of draft picks and young talent to offer up to the Spurs.
Here is a sample offer that the Suns could throw at San Antonio:
Suns Trade: Josh Jackson, No. 16 pick, 2019 Unprotected 1st Round Pick, 2021 Miami Heat unprotected 1st round pick, TJ Warren and Dragan Bender
Spurs Trade: Kawhi Leonard
There is no denying the Celtics could trump that offer should they decide to get involved, but the Spurs reportedly coveted Josh Jackson in last year’s draft and could see him as their next Leonard while acquiring a 24-year-old forward in TJ Warren who averaged 20-and-5 last season, a 20-year-old potential 3-and-D center in Dragan Bender and three 1st round picks.
So why would the Suns trade away some of their core pieces for the future and their draft capital to acquire a guy who could pick up and leave next summer? Because of what that would potentially open the door for.
The Suns can start with $21.2 million in cap space this summer if they release their cap holds on free agents Elfrid Payton and Alex Len.
They would also create $2.3 million in cap space as a result of this hypothetical Leonard trade.
They have four non-guaranteed or partially guaranteed contracts for next season in Alan Williams, Tyler Ulis, Davon Reed and Shaquille Harrison.
If they released all four that would create $9,132,233 in additional cap space.
That would give the Suns $32,686,276 in cap space. If the Suns were to use the stretch provision on Jared Dudley and the final year and $9.5 million of his contract his salary would be spread out over 3 years, creating $6,353,334 in additional cap space.
In all, the Suns would have $39,039,610 in cap space entering free agency, just enough money to offer a max contract to… LeBron James.
There is no guarantee that he would agree to join the Suns even in these circumstances, but he and any other basketball fan should know that Leonard is the best possible running mate for James moving forward. His ability to defend the opposing team’s best player, while shooting around 40% from three-point range and scoring 20 or so points per game make him the perfect 2018 version of Scottie Pippen to LeBron’s 2018 hybrid version of Michael Jordan in this scenario.
If the Suns are the team presenting LeBron an opportunity to team up with Leonard, especially considering LeBron’s relationship with Suns VP of Basketball Operations James Jones, that may be enough to sway him into signing with the Suns, at the very least it should be enough to guarantee a meeting.
It would present James the opportunity to play with two other budding superstars in Devin Booker and DeAndre Ayton who they are likely to take No. 1 in the draft, it could be the perfect duo to grow around James and hit their primes in a few seasons as James starts to transition out of his prime.
Phoenix also boasts the most highly regarded training staff in the NBA. They were able to enable Steve Nash and Grant Hill to play at a high level into their 40s and could help facilitate LeBron’s ability to reach unmatched longevity for a career and possibly become the NBA’s all-time leading scorer and play long enough to play with his son LeBron James Jr.
Leonard and LeBron will likely be donning a Lakers uniform come October, but don’t count out the Suns from entering the Leonard sweepstakes and possibly the LeBron lottery in July.
All salary information courtesy of Basketball Insiders and Spotrac.