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The Most Likely Kawhi Leonard Landing Spots

The Spurs superstar wants out of San Antonio, per multiple reports. Here are his best options, ranked from most probable to Sacramento.

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After a season-long standoff, the relationship between the Spurs and Kawhi Leonard is finally boiling over. Leonard, one of the best two-way players in the NBA, wants out of San Antonio, per multiple reports. Yahoo Sports’ Shams Charania says Leonard is “uncomfortable with any future with the Spurs … and is prepared to move on immediately, league sources said.” The rift between the two is deep.

The prospect of one of the NBA’s elite players being on the trading block is exhilarating. Here are the 10 most reasonable landing spots for Leonard — ranked from most likely to least likely, plus the Kings.

Los Angeles Lakers

This is Leonard’s preferred destination, per ESPN’s Adrian Wojnarowski. It’d be a homecoming for the superstar, who was born in Los Angeles, played high school hoops in and around Riverside, and played college ball two hours south at San Diego State. ESPN’s Ramona Shelburne and Michael C. Wright reported in May that “multiple league sources also told ESPN that the Spurs have grown worried that Leonard’s group has an ulterior motive to fray the relationship and get Leonard traded to a larger market.” Few markets are larger than L.A.

The Lakers certainly have the juice to get a deal done, though as Woj notes, they weren’t able to land Paul George last summer, after the then-Pacers forward’s desire to play for the Lakers went public. While the Lakers are missing their 2018 first-round draft pick (Philly owns it), they could package together Brandon Ingram and a future first, plus cap filler, as a starting offer. They may need to add in Lonzo Ball to get a deal through, but that would be worth it. The Lakers also have enough cap room to lure two more superstars — such as George and LeBron James. After five years in the gutter, the NBA’s second-most-storied franchise is on the verge of a roaring comeback. Or as Jeanie Buss put it on Wednesday:

Buss tweeted this from New York City. Guess who was also allegedly in NYC at that time?

Do not ever underestimate.

Boston Celtics

There’s a potential trade going down in the NBA, so of course the Celtics are on the phone.

Even after dealing for Kyrie Irving last offseason, no team has more assets available to trade than Boston. They have a 2019 first-round pick from Sacramento (top-one protected), a 2019 Clippers first-round pick (lottery protected), and a 2019 Grizzlies first-round pick (one-through-eight protected). Pick your poison. The only hurdle is making the salaries work without giving up one of Boston’s max players, but we know general manager Danny Ainge can work magic.

Even a one-year rental could be worth it for Boston. A core of Irving, Leonard, Gordon Hayward, Jayson Tatum, Jaylen Brown, and Al Horford coached by Brad Stevens could win the title right away.

Los Angeles Clippers

The Lakers may have the mystique, but Leonard would also consider the Clippers, per Woj. And the Clippers are ready to pursue him:

The Clippers control the no. 12 and no. 13 picks in Thursday’s draft, so it feels likely that any deal would begin with those assets. Let’s also pour one out for Tobias Harris, who has already been traded three times during his NBA career; including him would make the money work. L.A. may have to throw in a future first if the bidding gets hot, but Harris, no. 12, and no. 13 could be the basic framework.

San Antonio Spurs

The Spurs can still play hardball here. Though Leonard has plenty of leverage — for instance, he can say he’s not going to re-sign with any team he’s traded to — San Antonio is reportedly in no rush to make a move.

That makes sense. Would Leonard really spend another year on the sideline? He’d still make more than $20 million to do so, and any team would gladly offer him a max deal in 2019 if he’s healthy, but it’s hard to think that a pro basketball player would want to stay off the court for so long. And so long as Leonard is on the Spurs, they’ll be the only team able to offer him a $219 million, five-year supermax contract. ESPN’s Chris Haynes says Leonard doesn’t care about that, but that’s a lot of money to turn down.

Cleveland Cavaliers

It seems like no one is talking about the Cavaliers in the Leonard sweepstakes, but maybe they should be. Cleveland isn’t a big market, sure, but LeBron James has not left just yet. If there’s a chance to rebuild a contender in Cleveland, James, who is notoriously in tune with perceptions of his legacy and narrative, could consider it — at least for one season. He may not be ready to go full mercenary LeBron just yet.

This deal is easy: Cleveland trades the no. 8 pick this year for Leonard. The Cavs then just have to match Leonard’s salary to make it work. Tristan Thompson would be enough to get the deal done. So would Pop favorite George Hill. Any two of J.R. Smith, Kyle Korver, and Jordan Clarkson would also make the math work. There are plenty of options.

The big roadblock here: LeBron would likely have to commit to Cleveland, at least by opting into his contract for next season, before the Cavs would consider giving away their lottery pick for probably one year of Leonard.

Philadelphia 76ers

Philly could definitely get aggressive in pursuing Leonard, per The Ringer’s Kevin O’Connor:

There’s just one problem: The Sixers currently don’t have an official general manager. (Head coach Brett Brown is filling the role in the interim.) Philadelphia might need to settle that question first before it can pursue Leonard.

Phoenix Suns

The Suns nearly traded for Irving a year ago, and maybe they’re still thinking big. They could start with a package of Josh Jackson, the no. 16 pick, and a 2019 first-rounder (either their own or Milwaukee’s top-three-protected pick). But Phoenix isn’t a big market, was the worst team in the league last season, and would still have a lot of growing to do with Deandre Ayton, the presumptive no. 1 pick, and Devin Booker. Irving had two seasons (and a player option) on his deal a year ago, so the risk of Leonard, who has one season (and a player option) on his deal, bouncing after just 82 games could make Phoenix reluctant to make a big splash.

New York Knicks

Knicks fans always think they’re on the verge of landing a superstar. And apparently, New York is on the table:

Hmmm. “People close to Leonard have expressed a desire for Leonard to play in New York” is a lot of word salad that does not mean “Leonard wants to play in New York.” But it’s something. The Knicks do have the no. 9 pick in Thursday’s draft, but would still have to outbid teams that have more assets than they do. Kristaps Porzingis could miss the entire 2018–19 season, and the Knicks don’t have the cap space to sign a big-name free agent this summer, limiting their appeal to someone like Leonard.

Minnesota Timberwolves

Per Sporting News’ Sean Deveney, Jimmy Butler is “uncertain” about playing with Andrew Wiggins again. The Timberwolves appear to have a lot of internal turmoil, and the organization could get ahead of that with a big roster shake-up centered on Leonard.

But it’s hard to see the Spurs wanting Wiggins, who is on the books for a five-year max deal starting next season, and it’s hard to see the Wolves wanting to part with Butler or Karl-Anthony Towns. With few other assets, any deal feels unlikely.

Miami Heat

The Heat can trade their 2019 first-round pick only if it is unprotected, and any deal here would have to revolve around that, plus Goran Dragic and a young asset like Justise Winslow, Bam Adebayo, or Josh Richardson. But the Heat’s salary situation is so tight that a deal may not be possible. Even clearing Dragic and Hassan Whiteside for nothing isn’t enough to offer a max deal for LeBron, and if Miami can’t have LeBron and Leonard together, then Leonard feels too risky to pursue.

Sacramento Kings

The Kings couldn’t possibly talk themselves into the idea that Leonard would re-sign with them, right?

Wow. Here we are. It’s actually possible to see what Sacramento could be thinking: The small-market Kings have very few chances to lure superstar players in free agency. But they could bring Leonard in and have a year to audition to him. A trade would make the Kings the only team able to offer Leonard an extra year on his next contract. In addition, the Kings don’t own their 2019 first-round pick, so they don’t lose any ground in next year’s draft by improving the team in the short term.

Wait a second; this sounds kind of similar to the trade Oklahoma City made last summer to land Paul George. Except OKC gave up Victor Oladipo — who at the time didn’t look like the All-Star he’d become — and already had an MVP to pair George with. The Kings would have to give up more (the no. 2 pick, plus cap filler) for an even slimmer chance at re-signing Leonard than the Thunder have at re-signing George this summer. I mean, how thrilled would Kawhi be to leave a franchise that hasn’t missed the playoffs since 1997 to join one that hasn’t made them since 2006?!?

Yet the rumors keep flying. The Kings are truly in the Tyson Zone of the NBA.