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Two Decades Later, the Spurs May Have to Rebuild

Kawhi Leonard reportedly wants out of San Antonio. What can the Spurs expect to get in a trade for their superstar? And where does one of the NBA’s model franchises go from here?

Getty Images/Ringer illustration

The Spurs dynasty is teetering. Kawhi Leonard wants out of San Antonio, according to multiple reports, sending the franchise spiraling into its toughest offseason in decades. Leonard feels the Spurs turned on him once he got a second opinion for the tendinopathy in his right quadriceps that sidelined him for 73 games, according to multiple reports. Though Leonard hasn’t officially requested a trade, and the Spurs still have a five-year, $219 million supermax extension they can offer to Leonard, reports suggest we’re heading toward a breakup.

Expect the Sixers, Celtics, Lakers, and Clippers to be the main four teams to pursue Leonard, league sources say. The Knicks also loom, as Ian Begley reported, though they likely don’t have enough assets to get a deal done. Leonard rehabbed in New York under the care of Dr. Jonathan Glashow, the 76ers’ chief medical officer, so if comfort with the medical staff is a priority for Leonard, then Philadelphia should be considered a strong fit. Boston and Philadelphia both pursued Leonard before this year’s trade deadline, but the Spurs were unwilling to consider offers at the time, multiple reports indicated.

Any interested team must feel confident that Leonard would re-sign since he has only one season (plus an option for one more) remaining on his current contract. The Pacers faced the same dilemma last summer with Paul George, who had eyes for the Lakers. But sources still don’t expect San Antonio to settle for anything less than a massive haul.

It’ll be a leverage game between the Spurs, Leonard, and other teams. If Leonard makes it clear he’ll re-sign with only one or a few teams, then the price to acquire him goes down. Recent trades for stars on near-expiring contracts — George (one year plus an option), DeMarcus Cousins (one and a half years), Kyrie Irving (two years plus an option), etc. —didn’t yield massive returns for their original teams. Teams must also gauge Leonard’s risk for reinjury. He missed 18 games with quadriceps tendinitis near his left knee toward the start of the 2012–13 season, and the Spurs sent Leonard to P3 in Santa Barbara, California, to correct the problem that next summer. But Leonard’s right quad flared up again toward the end of the 2015–16 season. The same quad then sidelined him for most of the 2017–18 season.

The last time Leonard was healthy, he was arguably the second-best player in the NBA, a back-to-back Defensive Player of the Year who finished top-three in MVP voting in the two seasons before this most injury-plagued one. Leonard has played at a superstar level for only two full seasons, but teams may want to risk it all anyway because of his sheer talent and youth (he turns 27 on June 29). Teams with high draft picks might want to enter the sweepstakes because of how many peak years he has left. The Kings may put the no. 2 pick in this year’s draft on the table, per USA Today’s Sam Amick. Several league sources told me they anticipate Suns general manager Ryan McDonough to probe a Leonard deal using the no. 1 pick. Phoenix explored Irving trades last summer but was reluctant to deal Josh Jackson, whom they selected with the fourth overall pick. Leonard is better than Irving, so perhaps it’s time for the Suns to strike now, when they’re armed with assets and an opportunity to trade for a transcendent player. There’s also a sense from league sources that the Suns’ presumed selection of Arizona big man Deandre Ayton at no. 1 isn’t a guarantee because of the outside possibility that they’ll get a good enough deal to trade down or out of the draft entirely. Now that Leonard reportedly wants out, anything is possible.

If offers are underwhelming this month and into free agency, league sources anticipate that the Spurs will drag this out if necessary to drive up the price. The New York Times’ Marc Stein said the Spurs still haven’t “yet” made Leonard available. The fact Leonard’s camp leaked that he wants out (even before he met face-to-face with Gregg Popovich, per Chris Haynes) is an indication that his camp is trying to escalate the situation in order to force the Spurs to trade him. There’s no other reason to go public than to pressure the San Antonio front office. The Spurs aren’t budging as of now, but Leonard’s camp is pushing back hard. It’s only a matter of time until San Antonio is forced to make a move.

The Spurs front office needs to be wary about what happened to Toronto in 2004 with Vince Carter. The Raptors let the drama carry into the season, and once things boiled, they were forced to settle for two first-rounders, two role players, and a 34-year-old Alonzo Mourning. Timing is everything, and the Spurs need to find the right moment to press “Go” on a deal.

But once they reach that breaking point, the Spurs still don’t need to acquiesce to Leonard’s wishes regarding where he wants to play. League sources have long felt that Leonard would prefer to play close to home. Leonard was born in Los Angeles, grew up in nearby Riverside, and went to college in San Diego, where he still spends each summer. (Haynes reported that Leonard is in San Diego now.) But even if Leonard wants to play for the Lakers or Clippers, neither team can put together the best trade package. Boston can offer the most. Philadelphia isn’t far behind. If teams with top picks like the Suns or Kings decide to dance, then they could be in a pole position if the Spurs are in love with any of the top prospects in the 2018 draft.

But the Lakers don’t have their own first-round pick (no. 10) this year, and they won’t draft at the top of the first round anytime soon if their offseason goes as planned. Which means San Antonio would need to value some combination of Brandon Ingram, Lonzo Ball, and Kyle Kuzma. I would go all in on Leonard if I were the Lakers. Trading Ingram, Kuzma, Josh Hart, the no. 25 pick, and Luol Deng’s salary for Leonard, as NBA salary cap expert Albert Nahmad suggested, would still leave the Lakers with enough open salary cap space to sign LeBron James and Paul George to max contracts. But ESPN’s Ramona Shelburne and Adrian Wojnarowski reported in February that the Lakers were “recalibrating” their focus to the 2019 offseason, so they could theoretically wait out Leonard. Even if Leonard were traded to a different team, the Lakers could make a push for him once he hits free agency. I reported on Wednesday that the Lakers, who hold the 25th pick, have interest in trading up for Texas Tech prospect Zhaire Smith, according to sources. Those same sources said that Los Angeles is also open to adding salary for the 2018–19 season, whether it’s one-year signings in free agency or through a trade. It appears the Lakers are paving multiple paths to building a contender, whether or not this is the offseason for fireworks.

The Spurs should view their Leonard dilemma in a similar fashion. Dealing him within the Western Conference isn’t ideal, but they should only worry about what they get back in a trade and not where Leonard will go. The more teams that can become destinations, the higher the offers can realistically get.

Here are seven made-up trade proposals that would represent San Antonio’s best-case scenarios:

From the Lakers: Ingram, Kuzma, Hart, Deng, no. 25 pick in 2018, 2021 first-round pick (unprotected)

From the Celtics: Jaylen Brown, Terry Rozier, Marcus Morris, Guerschon Yabusele, Abdel Nader, 2019 Kings first (top-one protected), 2019 Grizzlies first (top-eight protected, top-six protected in 2020, unprotected in 2021)

From the Clippers: Tobias Harris, the no. 12 and no. 13 pick, 2021 first (unprotected)

From the Sixers: Markelle Fultz, Dario Saric, Robert Covington, Jerryd Bayless, no. 10 pick

From the Knicks: Frank Ntilikina, no. 9 pick, 2020 and 2022 firsts (unprotected)

From the Kings: No. 2 pick, Justin Jackson, Skal Labissiere, 2021 first (unprotected)

From the Suns: No. 1 pick, Josh Jackson, Dragan Bender, 2021 first (unprotected)

I structured these deals to send back four current, former, or future first-round picks to San Antonio, give or take. It would be easier for Boston to acquire Leonard if a sign-and-trade involving restricted free agent Marcus Smart were involved, but that complicates matters. It’s probably unrealistic that offers will reach this level of value for the Spurs considering Leonard’s now-public wish to leave San Antonio, his injury history, and his ability to opt out of his contract, but it’s worth remembering as a place to start. In any case, Ingram or Brown has to be the highest-valued player asset, while top picks this month or the Kings’ first in 2019 are the highest-valued draft assets.

Any deal you come up with keeps the Spurs competitive now. After all, they won 42 games last season without Leonard (and five with him looking like a shell of his former self). San Antonio can continue being a playoff team if it wants. But LaMarcus Aldridge will be 33. Pau Gasol will be 38. Manu Ginobili will be 41. Tony Parker is 36 and is an unrestricted free agent. Danny Green and Rudy Gay both have player options, while Kyle Anderson, Bryn Forbes, and Davis Bertans are restricted. The Spurs can attempt to run it back with the pieces they acquire in exchange for Leonard, but with so much salary committed to aging stars, there are few avenues for them to become a contender until the 2020s. The Spurs should at least consider blowing it up after dealing Leonard by flipping Aldridge, Gasol, and Patty Mills, and then turning their focus to the draft and player development.

Leonard’s relationship with the Spurs appears to be irreparable, and now San Antonio will need to build again. Whether their focus will be on the short term or long term remains to be seen, but Popovich may not coach the Spurs beyond the 2020 Summer Olympics, and the Duncan-Ginobili-Parker Spurs are already a thing of the past. It may take a lot of time and luck, but the Spurs can rise again.