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Rolling Kawhi Leonard Trade Watch and Free-Agency Rumormongering

Keeping track of the rumors, tweets, and gathering storm clouds around the Spurs star, who has reportedly demanded a trade out of San Antonio, preferably to the Lakers, plus other NBA story lines as we approach free agency

AP Images/Ringer illustration

Is it just me or is it a little balmy for June? The NBA offseason is officially heating up. Kawhi Leonard, one of the five best players in the NBA (when his quad works—and whether it does or not is a matter of great debate!) reportedly wants to be traded, reportedly to the Lakers, reportedly to pair with LeBron James, forming a superteam at Staples to challenge the Warriors. Make no mistake, that’s why this is all happening now: The Lakers’ pursuit of Kawhi Leonard is just part of the process that ends with acquiring James in free agency. Nothing to see here—EVERYTHING TO SEE HERE. We’re trying to keep track of it all, by reading the tea leaves for you.


Update, 6:47 p.m. ET: It’s the option news everyone’s been waiting for: Thad Young back. After reportedly toying with the idea of opting out of the final year of his current contract and testing the free-agent market, the 30-year-old has decided to take the $13.7 million owed to him—which is a lot in this current climate—by the Pacers, per ESPN’s Adrian Wojnarowski. His deal cuts into Indiana’s salary-cap space for this summer but still leaves them with somewhere in the mid-$20-millions to make a run at someone(s)—though Aaron Gordon, who finally got to move back to power forward last season after being forced out onto the wing, probably doesn’t make much sense anymore.

Either way, the Pacers may be better off in the long run. Young, a Model T stretch-4, is a perfectly fine option as Indy tries to ride Victor Oladipo to the top of the East. And by not adding another long-term deal to replace Young, it keeps its near-spotless books for next season intact. Look at this wide-open field ahead! Only Oladipo has a guaranteed contract for 2019-20. If they can convince Klay Thompson on the beauty of that Vonnegut mural that every beat writer in the league seems to love, they’re in business.

Update, 4:24 p.m. ET: IS THAT BEN FRANKLIN’S MUSIC I HEAR?

The Sixers have “held serious internal discussions about acquiring Leonard over the last 48 hours,” according to Jake Fischer over at Sports Illustrated. This movement we’re seeing on the part of the Sixers is, Fischer reported, a response to the “urgency” being projected by the Lakers.

There is a bunch of interesting stuff in Fischer’s piece, including San Antonio’s preference for Boston’s Jayson Tatum as the returning piece in any Leonard trade, the belief “in league circles” that the Celtics are “more likely” to include Kyrie Irving in a Leonard swap, as well as the suggestion that, while Leonard’s camp would prefer a move to Los Angeles, they will consider other major markets as destinations.

The major takeaway in Fischer’s report is San Antonio’s “strong interest” in a Philly package of Robert Covington, Dario Saric, and the unprotected 2021 Miami Heat pick.

Interestingly, this reported package does not include Markelle Fultz. The 2017 no. 1 draft pick has had a rocky start to his career, but still has a lot of value after what was essentially a redshirt rookie season in which he played only 14 games.

This would be a reunion of sorts between Leonard and Sixers coach Brett Brown, and it would get Leonard out of the Western Conference. For Philadelphia it would be the culmination of Brown’s draft-night declaration that the franchise was “star hunting,” landing the team an MVP-caliber player to play alongside Ben Simmons and Joel Embiid.

So, as of this writing, it appears that there is a bidding war taking place among the Lakers, Sixers, and possibly the Celtics for Leonard’s services. It’s fascinating to watch the virtual tilt in this story—even if it’s somewhat fictional—between San Antonio and Los Angeles. One moment it looks like the Lakers are zeroing in on Leonard, making them all but locks to sign LeBron. The next minute it looks like the Spurs have their pick of talent-and-asset-rich offers. This is going to be a wild 72 hours.

Update, 1:39 p.m. ET: Just because the Spurs, Lakers, and Celtics are re-enacting the end of Reservoir Dogs doesn’t mean other teams aren’t doing work. The Sacramento Kings are reportedly in the market for any restricted free agent who hasn’t quite lived up to expectations yet in their careers. To wit: The Kings have been linked with Milwaukee’s Jabari Parker (sure), Orlando’s Mario Hezonja (YES), and, as of a few minutes ago, Chicago’s Zach LaVine.

Indiana is another team that keeps coming up in free-agency rumors. The Pacers have been linked to Boston’s Marcus Smart by Boston’s Bill Simmons, and on Thursday they were mentioned as a possible suitor for Orlando’s Aaron Gordon.

A starting Pacers lineup of Victor Oladipo, Aaron Holiday, Aaron Gordon, Myles Turner, and Bojan Bogdanovic definitely gets on the DVR.

11:48 a.m. ET: Let’s see if I can write this before Kawhi Leonard gets traded to Ural Yekaterinburg in the Russian Super League. All through Wednesday, the saxophone bleat signaling Leonard’s exit from San Antonio started getting louder and louder, and somewhere, behind clouds of smoke, the man playing the sax was Rob Lowe from St. Elmo’s Fire.

Actually, it was his doppelgänger, Rob Pelinka.

The tune goes like this: According to ESPN, the Lakers have “re-engaged” with the San Antonio Spurs on Kawhi trade talks, after initially being rebuffed before the NBA draft last week. Re-engaged could mean a lot of things—anything from an initial negotiation of assets to “You’ve reached the voicemail of Gregg Popovich. Don’t leave a message.” But the vague nature of their communication hasn’t stopped the rumor mill from churning.

The ESPN report—penned by Ramona Shelburne, Adrian Wojnarowski, and Brian Windhorst—suggested the Lakers were using the Kyrie Irving–to-Boston and Paul George–to–Oklahoma City deals to set the Kawhi market.

Late Wednesday night/early Thursday morning, The New York Times’s Marc Stein playfully tweeted:

Frankly, I think the Spurs say no. But things have only gotten more intense on Thursday, with Stein following up his initial tweet with another stating that a league source had told him the Spurs are “ready” to move on from Kawhi.

Of course, you can’t have a bidding war without other bidders. Maybe the Spurs have a bigger appetite than Kyle Kuzma (decent), Josh Hart (come on), and Brandon Ingram (jewel of the deal, but we’re still not sure what he is yet), and two first-round picks (which would be bound to be pretty late in the pecking order if the Lakers become a 50-plus-win team all of a sudden). The ESPN report also mentioned restricted free agent forward Julius Randle as another chip that could be included.

To that end, Woj tweeted on Thursday that the Celtics are one of “several” teams talking to the Spurs. Any deal the Celtics would offer would likely be built around rising star Jaylen Brown, and some combination of future picks, including one or both of the incredibly tasty 2019 Memphis Grizzlies pick or the 2019 Sacramento/Philadelphia pick (so, the Kings pick), both of which come with some minor protections, and both of which are way more valuable than whatever picks the Lakers can offer—be it their own, or one belonging to another team that they acquire through trade. That being said, Woj tweeted on Thursday that the Celtics are being “cautious” in their pursuit, due to concerns about Leonard’s health and impending free agency. The Celtics have the chips, the question is whether they will push them in to compete with what USA Today’s Sam Amick called a “Godfather offer” from the Lakers.

So that’s what we know. Or “know,” because you have to consider the information-warfare element to this whole story. You have the Kawhi camp trying to pave a road out of Texas with scoops; the Spurs trying to suggest the possibility of reconciliation (We were able to mend fences with LaMarcus Aldridge, why can’t we do it again?); and the Los Angeles Leakers trying to paint a self-portrait of front-office exceptionalism through the media.

According to the ESPN report, the Sixers, Clippers, and Cavs have all made offers for Leonard. The question is whether Leonard will consider re-signing with any team other than the Lakers, once his contract expires after next season.

And of course there’s the King. Kawhi Leonard’s trade to the Lakers would more or less guarantee LeBron James signing with the franchise during the coming free-agency period. This would be a league-altering move, creating a superteam in L.A. to rival Golden State and Houston, sending San Antonio and Cleveland into various states of rebuilding (and possibly putting players like Aldridge and Kevin Love on the block), and forcing other franchises to adjust their five-year plans.