Now that the Spurs’ season is finally over — uncharacteristically early, of course, after their recent first round exit at the hands of the Warriors — conversations around the team will now center around their offseason plans and what they should do with Kawhi Leonard.
It was a weird season for Leonard. He played in only nine games before the team shut him down for the season due to some sort of leg injury; the actual nature and extent of the injury wasn’t quite clear, and the team’s doctors felt very differently about his rehabilitation plan than Leonard’s camp did. Ultimately, that rift led to Leonard watching his teammates finish out the year not on the bench, but from New York. It was a truly bizarre signal from a franchise player who has claimed that he wants to stay in San Antonio, and it might be a sign that Leonard would like to move on.
Leonard leaving after next season is not something the Spurs can afford. Though they made the playoffs this season, they slipped to the seventh spot in the Western Conference, and they’re on the verge of needing to rebuild. Tim Duncan is gone. Tony Parker and Manu Ginobli are at the end of their careers. Lamarcus Aldridge has not proven to be the dominant power forward they thought he would be when they signed him in 2015, and his style is increasingly unsuited for the modern NBA. Should the Spurs let Leonard bolt without getting anything in return, the franchise’s glory days would officially be over.
The Spurs do have the advantage of being able to offer Leonard a supermax deal, but unless they can get a long-term commitment from him over the next few months, they need to start shopping him in the trade market. Of course, giving up on a player with his talent is really hard. But doing nothing, letting him play one more year with lackluster effort and then watching him sign with a potential competitor would be unforgiveable. Losing Leonard would hurt, but his value is such that any trade would net the Spurs a significant windfall.
And there are certainly teams out there that would be willing to trade for the Spurs star. Leonard’s hometown Los Angeles Lakers are in the market for a franchise player to add alongside their young core of Lonzo Ball, Kentavious Caldwell-Pope and Julius Randall. In return, the Lakers would likely have to part ways with Brandon Ingram. They’d certainly rather not do this: he was a top draft pick in 2016 and has shown that he could one day be a great player in the league. But getting Leonard would have to come at a steep price. All told, this is a trade that would certainly benefit both teams: the Lakers get a proven star who can help them compete for a spot at the top of the Western Conference, and the Spurs get a young, talented wing whom they can build around.
The Sixers might be another option as well; something like a Markelle Fultz/Dario Saric swap for Leonard might work. A Philadelphia team with Leonard, Ben Simmons and Joel Embiid would be truly terrifying in the Eastern Conference. And just like they would in a trade with the Lakers, the Spurs would get two young, talented players at positions of need for the team.
The last year has seen some explosive trades with high-profile players, so a deal involving Leonard would not be totally out of the question. I understand why the Spurs might be hesitant to give away one of the league’s young stars, a player who propelled them to a championship in 2014. But the signs that Leonard has been sending are not good, and it’s becoming increasingly likely that he walks after the 2018 season. That’s a risk that the Spurs simply can’t afford to take. If they can’t get a firm commitment from him that he will stay, they need to consider trading him away and salvaging something in return.
Contact Andrew Ziperski at ajzip ‘at’ stanford.edu.