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NBA Notebook: Will Kawhi Leonard become a potential trade target for Celtics this summer?

Soobum Im/USA Today Sports

The NBA trade market can be an unpredictable place for stars. Last June, you would have been laughed out of a room if you suggested that Kyrie Irving would be a member of the Boston Celtics this season. Discord creates opportunity however, and Danny Ainge found himself as the high bidder for the disgruntled point guard back in August in the wake of an Irving trade request.

Boston’s acquisition of the All-Star point guard was one big piece to an eventual championship core that Ainge is trying to build. While Celtics fans surely have their eyes on the likes of Anthony Davis as another piece to pursue, there is an additional name in the Western Conference that deserves some attention due to dysfunction in his team this year: Kawhi Leonard.

The 26-year-old forward has only played nine games during the 2017-18 campaign due to a quad injury. Adrian Wojnarowski of ESPN.com reported this week that the Spurs have medically cleared Leonard to return but the two-time All-Star doesn’t feel right just yet. He has already pulled himself from the lineup after returning to the floor once in January, and there is tension between Leonard’s camp and the Spurs about the rehab timetable, causing damage between the existing relationship of both sides, according to Wojnarowski. For now, the Spurs are casting doubt about whether Leonard will be back at all this year.

“We only have X number of games left in the season and he’s still not ready to go,” Gregg Popovich told reporters in San Antonio last Wednesday. “If by some chance he is, it’s going to be pretty late into the season and it’s going to be a tough decision, you know, how late you bring somebody back. That’s why I’m just trying to be honest and logical. I’ll be surprised if he gets back this year.”

If there is some lasting damage between both sides, this summer is going to be a crucial one from a Spurs perspective. Leonard is under contract for the 2018-19 season for $20.1 million, but he has a player option for the 2019-20 campaign. Barring a catastrophic injury, Leonard will opt out of his deal and hit the open market in the summer of 2019. If there is limited confidence that the 6-foot-8 forward would be open to re-signing with the Spurs in the wake of this turmoil, San Antonio’s front office will surely consider moving the small forward before he can walk away for nothing.

The sense of urgency in fact may be even greater than Irving’s situation last summer, since Leonard would only have one guaranteed year remaining on his deal. The Spurs still have a strong team in the West, but outside of LaMarcus Aldridge, there really isn’t much in place to get excited about for a star like Leonard moving forward. Veterans like Manu Ginoboli, Tony Parker and Pau Gasol are on the decline. There is young talent in place, but most of those pieces are simply role players with limited ceilings. The Warriors and Rockets are looming as top contenders in the West with their loaded rosters, so it’s easy to envision Leonard open to playing elsewhere for a better chance to win if he’s not fond of the Spurs organization.

With that said, there’s still plenty of financial motivation for him to remain in San Antonio. Leonard is already eligible for a “super-max” extension with the Spurs, based on his All-NBA First Team finishes during the past two years. That means this summer San Antonio can offer him a five-year, $219 million extension. That’s $36 million more than his new team could offer him if he were dealt away from San Antonio (players are only eligible for “super max” deals with team they played for on their rookie contract).

It’s an interesting conundrum when you look at it from both sides. Would the Spurs offer that kind of monster contract to a potentially disgruntled player? Would Leonard forego any issues in order to secure one of the biggest paydays in NBA history? There are no clear answers right now, but that hypothetical contract offer which once seemed like a certainty is no longer that. The Spurs have moved past discord with players before (see: LaMarcus Aldridge this past summer) but this seems like a tricky situation. The Spurs could offer him a max extension with the eventual intention of trading him (to maximize a return), but they wouldn’t be able to do so until a year after he signs the extension (per NBA rules).

If Leonard refuses to sign an extension this summer (assuming he is offered one), he would be putting the Spurs’ feet to the fire. They would have no choice but to explore moving him based on that situation. While an MVP candidate would be sure to attract a major haul in any deal, the trade market may not be as friendly as they might hope. Any team trading for Leonard would be in a similar situation to where Oklahoma City is right now with Paul George. They would have one year to convince Leonard that his new team is the perfect spot for him to sign long term. That’s a roll of the dice for a lot of franchises who may not be willing to sell the farm for a potential rental of Leonard.

Some teams, including the Celtics, are in an ideal position to roll that dice though. They have a winning core in place with stars to surround Leonard with. They have young, potentially win-now talent (Jayson Tatum and/or Jaylen Brown) to offer, along with a collection of draft picks. Few teams around the league right now have a necessary mix of both. Outside of the Sixers, it’s hard to find a team with as many future assets (in picks and young players) as the Celtics.

The question for Danny Ainge would obviously come down to value and risk evaluation. An extension for Leonard would not be feasible in Boston due to non-existent future cap space. The Celtics would be gambling by trying to convince Leonard to re-sign once he hits the free agent market in summer of 2019. Ainge has always been leery of giving up too much for players that are a flight risk (see: Paul George) but Leonard, when healthy, is one of the five best players in the league. A core of him, Gordon Hayward, Kyrie Irving and an aging Al Horford would be an East favorite for years to come and have more than a puncher’s chance against the Warriors.

There are potential drawbacks to consider as well. Trading for Leonard means you are giving up on a chance to trade for Anthony Davis. There is also the issue of Leonard’s value in a deal. How much would the Celtics sacrifice for him with no guarantee that he would re-sign after his deal expires? The asking price would surely start with, Brown and the 2019 Sacramento pick from the Spurs’ end, but that would be mortgaging a number of Boston’s best long-term assets with no guarantees. The guess here is the price would have to come down or the C’s would need some assurances from Leonard’s camp that he isn’t going anywhere. There would also be serious long-term salary issues with Hayward, Leonard and Irving all on max deals. Horford would need to take a serious paycut if he wanted to stick around (once his current deal expires). There would be limited financial flexibility with a huge luxury tax bill in the cards, so the supporting cast would consist of plenty of rookie deals and bargain contracts.

All of these issues would make a deal a challenge for both sides, if Leonard does indeed hit the market. These obstacles could be overcome though. This is a situation to watch this summer since things are going to come to a head one way or another, and you can bet the Celtics will stay in the loop.

Other NBA Observations

  • Ersan Ilyasova is another prominent name expected to hit the buyout market this weekend after being waived by the Hawks. Don’t see a match with the Celtics due to their crowded frontcourt situation. Look for him to land with another Eastern Conference playoff team instead.
  • Hornets GM Rich Cho will part ways with the team at the end of the year, according to a release from the team. He’s left that squad with a bloated salary cap sheet and no promising young talent on the roster, so it’s no surprise he was let go. That’s going to be a tough rebuild over the next 3-5 years.
  • A potential play-in tournament to the playoffs is getting some buzz after Zach Lowe of ESPN.com reported that the NBA was floating a couple different proposals on it. I like the idea of adding a March Madness element to the postseason for a couple games. It would spice up the playoff races as well late into the regular season.
  • You can kiss the odds of the Lakers finishing with a bottom five record goodbye after they lost ground in lottery standings to the Kings and Mavs over the weekend. They are now seven games ahead of the fifth worst team in the league with just over 20 games to play.