Kawhi Leonard, his Trade Request, and Potentially a new Super Team in the NBA
As the dust has begun to settle following the 2017-18 NBA Season that was among the more predictable seasons in NBA history, many speculated that this offseason would be one of the most wild, unpredictable ones yet. That offseason officially began on Friday, June 15, as Kawhi Leonard made it known through various media leaks that he no longer desires to play for the San Antonio Spurs.
There were rumors throughout the season that he may want to be traded, or just didn’t want to play under Coach Popovich anymore, but the rumor was that the only reason his trade request never became official was due to the fact that he could earn a $219,000,000 supermax contract for staying in San Antonio. Now, according to those leaks from several media outlets, the money no longer matters, and he just wants to be gone.
In a series of tweets, an article, and a video essay, Shams Charania (@ShamsCharania) from Yahoo Sports, make it abundantly clear that his sources around the league were telling him that Kawhi Leonard has grown uncomfortable with the Spurs. Adrian Wojnarowski (@wojespn) then expanded on these reports, explaining that the Lakers are Kawhi’s preferred trade destination, but are not likely to actually land the superstar.
Kawhi Leonard, when healthy, is widely regarded as the best two-way player in the entire NBA. In the 2016-17 NBA season, he finished third in MVP voting behind Russell Westbrook and James Harden, though the argument could be made that he should have won the award. That was the last time we saw Leonard fully healthy though, in that 2016-17 season, as in that postseason he sprained his ankle against the Houston Rockets, and then re-sprained it against Zaza Pachulia and the Golden State Warriors. He was not healthy during this most recent season, playing just nine games while dealing with a quad injury that stemmed from his ankle issues in the playoffs.
During his career, Kawhi Leonard has averaged 16.3 ppg, 6.2 rpg, 2.3 apg, 1.8 apg. He has averaged those 16.3 ppg on 49.5% shooting from the floor and 38.6% shooting from three. Now, just looking at his career averages, those don't look like numbers of a player who should be getting paid a $219 million supermax contract, but what those overall numbers don’t show is this: every year since entering the league, his scoring numbers have increased by roughly four points per game, and in his last full season, he averaged 25.5 ppg. He has gotten significantly better from an offensive standpoint with each passing year in the league, and is about to turn 27 years old. His prime is still ahead of him, and he has already been the DPOY twice, an All-Star twice, and he was the 2013-14 NBA Finals MVP.
Needless to say, Kawhi is a superstar, and should be paid/treated as such. The question now though, is where will he play next season? His reported preferences are to play in either Los Angeles or New York. The Spurs, who have no incentive to trade him to any of his preferred teams because Kawhi does not have a no-trade clause, are likely to send him to the Eastern Conference for a variety of reasons. First of all, as has been widely speculated, LeBron James wants to play in Los Angeles, and will only do so if accompanied by other stars in order to try and win. Paul George is one of those stars, and has made his clear over the course of his career that he wants to play in Los Angeles. Gregg Popovich has no interest in helping to build the next superteam, especially one that his Spurs would have to potentially play four times, or in the postseason. Secondly, the trade packages that the teams in the East are likely to be able to put together are much better than any Western Conference team. More teams in the East are going to have the ability to compete due to the lack of superstars, and Kawhi could carry a team to the postseason, especially in a conference without LeBron James.
Teams are expected to jump all over the opportunity to pick up one of the best players in the league, but that all comes with a catch. Kawhi has two years left on his deal, but one of those comes after a player-option, which means he really has one year left. He does have the ability to try and control his own trade market by saying that he won’t re-sign with teams that want to trade for him, much like Kyrie Irving did. Regardless of that though, several surprise teams have appeared to have entered the fray. The Sacramento Kings, who are in desperate need of an established superstar, are expected to make a push for Leonard, and that package would likely include the #2 overall pick. The Phoenix Suns are reportedly exploring the idea of trading the #1 overall pick for Kawhi. The Philadelphia 76ers have players and picks to spare, and would be a great fit. The Boston Celtics, like I outlined on my podcast, have more assets than anyone, better young players to trade, and would be deadly with Leonard.
There is of course the possibility that Coach Popovich can talk Kawhi into staying with the Spurs for another season, much like he did with LaMarcus Aldridge, but regardless of what happens, and wherever he ends up, the NBA offseason has officially started, and we will see a whole new group of players trying to team up to try and take down the mighty Golden State Warriors, the reigning back-to-back champions.
While many may say that they don't like super teams, there is no denying that the era of the super team has made the NBA a year-round sport, and given us some of the most epic playoff matchups of all time. Just the possibility of Kawhi Leonard joining forces with LeBron James and Paul George, or becoming a key part of The Process in Philadelphia, or playing alongside Kyrie Irving, Gordon Hayward, and the rest of that young team is incredible. The era of the super team is glorious and I cannot wait to see if Kawhi Leonard will join a challenger to the Golden Dynasty, or find himself on a team that desperately needs a superstar like Phoenix or Sacramento.