The mystique of the San Antonio Spurs organization is off. Two years after Tim Duncan retired, the perfect culture the black and silver wore has worn down. On Friday, reports indicated Kawhi Leonard does not want to return to the Spurs and his preference is a trade to the Los Angeles Lakers.
Is this the end of the Spurs as we know them? And will Kawhi Leonard’s destination create a super team capable of ending the Golden State Warriors’ reign?
1.) What are your general thoughts and reactions to the situation?
Brandon Jefferson: Something along the lines of, “OMG Jalen Rose was right!” After the shock wore off, I started to come to grips with the fact the legendary Spurs as I had known them were starting to falter. You can never count out a team with Gregg Popovich and R.C. Buford in control but some of the mystique of San Antonio’s franchise is beginning to wear off. Word started to spread that Popovich was eyeing 2020 as the time to hang it up. Losing Kawhi might accelerate that timeline for the future Hall of Famer.
Shane Young: When the news first dropped, it was still completely shocking even though the San Antonio drama had been leaking all year.
Even with the chaos — or lack of clear communication — during Kawhi Leonard’s injury rehab, there was never a doubt in my mind he would stay with the Spurs. Part of that stemmed from the fact Gregg Popovich is always able to remedy a sour situation. Once LaMarcus Aldridge felt uncomfortable last July, it was Popovich that found a way to draw him closer to the team.
The other source of optimism I had for the Spurs was the “super max” extension that would give Leonard a total of $219 million guaranteed over five years, which would kick in after the 2019-20 season. This was supposed to give San Antonio the clear advantage in terms of keeping Leonard. But, what we might be seeing is a superstar who truly doesn’t care about maximizing his financial situation as much as he values playing in his hometown (Los Angeles) and in a different culture.
There is still a window for Leonard and the Spurs’ front office to turn things around and see if they can work their magic again, but this seems far too public and definitive for that to happen. It’s just unreal it’s come to this after a prolonged quadriceps rehab.
Adam Spinella: This is all so baffling to me, but it proves no organization, even one as highly-touted as the Spurs, is immune to making mistakes in communicating with players. Leonard’s quiet nature makes him difficult to read and there is still so much we don’t know about this story to make overarching commentary on assigning blame or analyzing what led us to this point. I’m surprised the Spurs weren’t able to salvage something out of their franchise’s star and now I’m curious to see how both proceed.
2.) Kawhi Leonard’s preferred destination is the Los Angeles Lakers. With LeBron James and Paul George also rumored to go there, how would that trio stack up with the Warriors and how would they fill the pieces in around them?
Brandon Jefferson: As we saw in the Warriors’ Western Conference Finals against the Houston Rockets, having as many switchable wing players to throw at the Warriors is key in slowing this juggernaut down. George, James, and Leonard represent three of the best two-way wings in the NBA today. Being able to have those three share the floor not only make the team defense better, but also allows for the three to share the defensive responsibilities evenly.
To fill out the remaining roster, the Lakers should definitely try and keep Lonzo Ball around. It’s been reported the Spurs don’t want to touch him with a LaVar Ball-ego sized pole and that’s great for figuring out a way to make this Hollywood dream team work. Ball showed as a rookie he’s more about the team than self. Ball would be the perfect piece to facilitate offensive cohesion for this proposed trio while also creating easy looks for the All-Stars.
A rim-protector is the only missing from this quartet and those aren’t just waiting around to be picked up. The novelty of Los Angeles and the Lakers franchise will certainly help attract interest, but with relatively low money there’s no guarantee they’ll be able to find a quality one. The last thing the Lakers would need is as many shooters as possible. Spreading the floor for LeBron James is paramount, George and Leonard are proven perimeter threats, but they’ll only be doing so much catch-and-shooting. Getting other three-point threats means defenses will be unable to key in on any one of the Lakers new big three.
Shane Young: If Magic Johnson and Rob Pelinka are actually able to pull it off, having a three-headed monster of Leonard, LeBron James, and Paul George would be unprecedented. While there have been numerous teams to build a “big three” in the last decade, they never come from the same position.
What makes this potential trio intriguing is each player’s outside shooting. Over his last two full regular seasons, Leonard was a 40.7 percent three-point shooter on almost 700 attempts. George was a 39.8 percent shooter on over 1,100 threes. Then there’s LeBron, who has steadily improved his long-range touch as he ages into his mid-thirties. This isn’t similar to other superstar trios, where each player has a skill-set that’s specific to one area. There really aren’t limitations on what each can do offensively. With all three being the primary ball-handlers or focal points of the offense at one point in their careers, this team would have versatility unlike any trio we’ve seen. What this also would do is give LeBron, entering his 16th season, the luxury of lowering his usage rate and preserve some energy in terms of shot creation. James hasn’t had a season with under 30 percent usage since 2004-05, his sophomore year. One way to get him to buy more into the defensive end is to give him players that he can rely on to score.
Even if all three do land in Los Angeles, though, they shouldn’t automatically be catapulted to the Warriors’ level. The entire roster after James, Leonard, and George would be up in the air. It would likely take two productive pieces of the young core just to pry Leonard away from San Antonio. We’re talking about the pool of Brandon Ingram, Lonzo Ball, Kyle Kuzma, and Josh Hart. You have to imagine the Spurs would need two of those, along with a draft pick or two. Plus, absorbing all three of the stars would essentially mean Julius Randle is out of the picture. Randle is a restricted free agent this summer and there’s a strong possibility teams around the league will offer him a lucrative contract. The moment he signs a high-dollar offer sheet, the Lakers will know they can’t conceivably match it and bring him back.
So, there’s no way to know what the Lakers’ supporting cast will look like next year. But they will need to surround James, Leonard, and George will enough shooting and youth off the bench. Someone on the free agent market I was floating around in my head was J.J. Redick, but it’s hard to imagine him taking a very low salary to join this group when he has actively said that Philadelphia is where he wants to stay. Still, the idea will be to draw in shooting specialists, which will make it hard to send help coverage to any of the big three when they’re isolating. Trevor Ariza is also on the free agency market, along with Avery Bradley, Wayne Ellington, and Luc Mbah a Moute. If LeBron does come, I would expect Kentavious Caldwell-Pope to consider re-signing as well, given that he shares the same agent (Rich Paul).
Adam Spinella: Well let’s be clear on one thing: trading for Kawhi and then signing those other two is still a massive long-shot, not to mention it would cost the Lakers many draft picks and some of their youngsters like Brandon Ingram, Lonzo Ball or Kyle Kuzma. But a core of those three players, if it were to come to fruition, would be the most dangerous defensive trio in the league. George proved he can excel in an efficiency role playing second fiddle, and all are good enough three-point shooters to provide proper spacing. They’d be right there with Houston as instant threats to Golden State out West.
3.) Take the hypothetical reigns of the Spurs’ front office. What deals are you looking for?
Brandon Jefferson: The only deal I even give the time of day is whichever one Danny Ainge is willing to propose. The Boston Celtics are currently stocked with as many assets as the rest of the NBA could handout combined. Boston has three first round picks in the next two drafts (including an unprotected one coming from the Sacramento Kings). The Celtics also have two high-class wings under 23 years old who are still on rookie contracts in Jaylen Brown and Jayson Tatum. Throw-in the potential to recoup a ready-made All-Star in Kyrie Irving or Gordon Hayward and there really isn’t another team in the league with that same stockpile of trade chips.
The best the Los Angeles teams could offer is Kyle Kuzma/Brandon Ingram, future draft picks and Luol Deng’s expiring contracts or Tobias Harris/12th and 13th overall picks in the 2018 NBA Draft, and Sam Dekker/Sindarius Thornwell. Even if Kawhi says he’s only resigning in Los Angeles, neither team has an offer attractive enough for me to take.
Shane Young: It’s unfortunate for the Spurs to have most of their leverage tossed out the window here. Kawhi Leonard’s player option for next July means he only has one more season on his contract. Will teams outside of Los Angeles want to trade away precious draft picks and core pieces of their roster in exchange for a potential one-year rental?
The Spurs will have to search the market for the best deals for them, but their options will be limited. If you’re R.C. Buford, you have to look at the Boston Celtics’ assets first. Given how many young, proven talents they have, Boston is the top choice for attractive trade returns. A package of Jaylen Brown, Marcus Morris, and Terry Rozier would probably be the starting point for the Spurs, along with the Kings’ 2019 first-round pick that Boston owns. It seems like a lot (and it probably is), but you have to start swinging for the fences if you’re San Antonio here. The Celtics will use Leonard’s “I prefer Los Angeles” info as leverage, and likely not allow the Spurs to get everything they want in return. But those are the starting points in any trade for a top-tier talent of Kawhi’s degree. Danny Ainge probably won’t includ Jayson Tatum, so I didn’t take time to consider him.
If you’re the Spurs and have to make a deal with Los Angeles, I believe the best return for the team would be Ingram, Hart, and two future draft picks. Ingram will only be 21 years old this September, entering his third season. He’s incredibly young and already demonstrated a ton of on-court growth last year, particularly with his playmaking and defensive instincts.
The Sixers have the right players to send back via trade, with Markelle Fultz and Dario Saric being the most attractive for a team like the Spurs, who may be looking for a star point guard and can’t get enough of the international talent. But again, Philadelphia would have to be careful with trading valuable role players for a “maybe” on Kawhi’s end. If they aren’t sure he’ll re-sign next summer, it’s hard to forfeit two potential starters.
Adam Spinella: I’m looking at teams that can provide three things in a trade, assuming no straight-up star-for-star trade is available:
- Multiple first-round picks that project to be either in the lottery or middle of the first-round
- Players who are versatile, high-caliber and not requiring a complete rebuild
- Flexibility for summer of 2019 to not be bogged down by incoming contracts
Getting all three allows the team to continue to push towards competing in the Western Conference for one more year while giving them plenty of flexibility for next summer. The Spurs won 47 games without Kawhi Leonard; if they can add more draft picks and young pieces, there’s no reason to expect they cannot split the difference of getting younger and remaining a threat in the West. One team I’m zeroing in on that provides this type of flexibility, youth and ready-now talent: the Los Angeles Clippers with Tobias Harris, Patrick Beverley and their two lottery picks in 2018.
4.) Where do you see the Spurs moving forward over the next 2-3 years?
Brandon Jefferson: The Spurs will look completely different than what we’ve grown accustomed to during their 20-plus years of sustained excellence. As I mentioned above, Pop is out the door in 2020 in my opinion, whether or not Kawhi is still on the team or not. Without Popovich on the sidelines, things are immediately different in San Antonio and their 20-plus years of sustained excellence.
The Spurs will surely have their choice of former assistants to hand the reigns over to, but if she’s still around I think Becky Hammon could very well be calling the shots by then. Dejounte Murray took over as the team’s point guard this season and of the current roster, he’s the most likely name to become the next headliner for this team (unless they are able to get a Tatum, Kuzma, or find another underappreciated talent in the draft).
With the right coach and the necessary talent on the team, I doubt San Antonio dips down to the doldrums of the lottery for long.
Shane Young: I honestly don’t believe the Spurs will come out of this in terrible shape. Sure, their salary situation isn’t the best. They owe LaMarcus Aldridge roughly $72.3 million between next season and 2021. They have Pau Gasol under contract until 2020, and he’s already 37. However, they still managed to win 48 games this past season with Leonard playing in only nine. If they can snag Ingram and a 23-year-old Hart from the Lakers, with draft picks in their back pocket, I think you pull the trigger and not worry about how dominant the Lakers could become in the short-term.
San Antonio will still be hanging around the jumbled Western Conference, but it’s clear their title-contending days could be over if Leonard truly wants out. But instead of hitting the reset button altogether, they will be perfectly fine with another young stud to groom. Ingram could even follow the same trajectory Leonard did from 2012 to 2014, when he blossomed into a Finals MVP out of nowhere.
I don’t see the Spurs moving on from Aldridge and trading him in the next two years just because Leonard is gone. He just had his best overall season since his Portland days prior to teaming with Damian Lillard. They will have to get younger and hope that Dejounte Murray makes a leap in progression, though. Still, I go back to how fun it would be to pair Ingram and Murray, and just how fun they could be to watch together. Defensively, they would have the right tools to be in the mix for a long, long time.
You never thought something like this could happen to the San Antonio culture and organization. But, if it does, it won’t be the end of the world.
Adam Spinella: A lot depends on where the likes of Kawhi Leonard, LeBron James and Paul George end up, but I expect them to absorb this blow and be able to remain a perennial 50-win team. Again, they won 47 this year without Kawhi… adding value in return for him should net them around 50. Then, next summer they’ll have greater youth, more flexibility on the free agent market and only a partial guarantee for Pau Gasol. San Antonio will have to draft well to ensure their core is strong enough to survive impending retirements of guys like Tony Parker, Manu Ginobili and Gasol, but I have faith in their organization to pull this off.