After a puzzling season of odd quad injuries and cryptic team meetings, the search for a suitable recipient of former MVP finalist Kawhi Leonard rages on for the Spurs. Weeks have passed since he officially demanded a trade and with only murmurs and whispers as a guide, it seems as if the stalemate won’t be anywhere near closing soon. Though league-shattering no matter where they ship him off to, the stakes for a great return remain sky-high for the Spurs.
As harsh as it may be to accept, longtime stalwarts Manu Ginobili and Tony Parker are both at the end of the line who won’t be anything more than bench fodder with leadership qualities. While still possessing the sturdy LaMarcus Aldridge, at the twilight age of 32, won’t be a viable star for much longer. Especially considering the equally senior group surrounding him, staying on the current path will be a harsh nosedive to no man’s land until Aldridge eventually breaks down. The clock has struck midnight on their impressive dynasty.
With that, this tension surrounding Leonard puts the Spurs in an obviously unfamiliar territory. As a franchise built on loyalty, to have a player so openly unhappy and wanting out overtly throws their plans in a blender. The Spurs, by sheer character, never produce drama or at least don’t publicize it. To win in silence has been the mantra since the mid-90s and for it to crash so suddenly and so loudly effectively kills the Spurs reputation.
A while back, general manager R.C. Buford drew up this game plan that has largely driven the Spurs to four NBA championships in his tenure. It breaks down as such.
A)Introduce a young player with star potential under the wing of an all-time great (Gregg Popovich also plays a part in their development)
B)Win a championship with the all-time great and in turn, convince the young player to stay.
C) Surround the player with strong role players and win enough to prompt the player (now an all-time great himself) to finish his career as a Spur and take another young player under his wing.
D)Rinse and repeat
However, the fleeting glue that keeps the plan from collapsing into itself has always been loyalty. It requires players who intend to spend their entire career as a Spur and who desire to help usher in the next era of Spurs legends. While theoretically invincible, a single superstar who cares more about his brand or persona than the Spurs themselves can ruin the entire franchise’s momentum. And in an increasingly commercial basketball world where more players than Michael Jordan get shoe deals, the steadily escalating rarity of loyalty was a concept the Spurs really couldn’t prepare for.
The reliance on selflessness worked flawlessly with the Tim Duncan/Ginobili/Parker era. Their generation had a much higher emphasis on loyalty and the Spurs took advantage of modest personalities like David Robinson and Duncan. Welcoming in Leonard nearly succeeded, winning a Leonard-breakout-fueled Finals with him, until the humble Spurs couldn’t feed the global trademark he seeks. And now without much in the pipes to carry the slack, today and down the line, the final hour has arrived.
While the freshly drafted Miami guard Lonnie Walker IV has extensive scoring upside and the third-year Dejounte Murray had his moments, the roster lacks the arsenal demanded to compete in an unmerciful Western Conference. So as of right now, the Spurs have two choices- dilly-dally with seventh and eighth seeds until Aldridge begins to severely decline after either moving Leonard for overpriced vets and soft prospects or not trading him at all and endure his boycott until he leaves.
Or they could flip Leonard for raw yet bright assets (and heck, maybe even Aldridge if they feel extra feisty) and kick the rebuilding process into high gear. Dooming themselves to a fate of first-round fodder for at least three or four more seasons until being forced to rebuild would be cruel to Gregg Popovich’s waning years and the time has come for the Spurs to accept their fate. It won’t be total tank time but the rebuild and the years in the gutter have to arrive.
This prospect of the long-winded dynasty tortuously needing to end puts that much more pressure on the compensation for Leonard. They cannot settle for a subpar deal assembled with European prospects and cap dumps. Not in their preparation for a cold rebuild. They can’t let the opportunity to seriously kickstart a rebuild slip past with a superficial yield. And they need to make the deal fast. Going into a contract year, Leonard’s value will drop drastically by tip-off of next season.
Now it would generally be foolish to move Leonard in-conference but the Spurs cannot shut down talks with the Los Angeles Lakers entirely. As of right now, their mindset should be set on tearing down this season and not concerning themselves with the clashing of the titans well above them in the standings. So if Magic Johnson knocks down their door with Kyle Kuzma or Brandon Ingram to build a deal around, the Spurs have to bite.
Reports surfacing describe exactly this and the Spurs need to take advantage of the Lakers’ unmatched hunger. After landing the greatest basketball player of this generation in LeBron James, the Lakers should be clawing for a second star to pair next to James. With a multitude of young assets (I.E Ingram, Kuzma, Lonzo Ball, Josh Hart, Moritz Wagner), the Spurs need to coax them into giving up a few of them.
While on record explaining it is “unlikely” the Celtics make a splash for Leonard, the Spurs can’t stall talks with Danny Ainge. Flaunting the finest young talent pool in the league and will eat the Eastern Conference alive even with some raw parts, sending Kawhi to Boston would be the ideal move if they can tap into Boston’s repertoire. Landing a Jayson Tatum or Jaylen Brown would be unrealistically hopeful but a Terry Rozier would not be worth shedding Leonard.
Seeing as Boston is undoubtedly in win-now mode, especially with how LeBron left the East historically wide open, they presumably will not give up one of their young core pieces. But Boston’s little brother in the East Philadelphia may be a little bit more madcap in their hunt for another superstar to pair next to Ben Simmons and Joel Embiid.
Sitting behind Boston in both expectations and in talent, the Sixers tried and failed in their pursuit of LeBron, leaving them without their offseason prize to take them to their next level. After a surprisingly deep draft class, stealing the versatile Zhaire Smith, the solid defender Shake Milton, and the electric Landry Shamet, and already with solid, expendable pieces like a Robert Covington or a T.J. McConnell, the Sixers have moving parts that would be a worth some consideration.
And they also do have the failsafe of Markelle Fultz. Though impossible to read, if the Sixers’ desperation peaks, making a deal with Fultz at the center may work out for both parties. The Sixers’ luck for a rookie-missing-his-first-season-because-of-injury-but-being-incredible-for-his-sophomore-year has been uncanny in years past and it looks to continue with Fultz but if the Sixers can get a guarantee Leonard will resign (which admittedly is a massive stretch), it could pay off.
At the end of this, it will be incredibly difficult to convince a team other than Los Angeles to cough up a hearty return for Leonard. As almost certainly a rental, Leonard intends to be a Laker one way or another, making a trade for him incredibly risky. As of right now, the Lakers look to be the only team willing to pour in the big bucks for him and the Spurs cannot pass it up just to face him on the court less often. Nevermind the in-conference trade stigma, the Spurs need to spark their rebuild. And it begins with a blockbuster with the Lakers.