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NBA Offseason 2018: The Kawhi Leonard Sweepstakes

Kawhi Leonard
For seemingly forever, the San Antonio Spurs have been the model franchise in the NBA. An organization that is a consistent winner, stable from top to bottom and rarely has drama, more than a few other NBA franchises have tried building their teams like the one in San Antonio. However, that rare drama has taken an interesting turn recently for the Spurs; their star and unquestioned face of the franchise, forward Kawhi Leonard, has grown increasingly frustrated and wants out. Now, San Antonio and the Kawhi situation becomes one of the hottest topics of this off-season, one sure to be full of fireworks. Can the Kawhi-San Antonio relationship be repaired, and if not, what is the next step for San Antonio?

But first, background. If you haven't been following the Kawhi situation, issues between his camp and the Spurs organization has been evolving for some time. It began with a ankle injury suffered in 2017's Western Conference Finals that ended Kawhi's season and was likely to take him out for a chunk of the '17-'18 season. After missing the entire preseason and the first month of the regular season, Leonard returned to action on December 12th. He would play just nine games with the team before the Spurs announced he was out indefinitely, stemming once from the same ankle injury. He was cleared by team doctors again in late February, but Leonard decided he was not ready to return. Soon, rumors of a rift between the team and the star forward began to surface, and the drama was only exacerbated when longtime members of the organization, Tony Parker and Manu Ginobli, seemed to question Leonard's injury and his loyalty. Recently, we have learned Kawhi has felt betrayed by the Spurs, and wants to now be traded, preferably to Los Angeles. We still don't know every detail in the story, and there was definitely things happening behind closed doors, but we do know things are very tense right now in San Antonio.

It is important to realize that there was actually a similar situation in San Antonio just last summer. Lamarcus Aldridge had grown frustrated with his role on the team and wanted out, before head coach Gregg Poppovich and management convinced him to stay. Aldridge did indeed, and ended up having one of the best seasons of his career. This seems to be the approach San Antonio aims to do with Kawhi. They have seemingly not been shopping him around and seem intent on repairing the relationship. The differences between the two cases are quite large, however. First off, Aldridge wasn't happy, but he didn't feel betrayed by the organization, and didn't have a huge, public rift with some of the team's top players. Aldridge also is not the immense talent Kawhi is; the dynamic small forward is already one of the top two-way players in the game, and could be getting even better. Leonard has one more year on his current contract, giving the Spurs ample time to try and mend the relationship. But, you just get the feeling that is going to be tough to do. San Antonio's relationship with Kawhi's camp is so extremely strained at the moment, and their roster is aging. There is little incentive for Leonard to want to stay, when various other options appear to be more appealing. Another thing to note is that Popovich may not even be around for much longer. The legendary head man has openly talked about retirement, and most believe he will retire after coaching the 2020 Olympic team. That makes the Spurs even less appealing to Leonard, likely ensuring that his time with the franchise could soon be coming to an end.

The most likely case scenario is a trade. San Antonio understands that they might have to trade Leonard to ensure they get at least something back, and there are a number of trade packages that could be appealing.

Possible Packages
*packages may vary slightly due to cap constraints, expiring contracts

Los Angeles Lakers
F Brandon Ingram
F Kyle Kuzma
G Josh Hart
future draft picks

Philadelphia Sixers
G Markelle Fultz
F Dario Saric
G/F Robert Covington
future draft picks

Boston Celtics
G/F Jaylen Brown
G Terry Rozier
future draft picks

Cleveland Cavaliers
F Kevin Love
G Collin Sexton
F Larry Nance
future draft picks

Los Angeles Clippers
F Tobias Harris
G Lou Williams
F Sam Dekker
G Jerome Robinson
future draft picks

I personally get the feeling Kawhi is going to end up in Los Angeles, at some point. He played college ball at San Diego State, and there is the real possibility of the Lakers luring LeBron James within the next few weeks. That will take fancy financial maneuvering by the Lakers' front office, but this is a team stocked with assets. Brandon Ingram still has true star potential and is still incredibly young, while Kyle Kuzma and Josh Hart provide quality pieces who would fit in well. Yet, there are obstacles. Popovich has seemed to have a deep disdain for the Lakers for some time, and he might not want to send this budding star to a Western Conference foe as his farewell tour. I think Philadelphia is definitely in play, because they offer the most potential in their trade package, and want to make a big move. Markelle Fultz has shown flashes, and Dario Saric and Robert Covington are solid supporting pieces. They could add in the 2021 Miami Heat unprotected first-rounder, sure to be pretty valuable, as the Heat are trending towards rebuilding. Boston is the only other strong possibility in my mind, but there is no chance they trade Jayson Tatum. Jaylen Brown has tremendous upside as does Terry Rozier, and Danny Ainge is stocked with draft picks. Cleveland and the Clippers are long shots, but anything can happen in this league.

LeBron James' Decision 3.0 will cast a long shadow over this free agency, but Kawhi Leonard might end up being the most interesting and confusing situation in the sport. San Antonio does have a chance to retain him, but I think it seems time to move on. The Spurs are aging throughout their roster, and Kawhi alone won't be able to lead this team to a Finals. It is time to rebuild, or at least retool, and there are some very intriguing moves. I think he'll end up with the Lakers or Sixers. Both are swinging for the fences, and he joins a winning situation immediately. For a rising superstar who hasn't made the Finals since his coming out party in 2014, that is the perfect end result.

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