Yesterday, San Antonio Spurs superstar Kawhi Leonard informed his team that he would no longer like to play for them. This isn’t a huge shock, as rumors floated around all season that there was a growing discontent between Leonard and his organization, surfacing from the handling of Leonard’s tendinopathy in his right quadriceps that limited him to just nine games this year.
For the first time in twenty years, the Spurs and coach Gregg Popovich may be left without a quiet, unassuming superstar to lead them to yet another fifty-plus win season. All Star power forward LaMarcus Aldridge did an admirable job leading the team without Leonard, but he is also 33 and will be entering the last year of his deal with the Spurs.
Assuming San Antonio can’t mend their relationship with Leonard in the coming weeks and sign him to the 5-year, $219 million supermax contract he is eligible for, they will be forced to trade the 2014 Finals MVP. Recent trades of star players in the last year of their deal (Paul George to the Thunder, DeMarcus Cousins to the Pelicans, Kyrie Irving to the Celtics) didn’t return the huge value one would think. However, Leonard (when healthy) is a superior player than those guys, and with the breaking news yesterday has become a crucial part of this offseason.
You’ve probably already seen a few different versions of this article on every site, listing the same four teams as favorites to land Leonard’s services: the Boston Celtics, the Philadelphia 76ers, the Los Angeles Lakers, and the Los Angeles Clippers. Well, that’s boring (although the LaVar Ball v. Popovich dynamic would be incredible). Let’s take a look at some unexpected teams that could come out of nowhere in the coming weeks.
Note: Since the Thunder won’t return my calls, I’m not yet part of an NBA front office and know next to nothing about salary caps and Bird rights and stuff like that. So I’m going to be running these through ESPN’s trade machine, which sucks. But you get what you paid for here, folks.
Also note: I’m looking to trade Kawhi to teams that could actually be fun if the trade happened. In other words, I’m not going to ship him off to Sacramento for their entire roster just so he could leave in a year. With that said…
New York Knicks
We’ll start with one that may not be too far fetched, as ESPN Knicks reporter Ian Begley tweeted yesterday that New York is a place that Leonard would like to play (and therefore would be more likely to re-sign). However, of the teams we’ll talk about, the Knicks probably have the fewest trade assets that aren’t a 7’3″ beautiful Latvian unicorn, who they would be foolish to part with. Let’s see what they could reasonably offer.
- Frank Ntilikina (PG)
- Enes Kanter (C)
- 9th pick in 2018 draft
- 2020 first round pick
Frankie Smokes aka Frankie Nicotine aka the French Prince, is a 6’5″ point guard (kind of) that was built in a Gregg Popovich laboratory. Although his rookie season was a little underwhelming, he gets the benefit of the doubt from me because the Knicks are, well, the Knicks. Ntilikina played off-ball more than not overseas, and should develop a knack for the catch-and-shoot when he gets placed in a real offense. Combine that with his length and athleticism and he could be perfect for Popovich’s style of play.
We’re assuming Enes Kanter opts in to his $18.6 million player option here, because that’s a hefty number that he’s unlikely to be offered again. Kanter is a monster in the pick-and-roll and on the boards (14.1 points and 7.1 rebounds in just 25 minutes a game last year), but a liability on defense. Does anyone know of a coach that could possibly scheme a gameplan around a poor defender while maximizing his offensive skills?
With Danny Green’s likely departure, the Spurs will need to target some help on the wing in the draft or in free agency. With the number nine overall pick, they will likely have their pick of lengthy wings like Mikal Bridges (6’7″, Villanova), Miles Bridges (6’7″, Michigan State), or Shai Gilgeous-Alexander (6’5″, Kentucky).
For the record – I’m all in on SGA, that name is much too strong to not work out.
This is my low-key sneaky personal favorite. The Hawks have a ton of cap space with only $70.5 million on the books for 2018-2019, and just over $47 million for 2019-2020. On top of that, with the addition of Leonard and Atlanta being an awesome city, the Hawks could become a favorite to land other possible stars on the move like LeBron James, Paul George, Chris Paul or DeMarcus Cousins. A team with Leonard and one of those guys would instantly be a contender in the weak Eastern Conference. I mean, we already know George has an affinity for the, uh, finer things in life that Atlanta is well-known for. So, what could Atlanta throw on the table?
- John Collins (PF)
- Dennis Schroder (PG)
- 3rd pick in 2018 draft
Collins is a 6’10”, 235 pound 20-year-old coming off of a promising rookie season where he averaged 10.5 points and 7.3 rebounds while shooting 58/34/72%. Collins was second in Win Shares by rookies with 5.4, trailing only Ben Simmons and Jayson Tatum, who both had historically great rookie years. He is also under team control through the 2021 season with a cheap rookie contract that will only pay him $9.2 million total during that time. Collins could be a perfect candidate to learn behind Aldridge for a year before taking over the power forward spot upon his departure.
It seems like Dennis Schroder has been around for awhile, but he’s actually only 24 years old. Last year for the Hawks, he averaged 19.4 points and 6.2 assists, while also sporting the highest usage rate and lowest turnover percentage of his career. Add that to the fact that he’s also locked up through 2021 at a reasonable $15.5 million/year for a good point guard, and the Spurs have just added two key pieces to the rebuild. Plus, I like his hair.
It’s also worth noting that Schroder and Collins played under Mike Budenholzer, who spent seventeen years studying at the San Antonio Citadel under Archmaester Pop, and coaches in a very similar manner.
The mock drafts have gone wild the past week, so there’s really no telling who the Spurs could pick from at number three. But if guys like Luka Doncic or Mo Bamba are available, the league should be very, very afraid of the New Spurs Order.
This one is iffy because the Bucks may have a hard time convincing Leonard, a Los Angeles native, to re-sign and spend the next few years of his career in a city that rarely gets above freezing during the bulk of the season. Who knows, maybe he’s a big PBR and cheese curds guy. I’d like to see this one happen, though, because can you imagine trying to score against a defense that featured both Leonard and Giannis Antetokounmpo (spelled it right the third time, NBD)? That would be a nightmare for teams in the East. Let’s get Kawhi to Wisconsin, stat.
- Khris Middleton (SF)
- Malcom Brogdon (PG)
- 17th pick in 2018 draft
Khris Middleton is turning into a bonafide stud. The sixth year man out of Texas A&M is coming off of his best season as a pro, averaging 20.1 points, 5.2 rebounds, and 4.0 assists while serving as the second scoring option behind The Greek Freak. Even though the Bucks were bounced by the Celtics in the first round of the playoffs, it certainly wasn’t because of Middleton. He averaged 24.7 points on a ridiculous 59.8 FG% in the seven game series, and also did this.
Malcom Brogdon is another point guard that would be great in Popovich’s system. The 2017 Rookie of The Year has an extremely efficient scoring line of 47/40/87% his first two years, and has the makings of the perfect replacement to Tony Parker. Although the Spurs already have a good young point guard in Dejounte Murray, Brogdon’s outside shooting stroke (something Murray does not have) would allow him to play off the ball some and spread the defense to create lanes to the hoop.
The 17th pick is interesting because the Spurs also have the 18th pick in the draft. I don’t know enough about the draft to give an honest opinion on who they should take here, but I guarantee you that the Spurs would hit on at least one of those picks. Check out this completely correct mock draft to learn more about some of the prospects they could choose from.
So that’s that! As always, these opinions are 100% correct, but if you have a problem feel free to reach out and yell at @jacob_vancey on Twitter.