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San Antonio Spurs: Pros and cons of trading Kawhi Leonard to Lakers

By Rob Wolkenbrod
LOS ANGELES, CA - FEBRUARY 26: Kawhi Leonard #2 of the San Antonio Spurs drives to the basket as he gets past Brandon Ingram #14 of the Los Angeles Lakers in the second half of the game at Staples Center on February 26, 2017 in Los Angeles, California. Spurs won 119-98. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading and or using this photograph, User is consenting to the terms and conditions of the Getty Images License Agreement. (Photo by Jayne Kamin-Oncea/Getty Images)
LOS ANGELES, CA - FEBRUARY 26: Kawhi Leonard #2 of the San Antonio Spurs drives to the basket as he gets past Brandon Ingram #14 of the Los Angeles Lakers in the second half of the game at Staples Center on February 26, 2017 in Los Angeles, California. Spurs won 119-98. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading and or using this photograph, User is consenting to the terms and conditions of the Getty Images License Agreement. (Photo by Jayne Kamin-Oncea/Getty Images)
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The Los Angeles Lakers became the latest team linked to Kawhi Leonard. Would it make sense for the San Antonio Spurs to work with them on a trade?

San Antonio Spurs star Kawhi Leonard will be a topic of conversation this offseason, especially as his status remains unclear. He missed all but nine games this season with a right quad injury, and became the subject of speculation since his last appearance in January. That may mean a trade occurs this summer, or an alternative event transpires.

Could the Los Angeles Lakers target Leonard if the Spurs are open for business? According to Sporting News, these sides linking is “the most likely thing” whether that’s via trade or 2019 free agency.

If San Antonio wants to get something back for their superstar, and the Lakers are the only option to trade him to, then it reveals a few silver linings. What about the downsides?

Pro: Player assets

A trade with the Lakers sounds great upon a glance at their roster. Under Mitch Kupchak and Magic Johnson, they accumulated young assets, even if none have reached the postseason, and made them appealing pieces on paper that can interest other organizations in a transaction.

Lonzo Ball, Brandon Ingram, Kyle Kuzma, Julius Randle and Josh Hart can all intrigue teams — some more than others. Ingram broke out from his inconsistent rookie season, and Kuzma exploded on the scene in his rookie year, so these two may be the most attractive pieces of the bunch. That’s without mentioning Ball’s upside and Randle’s season-by-season improvement. Even Hart has upside, if just as a shooter off the bench.

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The Spurs can’t get all of these players, but in the proper circumstance, at least one or two of them.

Kuzma’s skills on an inside-out San Antonio squad would be tantalizing. He can play off LaMarcus Aldridge at the four and give the Spurs the outside scorer, with size, that’s sorely needed. Ingram can offer similar traits, but may be best suited at the three.

Randle works towards the Spurs’ gritty image. He rarely takes outside shots, so if head coach Gregg Popovich commits to his usual two big-man formula, the former Kentucky Wildcat could fit.

Ball’s inclusion would impact the development of Dejounte Murray and Derrick White, pending there is another trade involved. Is the UCLA product worth it over at least Murray, who took over the starting point guard duties?

The Lakers assets should pique the Spurs’ interest, if the two sides decide to talk trade. However, there’s reason to think they might be forced into a discussion.

Next: Leverage

LOS ANGELES, CA – DECEMBER 18: (L-R) Magic Johnson, Rob Pelinka and Jeanie Buss attend Kobe Bryant’s jersey retirement ceremony during a basketball game between the Los Angeles Lakers and the Golden State Warriors at Staples Center on December 18, 2017 in Los Angeles, California. (Photo by Allen Berezovsky/Getty Images)
LOS ANGELES, CA – DECEMBER 18: (L-R) Magic Johnson, Rob Pelinka and Jeanie Buss attend Kobe Bryant’s jersey retirement ceremony during a basketball game between the Los Angeles Lakers and the Golden State Warriors at Staples Center on December 18, 2017 in Los Angeles, California. (Photo by Allen Berezovsky/Getty Images)

Con: Questionable leverage

While the Lakers might make sense as a trade partner for the San Antonio Spurs, working together will not be easy. It’s all based on one thing: leverage.

In the aforementioned Sporting News report, Leonard’s Los Angeles roots were noted. It’s why the Los Angeles Clippers came up as a rumored destination. He was born in Southern California and went to college (San Diego State) in the area, so why wouldn’t a professional return be desired by the former MVP candidate?

If Leonard forces a trade and names the Lakers as his desired landing spot, there’s little the Spurs can do. It ruins any potential talks with other organizations that have interest, making Magic Johnson’s front office the only suitor. Thus, it leaves San Antonio’s hands tied for compensation. They will receive something, but how much?

This compares to the Carmelo Anthony saga of 2011, but in reverse. The New York Knicks were Anthony’s top destination and the Denver Nuggets knew this. Without competition, and a desire to not wait for free agency, the Knicks purged their roster for the New York-born star, trading Danilo Gallinari, Wilson Chandler, Raymond Felton, Timofey Mozgov, a 2014 first-round pick and the rights to swap 2016 first-round picks, which landed in the top 10.

How much can the Spurs get with a Leonard demand? Maybe a future pick (Lakers can’t trade 2019 pick due to the Stepien Rule, but that can change after the 2018 Draft), someone to offset some of the salary and a young asset that’s likely not named Kyle Kuzma. Is that enough?

Oh, and there’s that LeBron James guy. He could team with Leonard if they conspire a plan to align in the offseason. It’s realistic and a nightmare scenario for not just the Spurs, but the other 28 teams in the NBA.

Next: Is this a rebuild?

OAKLAND, CA – APRIL 16: LaMarcus Aldridge #12 and Patty Mills #8 of the San Antonio Spurs high five during the game against the Golden State Warriors in Game Two of Round One of the 2018 NBA Playoffs on April 16, 2018 at ORACLE Arena in Oakland, California. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading and or using this photograph, user is consenting to the terms and conditions of Getty Images License Agreement. Mandatory Copyright Notice: Copyright 2018 NBAE (Photo by Andrew D. Bernstein/NBAE via Getty Images)
OAKLAND, CA – APRIL 16: LaMarcus Aldridge #12 and Patty Mills #8 of the San Antonio Spurs high five during the game against the Golden State Warriors in Game Two of Round One of the 2018 NBA Playoffs on April 16, 2018 at ORACLE Arena in Oakland, California. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading and or using this photograph, user is consenting to the terms and conditions of Getty Images License Agreement. Mandatory Copyright Notice: Copyright 2018 NBAE (Photo by Andrew D. Bernstein/NBAE via Getty Images)

Pro: Is this actually a rebuild?

Let’s put something into perspective. The San Antonio Spurs had Kawhi Leonard for just nine of 82 games in the 2017-18 season and won 47 games. Sure, he could have made the difference between eight wins and a securer spot in the postseason, but a LaMarcus Aldridge-led squad still found success and squeezed their way into the playoffs.

With a Leonard trade, the Spurs can actually build off this season’s success, making it as their superstar was not part of this group. Any of Lonzo Ball, Brandon Ingram, Kyle Kuzma, Julius Randle and Josh Hart steps in as young, controllable assets (aside from Randle, especially with his restricted free agent status) and offer quality production at their respective positions. Each player besides Hart averaged 10 points per game and flashed upside as focal parts of the Lakers, so why can’t they step in as supporting pieces to a greater puzzle in the Alamo City?

This trade might not drop the Spurs out of the playoff picture but help them rise in the standings. They may be a 50-win team, pending other offseason moves of course, and work from there. It would be difficult to see these players making the team worse, but how much further could they ascend?

Next: Why trade in the conference?

LOS ANGELES, CA – APRIL 4: Pau Gasol #16 of the San Antonio Spurs handles the ball against Brook Lopez #11 of the Los Angeles Lakers on April 4, 2018 at STAPLES Center in Los Angeles, California. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading and/or using this Photograph, user is consenting to the terms and conditions of the Getty Images License Agreement. Mandatory Copyright Notice: Copyright 2018 NBAE (Photo by Andrew D. Bernstein/NBAE via Getty Images)
LOS ANGELES, CA – APRIL 4: Pau Gasol #16 of the San Antonio Spurs handles the ball against Brook Lopez #11 of the Los Angeles Lakers on April 4, 2018 at STAPLES Center in Los Angeles, California. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading and/or using this Photograph, user is consenting to the terms and conditions of the Getty Images License Agreement. Mandatory Copyright Notice: Copyright 2018 NBAE (Photo by Andrew D. Bernstein/NBAE via Getty Images)

Con: Why trade in the conference?

A trade with a fellow Western Conference team only pushes that squad forward and the San Antonio Spurs back. The OC Register reported Gregg Popovich has a golden rule about trades, that he will not help a fellow conference team in one of these transactions. The Stephen Jackson and George Hill trades of this decade could point to that since both were with Eastern Conference teams.

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Trading Leonard moves San Antonio back in the pursuit for the playoffs and a championship, while making the Lakers contenders. It’s an avoidable setback, as the front office can send Leonard to an East team and hope he does not recross the line, into the West for the 2019-20 season, after his contract expires.

This scenario would also rule out the Clippers, along with any other Western Conference team with interest. It’s a rumor, however, but one that makes some sense.

That leaves it open to the Eastern Conference, unless Leonard demands a deal to the Lakers. Who steps up to make an offer? It’s difficult to say since this side of the NBA is not asset-driven, except the New York Knicks and their free-wielding front office. What about the Philadelphia 76ers and their young assets not named Ben Simmons or Joel Embiid?

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Trading in the West complicates things for the Spurs, even if the Lakers can offer attractive pieces. Maybe, they should see if a contract extension works instead of a future playoff matchup against their once-believed franchise cornerstone.

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