San Antonio Spurs: Mapping out a Kawhi Leonard trade with the Suns
By Rob Wolkenbrod
If the San Antonio Spurs trade Kawhi Leonard, would the Phoenix Suns make sense as an option?
One of the 2018 offseason’s biggest topics will be the future of Kawhi Leonard, and if the San Antonio Spurs trade or extend him a five-year, $219 million contract (also known as the supermax). If it’s the former, there will undoubtedly be teams that line up to acquire his services.
There’s still no indication on the official result of this relationship breakdown, on whether the Spurs will deal their superstar. It could take a truckload of assets, and more, to acquire him.
Some teams have stood out as suitors, including the Philadelphia 76ers and Los Angeles Clippers. However, what about the Phoenix Suns?
There’s a case to be made for the Suns, who are not only a rebuilding team but own a handful of assets that may tempt teams in trade talks. The Big Lead also highlighted them as a potential suitor.
Which pieces can move in a Leonard deal? Let’s break down some of their pieces. Note that this is not a designed trade offer, but an evaluation of Phoenix’s assets.
Through two NBA seasons, Marquese Chriss has not jumped off the page for the Suns. After they traded up for the Washington product’s rights in the 2016 NBA Draft, he received every opportunity to flourish as a starter, but only averaged 8.5 points and 4.8 rebounds on 43.8 percent shooting.
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Chriss did lead the Suns in Defensive Rating (among players who made at least 25 appearances), but the 109 mark was still not great on a team that was among the NBA’s worst defensive units. So why would any of this make him an asset to deal to the San Antonio Spurs, who has a head coach that empowers one of the best defenses in the league?
The former No. 8 overall pick is just 20 years old (21 before the season starts) and hardly a finished product, so there’s reason to believe he can improve with experience. There was a noticeable regression statistically, though, from his rookie to sophomore campaign.
If Chriss joins a Leonard deal, he would not be the main piece. Maybe the second or third part that goes to the Spurs, but without improvement in his brief NBA career, there’s not too much value here. He might be ticketed to stay in Phoenix for the 2018-19 season.
Next: Dragan Bender
In that same 2016 NBA Draft, the Phoenix Suns took Dragan Bender at No. 4 overall. One would think either him or Marquese Chriss would pan out, but that has not been the case through two seasons.
A brief glimpse at the stat sheet shows Bender’s numbers were worse than Chriss’. A combined 37.8 shooting percentage in his rookie and sophomore campaigns, and 6.5 points and 4.4 rebounds in a healthy 25.2 minutes per game in 2017-18 seems paltry. The only standout number was 36.6 percent from 3-point range.
It was an increase in Bender’s minutes, sure, but he did not prove enough to establish great value to the team or the organization in a trade. And with Deandre Ayton potentially in town, it will only hold back the Bosnian big man.
In a Kawhi Leonard package, if it’s not Chriss involved, look for Bender to replace him as the young big man to go to the San Antonio Spurs. While there has not been much appeal statistically, he will not turn 21 until November and the stretch-four ability fits perfectly into the modern-day NBA landscape. It even makes him a replacement for Davis Bertans in his role.
Like Chriss, this is not the lead piece of a Leonard deal. Bender can work as the second or third piece, but after two inconsistent seasons, he has not established enough value to carry a trade.
Next: Tyson Chandler
Tyson Chandler is on the downside of his NBA career, but there’s still contractual value in trades due to an expiring $13-million deal. It offsets most of Kawhi Leonard’s $20 million salary for the 2018-19 season.
At age 35, Chandler is not a player to rely on. Injuries over the past two seasons limited him to just 93 games, with another 16 missed in the 2015-16 campaign.
In 2017-18, Chandler played just 25 minutes per game for 6.5 points and 9.1 rebounds, with a Defensive Rating of 111, a career-low. So this is a player clearly on the backend of his time in the Association.
Chandler is still a big body in the paint, but that’s about it. He does not stretch the floor and no longer provides the vaunted rim presence that the Chicago Bulls, Dallas Mavericks, New Orleans Hornets and New York Knicks had in the 2000’s and early 2010’s.
If the veteran big man joins the Spurs, he’s not much more than a center behind Pau Gasol. That’s if the organization does not buy out the Dominguez High School product if they deem him a misfit in the team’s infrastructure. Either way, his salary makes sense to play part in a Leonard trade and allow the younger pieces to work their way into the mix.
Next: T.J. Warren
Tyson Chandler might have the larger contract, but T.J. Warren $11.75 million salary, that kicks in with the 2018-19 season, is not far behind and arguably offers more value towards a Kawhi Leonard trade with the San Antonio Spurs.
Warren is just 24 years old and is coming off a breakout season with the Phoenix Suns, averaging 19.6 points per game and 5.1 rebounds on 49.8 percent shooting. It makes him an efficient shooter from a short distance, at 52.3 percent, but there are parts of his game that leave something to be desired.
While the North Carolina State product shoots at a high average, he hardly owns a 3-point shot. With a 22.2 percent clip in 2017-18 (a career percentage of 28.3 percent), there’s no sign of an improved outside jump shot from the four-year man, and it hampers some of his value in the stretch-shooting NBA.
Aside from that, Warren is a poor defender. His 114 Defensive Rating and 0.9 Defensive Win Shares were among the worst on the team, but somehow only fourth on the roster, out of players who appeared in at least 50 games.
From a lineup perspective, Warren makes sense as a fill-in for the departed Leonard, but his defensive presence would not fit with the top-notch perimeter guarding from the rest of the backcourt. Plus, the lower salary (than Chandler’s) and higher production could drive down the value of other pieces in a deal. So this should not be a high priority for the Spurs to acquire in a potential package.
Next: Josh Jackson
After four options, here’s a player that can potentially lead a package for Kawhi Leonard: Josh Jackson, who just completed his rookie season with the Phoenix Suns.
Jackson entered the NBA with high athleticism and the ability to fill up the defensive stat sheet with his lengthy, but without the scoring to back it up. That essentially became the case in 2017-18, with 13.1 points on 41.7 percent shooting (26.3 percent from 3-point range), 63.4 percent from the free throw line, 4.6 rebounds, 1.5 assists, 1.0 steal and 0.5 blocks per game.
The Suns gave Jackson a chance to shine, and with another season under his belt, this could be the player the team needs to play next to Devin Booker. However, Leonard would be an obvious upgrade and make the Kansas product expendable.
As the No. 4 pick in the 2017 NBA Draft and without the middling play that Dragan Bender and Marquese Chriss put up in their first two seasons, Jackson holds value — enough to be a main part that goes to the San Antonio Spurs. He can even replace Leonard as the main small forward and become the next Spurs project, to develop a toolsy wing into an all-around stud. It’s just a matter of if the Suns will part ways.
Next: No. 1 overall pick
No. 1 overall pick
The main piece — perhaps the dream asset — to go to the San Antonio Spurs is the No. 1 overall pick of the 2018 NBA Draft. The Phoenix Suns won the lottery and the chance to select first on Thursday, June 21.
With a player of Kawhi Leonard’s caliber headed the other way, it’s difficult to think the Spurs would not ask for the top pick of the draft, to potentially push forward a retooling and add a future star to the mix. Both projected top picks, Deandre Ayton and Luka Doncic, would fit into the mix.
Ayton projects as an offensive machine in the NBA, with the ability to dominate the low post and a capable jump shot to play outside the paint. He even hit 34.3 percent of shots from 3-point range.
Next to LaMarcus Aldridge, Ayton would start immediately as the center and have time to work on a questionable defensive game. With Gregg Popovich as his head coach, and highly regarded athleticism on display at Arizona, there’s reason to believe the 19 year old can become an all-around stud.
As for Doncic, he’s the latest international man of mystery. At 6′ 8”, he projects as a playmaking wing or a supersized point guard that provides mismatches for the opposition.
Doncic can do a little of everything on the offensive end and is a willing passer, which gives him the ability to make his teammates better. Although athleticism might hold him back, the maturity of the Real Madrid star’s game, along with his experience next to former NBA veterans on one of the EuroLeague’s top teams, is enough to overlook flaws and make him a top-two pick in June.
Next: 2018 NBA Mock Draft: After the lottery
Whoever the Spurs pick, it would lead off a Leonard deal with the Suns. What else goes with the selection remains to be seen, but it’s the ultimate prize and best chance for San Antonio to receive a star.