By Matthew Geagan, CBS Boston
BOSTON (CBS) — In one of the more odd stories to hit the sports world, it appears there is a star player who wants out of a franchise that competes for championships on a yearly basis.
No, we’re not talking about Rob Gronkowski and the Patriots (again). It may be hard to believe but these stories aren’t just reserved for the New England area when the Pats lose a Super Bowl. We’re talking about Kawhi Leonard and his mysterious feud with the San Antonio Spurs.
The All-Star guard is in a peculiar situation deep in the heart of Texas. Leonard has suited up for the Spurs just nine times this season (nine times!) thanks to a host of injuries. He missed the first 27 games of the regular season after Zaza Pachilia destroyed his ankle in Game 1 of last season’s Western Conference Finals, and after a brief return on a minutes restriction in December, was shelved again by a shoulder injury. Toss in some lingering issues with his right quad, and he doesn’t seem too eager to help Gregg Popovich and the Spurs, who still sit in the middle of crowded Western Conference playoff picture despite Leonard’s absence.
There are conflicting stories whether or not Leonard’s teammates recently begged him to return to action, but it certainly seems like a divorce is forthcoming. This is the NBA, a league where star players actually get traded quite often.
ESPN’s Jalen Rose believes Leonard has played his last game with a horseshoe on his chest, and the analyst has a smoking hot take for a potential destination for the two-time Defensive Player of the Year: The Boston Celtics.
“They have the assets,” Rose said on Sunday’s NBA Countdown. “They developed Jaylen Brown and [Jayson] Tatum. I’ve talked about this all year; in order for them to take the next step they need to acquire another All-Star. They’re going to lose one of those players to acquire him. They’ll probably lose [Terry] Rozier and/or [Marcus] Smart and probably have to lose [Al] Horford for his salary. Kawhi Leonard with Gordon Hayward and Kyrie Irving in the Eastern Conference ….”
The thought of losing either Brown or Tatum will make Celtics fans cringe. Add Rozier and/or Smart to that equation and they may get physically ill. But to get something great, you have to give up something that can become great. And Danny Ainge has been compiling all these trade chips for a reason — to make a run at a player like Leonard or New Orleans’ Anthony Davis.
The Celtics could be building something special for the future with Brown and Tatum. Or they could cash them in and hope to have built something special for the present with Leonard joining forces with Irving and Hayward. This is the decision Ainge was hoping he’d need to contemplate when he heisted that haul of draft picks from the Brooklyn Nets in 2013. Chances are Ainge won’t give up that lofty price tag suggested by Rose, and nor should he, especially if he knows the Spurs have to trade their disgruntled star. He can enter full “Trader Danny” mode and try to get Leonard at his price — or he can walk away and continue to build with that promising young core. It’s a pretty good situation to be in for Ainge. But chances are he’s going to have to give up either Brown or Tatum in any deal for Leonard.
For those not buying what Rose is selling, neither is former Celtics great Paul Pierce. He thinks Leonard could stick it out for another season in San Antonio and then join — brace yourselves Celtics fans — the Los Angeles Lakers as a free agent. Gross.
Celtics fans probably won’t like selling the farm for Leonard. He’s a phenomenal two-way player, but one who’s coming off a season filled with lingering injuries and questions about his commitment to a perennial contender. Adding him to Irving and Hayward certainly seems like a slam dunk, until you consider it boils down to adding a star player coming off a season-long injury to another star player coming off a season-long injury, plus another star player who missed a quarter of a season with an injury. That’s a lot of injury questions for an otherwise intriguing Big Three.
We’ll see if Rose was just tossing something against the wall and hoping it would stick. Either way, if Leonard becomes available, expect Ainge to explore his options. He certainly has the pieces to pull off another blockbuster swap in hopes of adding another banner to his resume in the near future.