By Matthew Geagan, CBS Boston
BOSTON (CBS) — Kawhi Leonard wants out of San Antonio, but he’s not making things easy for the Spurs. Or any team that would like to trade for his services this offseason.
The Spurs would love to keep the former NBA Finals MVP, even after Leonard ditched his team for all but nine games last season. Gregg Popovich is even in southern California to try to convince his star player to stick with one of the most successful NBA franchises.
Chances are that meeting won’t end the way Popovich hopes.
That’s because Leonard’s heart is already in Los Angeles, as ESPN’s Ramona Shelburne and Adrian Wojanrowski are reporting that the two-time All-Star now plans to inform teams interested in trading for him this summer that he intends to sign with the either the Lakers or Clippers when he hits unrestricted free agency next offseason. Leonard’s preference is the Lakers, but the Spurs reportedly have no desire to trade him within the Western Conference.
This is only going to make trading the superstar even more difficult for San Antonio, and more teams wary or mortgaging their future for Leonard.
As is the case whenever any star player hits the trade market, the Celtics have the assets to get a deal for Leonard done. Danny Ainge can pull from his bag of young talent and future draft picks and beat any other offer teams send San Antonio’s way. Putting Leonard next to the likes of Kyrie Irving, Gordon Hayward, Al Horford and Jayson Tatum would make Boston a serious threat for an NBA title next season. Even after missing nearly all of last season, Leonard is still one of the best players in the league. He’ll make a good team great, and a great team a legitimate threat to the Golden State Warriors.
But that one season of Kawhi is going to cost Boston a gigantic bounty. The asking price will likely start with Jaylen Brown (who could some day become the next Kawhi Leonard), Terry Rozier and at least one of their most enticing future draft picks, most likely next year’s Kings pick. As great as Leonard is, and as great as the Celtics could be with him in their lineup, is all of that really worth it?
There is risk with any trade in the NBA. Ainge sent two fan favorites in Isaiah Thomas and Jae Crowder along with a future lottery pick (No. 8 overall on Thursday night) to Cleveland last offseason for Kyrie, and there’s no guarantee he’s here after next summer. Ainge took that risk knowing he’d have two seasons to convince Irving to stay. It’s a risk he’ll take 99 times out of 100.
But if Leonard is already envisioning himself in purple and gold, he’s not worth mortgaging a portion of Boston’s future for one season. Kawhi would make the Celtics great (really great) for next season, but Brown and the potential Kings pick could make them great for the next decade — either on their roster or as trade chips for a much safer acquisition.
Maybe San Antonio’s asking price will go down a bit in light Leonard’s Laker love being revealed on Wednesday. If the Spurs wait until July to make a deal, it’s possible the Celtics could swing a sign-and-trade involing Marcus Smart, Rozier, other contract fillers and a boatload of future picks, as ESPN’s Zach Lowe pontificated Wednesday morning. Not including Brown makes it’s a much safer and appealing move for the Celtics, even if Leonard does indeed bolt after one season.
It’s wild to envision a scenario where it’s not worth trading for one of the NBA’s best two-way players, a player who could put the Celtics over the edge next season. The Celtics are always thinking of the next championship, and adding Kawhi would give them their best shot at raising Banner 18 next year. But it would likely end up costing them a chance at additional banners in the future, when Leonard is lacing up his kicks for the Los Angeles Lakers.
This time, the risk is just too great for Ainge to pull the trigger.