The Kawhi Situation
The Spurs have long been the last franchise to come to mind when discussing teams facing inner turmoil. They’ve been the model of professionalism and continued success for the last two decades, yet that seems to be coming to an end. Last season reports surfaced that former 2 time defensive player of the year and finals MVP Kawhi Leonard was unhappy with the organization and the handling (or mishandling) of what the team called Quadriceps Tendinopathy. The report by ESPN's Adrian Wojnarowski and Michael C. Wright detailed the general discontent shown in Kawhi’s camp, and the emphasis of influence conveyed by a mysterious “uncle Dennis”. I’ll admit, I was skeptical. After years of unwavering stability the Spurs felt immune to anything like this. This story was interesting, but I never considered it might ultimately shape the landscape of the league.
Now, almost half a year later it seems I was very wrong. The Spurs and their disgruntled star are in a stand off. San Antonio obviously wants to retain their star, and they have his bird rights and can offer him a far bigger contract than any other team in the league. This, however, is now their only advantage. Kawhi’s camp insists that Leonard will undoubtedly leave in the summer of 2019 and join the Los Angeles Lakers, even threatening to sit out games in the 2018-19 season to force their hand. While these statements seem to have come from everyone but the man himself, it’s no secret that Kawhi’s value has dropped to an unfathomable low.
This brings us to L. A. where the star-thirsty Lakers have had their first taste of blood. After an incredible drought of talent, the league's premier franchise landed the league's premier player in LeBron James and it has put pressure on the team to win now. While their free agent signings haven’t exactly shown that, it is clear that landing Kawhi would elevate them to contender status and those are exactly the sort of expectations you can find in la la land. After James signed a four year deal the Lakers have the luxury of time, no doubt, but when you have a once in a lifetime player like him, wasting a season is like wasting an eternity. This is where the standstill begins. The Lakers want him and the Spurs don’t want to lose him, but both are eager to play their leverage. So what will it take to get a deal done between sworn enemies?
It was reported that the Spurs have demanded Brandon Ingram, Kyle Kuzma, Josh Hart, 2 picks and additional pick swaps in exchange for Leonard. This is downright laughable. The Lakers are in a sweet spot. What other team would trade away assets for what will likely be a single season rental? Sure, OKC was able to convince Paul George to stay but how anomalous is that situation? Why would the Lakers give up important pieces only to acquire him a season sooner? There just isn’t enough urgency or risk to provoke a swapping of equal assets. Well, don’t underestimate the power of pettiness. Popovich and the Spurs are gritting their teeth at the idea of helping a team who’s been a thorn in their side for the majority of his career. That being said they risk losing Kawhi for absolutely nothing. Is resentment worth it? It may feel good, but no, not at all.
So what will it take to get the deal done? In my opinion Brandon Ingram should be off the table but beyond him the Lakers need to keep an open mind. Something surrounding Kyle Kuzma and or Josh Hart and a first round pick are about as far as I would go - and that’s to get a deal done now. The longer the Spurs wait the further they tank Kawhi’s value. At the deadline they’d be looking at something closer to Hart and a pick. The fact is, San Antonio needs to settle this soon. Unless they feel they can call Kawhi’s bluff and expect an engaged player next year, it would be unhealthy to start the season with him on the roster.
Whether they wait it out or cut ties now, the end of Spurs dominance is in sight. Though it may be with reluctance and spite, we can all shed a tear for the end of one of my favourite basketball dynasties.