Opinion – King’s Ransom: San Antonio Has More Leverage Over Los Angeles Than You Think

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Project Spurs illustration/NBAE

It has become quite clear that Kawhi Leonard no longer wants to play for the San Antonio Spurs. If reports saying so were false, he and his management team would have denied it by now.

There is also no reason to doubt the reports that Leonard, who grew up in Riverside and went to San Diego State, wants to return home to Los Angeles.

Sure, the idea of shipping Leonard east for a young core from Boston or Philadelphia sounds appealing, but why would Danny Ainge or Philadelphia’s management ship away proven, cheap talent with a lot of potential, for a player who could walk away to join the Lakers next summer anyway?

Leonard can do just that, so many feel that Magic Johnson and his team are under no pressure to trade for the 27-year-old MVP contender. Unfortunately for the Lakers, it isn’t quite that simple.

None of this happens in a vacuum. If the Lakers can immediately acquire Leonard, a top-five player in the league who plans to stay, Los Angeles quickly becomes the best opportunity for the top-one player in the NBA, who happens to hit the job market on July 1.

If the Lakers get Kawhi and miss out on LeBron, they could still increase their odds of signing free agents and Paul George. There’s even a possibility that the three of them could join forces in LA.

A trio of the Klaw, the King, and PG-13 would be formidable, but they’d need to do it with the other roster spots filled with rookies, guys on the vet minimum, and Alex Caruso. They could challenge the Warriors, or they could make like the Thunder and underperform terribly.

LeBron reportedly isn’t eager to be the first superstar to land in LA this summer. He wants to make sure he’s playing with the best supporting cast possible, so the odds that LeBron chooses purple and gold as his next uniform dramatically increase if Leonard is already there.

Those are the stakes for Magic and GM Rob Pelinka: trade for one of the league’s best players to attract the league’s best player and instantly become competitive or try again next year. Given the circumstances, Los Angeles might be willing to sell their bright future for a star-studded present.

The pressure for Magic and Pelinka to get a deal done only increases with time. The Celtics and Sixers can play it safe based on the success they had last year, but the Lakers don’t have the luxury of staying the course, and each July day that passes makes it more likely that LeBron will take his talents elsewhere.

The idea of Kawhi Leonard in a Lakers jersey should make any Spurs fan shudder. The idea of LeBron joining him should make any non-Angeleno violently ill and viscerally mad. San Antonio isn’t keen on trading stars to Western Conference rivals, but Spurs coach Gregg Popovich and RC Buford are in a unique position to extract a king’s ransom from the team that Leonard will probably wind up on anyway.

As this week moves along, expect the Spurs to entertain offers from the east while making it extremely difficult for their most hated rival. It’s hard to see San Antonio getting more than Jaylen Brown, Terry Rozier, and Marcus Morris, or Dario Saric, Robert Covington, and Markelle Fultz. Those packages are good, but there’s no guarantee that the Celtics or Sixers would be willing to give up that much for a rental.

The thing about playing hard to get is that it works. WHAT IF fireworks are going off on the Fourth of July, LeBron and Paul George are still mulling their options, and Magic Johnson is sweating profusely. He’s faced with the prospect of another lost season if he doesn’t make a big move.

*phone rings

RC Buford: Hello?

Magic: I’m calling you about trading NBA basketball players between our two franchises, the basketball player I’m interested in on your team is-

RC: Kawhi, I know, we talked about this yesterday. And no, we are not taking Luol Deng’s contract.

Magic: Soooo, Ingram (the next KD!!!!!), a future first, and Mo Wagner?

RC: You’ve GOT to be kidding me.

Magic: WAIT WAIT, don’t hang up. I’ll throw in Josh Hart.

RC: And Kuzma.

Magic: … fine

RC: Also, how about you take Pau Gasol’s contract, and sign and trade Julius Randle.

If some variation of the above trade can work out, with Ingram, Kuzma, Randle, and other assets coming to San Antonio for a player who doesn’t want to be here and another player on a bad contract, Pop and RC should absolutely pull the trigger.

Would it not be the Spurs way to discard a superstar with a silent but apparent ego, and in the process ruthlessly pillage their rival and poach most of the young talent off of the team that they’re reluctantly sending him to?

Leonard and his camp have made it clear that he wants to be a Laker. Other teams should hesitate to give up too much to land him for a year, and Los Angeles will pretty much have to sell the farm for a chance at both him and LeBron this summer. If Magic’s offer is too good to pass up, the Spurs should punish him for it and rebuild around a new young core.

Would you rather rip the band-aid off now and acquire that core, or end up with nothing as Kawhi ends up in Hollywood anyway to play with that same core and probably another superstar? If the Lakers offer a king’s ransom for Kawhi, the Spurs would be wise to take it from them.

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