The San Antonio Spurs found themselves in unknown territory last Friday when reports surfaced that Kawhi Leonard would like to be traded from the team. Head Coach Gregg Popovich admitted that he had never had a player ask to be traded before LaMarcus Aldridge did last summer, and the current tensions between Leonard’s team and the Spurs seem more dire and irreconcilable.
As many have noted, the timing of Leonard’s group releasing this info when they did is no coincidence. The Spurs dealing Leonard on draft night would be beneficial to whatever team he was headed off to. If the Spurs traded Leonard to the Los Angeles Lakers or the Philadelphia 76ers before July 1st, the free agent pitches those teams are preparing for LeBron James or Paul George become substantially more interesting. For a team like the Boston Celtics, trading for Leonard early may put them in a position to sign some skilled veterans who are willing to take a discount to compete for a title.
The Spurs won’t rush this process, however. ESPN’s Adrian Wojnarowski, who is as connected as any NBA insider, said as much on ESPN’s mock draft show on Monday night. They are wise not too. While the Spurs are sure to get a number of offers between now and the draft, it may take time for the trade market for Leonard to stabilize. It’s unclear, now, what that market may be. Leonard, who is both a top-5 player in the league and an MVP candidate when healthy, played only 9 games for the Spurs last season. Injuries have been an unfortunate part of Leonard’s NBA story to this point in his career, even before this season. There is only one year left on Leonard’s contract before he can exercise his player option and become a free agent, which he will almost certainly do, even if he is on a team he is expected to re-sign with. Leonard’s camp also leaked that he would prefer to play for one of the two teams in Los Angeles, specifically the Lakers. This info can cool his trade market with teams not based out of Southern California.
While all that is true, the Golden Warriors remain the favorites to win the NBA Championship for the foreseeable future and Leonard could represent the piece that gives teams that are in the ballpark of contending with them a fighting chance. The urgency of free agency may change the calculus of the offers San Antonio receives as well. If, for instance, the Lakers or the Sixers feel like trading for Leonard would be the deciding factor in James or George signing for either of them, they may feel more pressure to include more assets in a trade to secure their chance at having a super-team. These are factors that may not be determined until a week into NBA free agency.
The Spurs also have the luxury of time. While the ultimate destination of some big names in free agency may remove several potential trade partners, Leonard’s trade value shouldn’t change too much between now and the start of training camp, barring any new health related information coming forward or Leonard’s camp doubling down on preferred destinations. Once training camp starts, if Leonard is still with the team, his trade value will slowly decline until the NBA trade deadline in February, as teams are less likely to part with key players or draft picks for a player who could leave in free agency several months later.
Effectively, this means that the Spurs will have until the start of training camp before their patience will really cost them. While the Spurs will almost certainly make a move before then, it is entirely possible that they take several weeks or longer before committing to any deal. Being patient is the Spurs’ best option here, after all, the future of their franchise hangs in the balance.