Kawhi Leonard, the Lakers and assessing trade value of superstars

There are many adages about the NBA. One is that it’s a star-driven league, something that has become more apparent in recent years as super teams have become more and more apparent. It’s also what is driving the Lakers’ off-season plans and their future.

The other adage is that teams never get equal value in return for superstars.

Paul George. Jimmy Butler. DeMarcus Cousins. Chris Paul. Even dating back to James Harden. Or Shaquille O’Neal to the Heat. In nearly every instance, superstar players are traded for less than their perceived value.

Which brings us to the current topic at hand. The Kawhi Leonard situation in San Antonio is as bizarre as they come.

The short of it appears to be that Leonard has been cleared by team doctors to return from his injury. However, Leonard sought a second opinion from personal doctors that have not cleared him. The result is a long game of “he said she said” between the Spurs, Gregg Popovich and sources inside Leonard’s camp.

The uncertainty surrounding the situation in San Antonio has led to some calls as to whether the team will look to trade him. Other rumors regarding shoe deals and general unhappiness with the Spurs organization have fueled the notion.

Earlier this off-season reports surfaced that sources around the league believed the Lakers may make a move for Leonard.

An overwhelming reaction by Laker fans was that the team should not part with the assets it would require to acquire Leonard. The perceived value of Leonard has been as such that the general assumption is the Lakers would need to trade one of Lonzo Ball or Brandon Ingram to acquire the former Finals MVP.

However, something we as fans should have learned in recent years is that the perceived value fans have of a player and the actual value of those players are often vastly different.

Take a walk down memory lane with me.

Jimmy Butler, arguably the best two-way player in the league? Traded for a pair of young players with obvious limitations along with a pick swap.

Chris Paul, a guard who helped lead the Rockets to the best record in the league? Traded for a gluttony of role players and mid-level prospects.

DeMarcus Cousins, a big man who is one of the most versatile the league has ever seen? Traded for the next Steph Curry a young shooting guard with a low ceiling and a lottery pick.

Kyrie Irving, arguably the best young guard in the league? Traded for an aging and ailing Isaiah Thomas and a top 10 draft pick.

Fans can harp over and over that the trades were bad and that these are exceptions, but those exceptions keep happening over and over. At some point, they may no longer be the exception.

While the vast majority of fans perceive the value of Leonard in a trade to be that in which he nets multiple star youngsters in return, all it takes is for 30 generals managers (or fewer, really) to value him at a lesser level for none of our perceptions to matter.

Now, certainly, the cards are in San Antonio’s hands. They could refuse to trade Leonard, lay down a contract offer of over $200 million and dare him to turn it down before next summer.

But what if they decided Leonard wasn’t going to sign and, like so many franchises we’ve seen before, they don’t want to lose him for nothing in a year.

Would a trade for Leonard really require the Lakers to part with one of Ingram or Ball?

Let’s dive deeper into some of the trades similar to that of Leonard’s. It’ll be impossible to find a one-to-one scenario because rarely are any two situations alike in the league, but there are some that are close.

With Sacramento and Cousins, the Kings had a player they knew would soon be coming up on a supermax extension, like Leonard will be, that they were uncertain they wanted to sign him to. The Kings shopped him around, reportedly asked for Ingram or D’Angelo Russell from the Lakers and when they were rebuffed, settled on trading for Buddy Hield, a then-23-year-old rookie guard, along with a draft pick.

With Paul George and Indiana, you have a situation with a player closest in talent level to Leonard. George told the Pacers he would leave in free agency, but his situation comes with the caveat that he was also reportedly warning teams he would be signing with the Lakers and not staying long-term with whichever team traded for him.

The Thunder essentially dumped a salary, sending Victor Oladipo, a 25-year old shooting guard, out along with a young, mid-level prospect in 21-year old Domantas Sabonis, for a year of George.

The Jimmy Butler-Chicago situation, though, is the one I want to most closely examine because I think it’s a nice blend of contract situation and talent level that meets the trade value Leonard has currently.

At his peak, Butler is arguably a top-15 player in the league and one of the best perimeter defenders in the league. At the time he was traded, Butler had two more years plus a player option, which should help bridge the gap in his trade value with Leonard, who is a superior talent with one-year remaining.

Butler was dealt for Zach LaVine, a 22-year old hyper-athletic guard coming off an ACL tear, Kris Dunn, a 23-year old rookie who was wholly disappointing in his first season, and the two teams swapped first round picks with Chicago moving up nine spots.

LaVine was a player who relied heavily on athleticism that was coming off a major knee injury while Dunn was a rookie guard with lots of holes in his game and question marks about his future. Paired with the pick, which became Lauri Markannen, the Bulls got three young pieces for their rebuild but two of them came with big question marks.

Now, all of that build up is to preface the Leonard-to-LA scenario. It’s a debate that is often centered around the question of whether the team should give up Ingram or Ball in a deal for Leonard.

Based on the last few years of trades for superstars, Ingram or Ball would be the best prospect involved in such a trade, and it wouldn’t be close. A player like LaVine could reach a level of high level of play, but his value when traded was not anywhere near that of Ingram or Ball.

Now, Leonard would also be the best player traded among the superstars dealt. But with a year on his deal and the uncertainty of him coming back from injury, his value is not high enough that it would require a Ball or Ingram in return.

The more likely scenario, I think, is a trade that involves both Kyle Kuzma and Josh Hart along with picks. Both players proved to be valuable pieces on teams and both could contribute to winning basketball right away.

Looking back to the Timberwolves-Bulls trade, Kuzma and Hart are both prospects that would likely be seen as better than LaVine and Dunn. The pick the Lakers could offer would not be as high as the one the Bulls sent to Minnesota but it would still be a package of equal or higher value.

And if this is the case and it would take a package of Kuzma, Hart and multiple picks for Leonard, it’s a move the Lakers should do yesterday. There are some cap ramifications to the deal and maybe the Lakers want to wait until giving it their best shot to sign George or LeBron James as free agents before going after Leonard.

But based on previous trades, I firmly believe it will not take a package involving Ball or Ingram for Leonard. And if it does, it’d be the most a team has traded for a superstar in recent memory because teams never get equal value in return for superstars.

All of this could prove moot. As I stated earlier, it really doesn’t matter how we as fans value the players. The only assessments that matter is those of the 30 or so GMs and fellow front office personnel.

But if the past is anything to learn from, the Lakers may not need to gut the house to acquire Leonard, something that could make their off-season all the more intriguing.

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