The Kawhi Leonard saga has been an interesting one to follow for many. Not only was there mystery around his prolonged absence last season but since news of his trade request has broken, reports about the situation have turned into a public battle for leverage.
The latest is from Mike C. Wright, a San Antonio Spurs beat writer for ESPN, who claims on his podcast that Leonard may have changed his stance on which team he would like to play for. (h/t Rob Lopez of Def Pen Hoops for the transcript)
Well, contrary to, and I don’t know if it’s changed. I think that’s what happened. Things have changed. But the Lakers are not Kawhi’s preferred destination anymore. He wants to go to the Clippers. He doesn’t want to go and be second fiddle to LeBron. That’s what I was told.
Wright’s report echoes speculation from other credible sources such as Yahoo Sports’ Shams Charania.
Meanwhile, ESPN’s Adrian Wojnarowski is reporting that Kawhi has remained steadfast in joining the Lakers whether by trade or through free agency in 2019. In fact, Wojnarowski’s report (through his podcast) directly conflicts what Wright is saying – that James joining the Lakers makes the Clippers less appealing to the Spurs All-Star:
“And I’ve been told that one of the reasons he looks at going to the Clippers is a little less motivated because I think initially the idea of LA was fine to him, he preferred the Lakers but was open to the Clippers but now that LeBron is with the Lakers and the idea of going head-to-head with LeBron, him with the Lakers, you with the Clippers and to maybe feel dwarfed by that, I’ve been told that’s far less appealing to him.”
So who’s right and who’s wrong? Maybe both and maybe neither. It’s an increasingly difficult situation to grasp a hold of.
It would be easy to discredit any and all reports about Leonard’s change of heart as the Spurs attempting to gain leverage. And perhaps that’s all this is. But it would be silly not to at least consider that there is some truth to the claims.
As soon as Leonard’s trade request became public knowledge, it was reported that the former defensive player of the year preferred a move to Los Angeles. Yes, the Lakers were his top choice, but the Clippers have always been an option. LeBron is a tough teammate to have. He makes players around him better and you are always a contender if you have the best player in the world on your squad. But he rightly expects a lot out of his teammates and the spotlight on him can be a lot to deal with. After all, that seemed to be the major reason why Kyrie Irving requested a trade from the Cavaliers last season.
Do the Lakers have to worry about this? Yes and no. Whether the reports are true or just a ploy for more leverage from a desperate Spurs team aiming to raise the price on their disgruntled star, the Clippers are a legitimate threat due strictly to their location. If Leonard prefers leading his own team, he may not care about being overshadowed by the Lakers and James like Woj seems to imply.
But according to Wright, members of the Spurs organization are not fond of any Clippers trade packages and that may give the Lakers more time to drag this on (Quick NSFW warning on the quote):
And so right now, the Clippers are where he wants to go. But I’m also told, like you know, I talked to people within the Spurs organization and they’re like ‘Well yeah he wants to go to the Clippers but their assets are shit at this point’. That’s what I was told.
And that’s right. Due to the timing, the Clippers best assets are at a lower value. Had they pulled the trigger before the draft, they would have had two 2018 lottery picks to throw into the package. Those picks instantly lose value when used. Would they be willing to throw a treasure chest of picks at the Spurs to secure Leonard? Perhaps. They are perhaps the only team with a high chance of convincing Kawhi to re-sign, based on current reports. But that’s a lot of assets to give up for someone who could still just be a rental.
The Lakers, meanwhile, still don’t seem to be pressured to make a hasty trade. They have held firm on reported “godfather” offers and, according to ESPN’s Zach Lowe, they are not being pressured by LeBron James to trade for a second star right away. If that’s true (and Lowe reports that it’s from LeBron’s camp, not the Lakers), they still hold a ton of leverage against the Spurs.
It’s a difficult decision for the Lakers. On one hand, trading for Leonard immediately gives you the inside track for a long-term agreement in the summer. It also has positive cap space implications that could allow the Lakers to open up room for a third star before re-signing him.
On the other hand, the longer the negotiations drag on, the more leverage the Lakers gain and the lower Leonard will be valued. At this point, that seems like what the Lakers are hoping for.
So for now, there still won’t be a resolution to Leonard’s trade request. Both sides are vying for leverage through the media and who knows who will finally “win” the trade. Every report has some level of legitimacy to it as long as it’s coming from reputable reporters like Wojnarowski, Charania, and Wright. But it should always be noted who stands to benefit from their reports.