Lakers stick to trusted process in Kawhi Leonard trade negotiations

NBA: Los Angeles Lakers at San Antonio Spurs
Apr 5, 2017; San Antonio, TX, USA; San Antonio Spurs small forward Kawhi Leonard (2) steals the ball from Los Angeles Lakers small forward Corey Brewer (3) during the first half at AT&T Center. Mandatory Credit: Soobum Im-USA TODAY Sports

Last summer, the Los Angeles Lakers were given a choice. They could trade for Paul George, a proven All-Star who wanted to live in his hometown, and finally contend for the playoffs after four long years of testing the lottery gods or they could stand firm and bet on George coming to LA anyway as a free agent.

In the end, the Lakers did not match the Pacers’ price tag, George was traded to Oklahoma City, and he re-signed with the Thunder without even taking a meeting with the team he was once reportedly hell-bent to play for.

The Lakers bet on themselves, their brand, and George’s reported intentions and they lost.

Fast forward to 2018 and the Lakers faced the same predicament. George had escaped their long-awaiting grasps but LeBron James had joined and the team looked to build a contender around the biggest star in the game. Kawhi Leonard had requested a trade from the Spurs after avoiding them for much of last season. He wanted to be in Los Angeles and preferred the Lakers.

They could trade for Kawhi Leonard, a proven All-Star who wanted to live in his hometown, and finally contend for the playoffs after five long years of testing the lottery gods or they could stand firm and bet on Leonard coming to LA anyway as a free agent.

The Lakers bet on themselves, their brand, and Leonard’s reported intentions. No one knows if they will win or lose.

It’s easy to point at the similarities in the George and Leonard dilemmas and say the Lakers made a mistake not trading for the former defensive player of the year before the Toronto Raptors acquired him. If George changed his mind after one season in OKC, who is to say Leonard will not do the same?

That’s true. The Lakers took a risk. Leonard could love playing in one of the largest markets in North America in an easier conference where he would be the best player and compete for the right to play in the Finals year after year.

But the Lakers still made the right decision. The results may not pay off but the process is correct.

Everything that has been reported shows the Spurs unwillingness to trade Leonard within the Western Conference and in particular to the Lakers. It has also been noted that they wanted to continue competing in what may be Gregg Popovich’s last two years at the help.

The Lakers didn’t have a DeMar DeRozan, an All-Star player who has been a crucial part of one of the best teams in the NBA over the past few seasons, to trade. The Spurs were only going to send Leonard to Los Angeles if they got a treasure chest of assets.

ESPN’s Ramona Shelburne reported recently that the Spurs wanted three young players and three first-round picks in a trade. Larry Coon reported a similar requested package on Spectrum SportsNet. And while those reports may be coming from the Lakers side (“Look, we tried to get Kawhi but they were just asking for too much”), they seem to match up fairly well with ones regarding other teams.

Shelburne and ESPN’s Zach Lowe reported that the Spurs asked the 76ers for Ben Simmons. TJ McBride of Mile High Sports reported that at one point they asked the Nuggets for Jamal Murray, Gary Harris and multiple first round picks.

The Spurs were only going to be willing to trade Leonard in conference and not get an All-Star back if they were to get a huge haul of high-value assets.

Even then, some may argue that the Lakers should have pulled the trigger. Who would you rather have: a collection of players whose best outcome is probably not as good as peak Kawhi Leonard or… well… Kawhi Leonard? You don’t win in this NBA without multiple stars and Leonard is a top five player when healthy.

NBA: Cleveland Cavaliers at San Antonio Spurs
Jan 14, 2016; San Antonio, TX, USA; Cleveland Cavaliers small forward LeBron James (23) is defended by San Antonio Spurs small forward Kawhi Leonard (2) during the second half at AT&T Center. Mandatory Credit: Soobum Im-USA TODAY Sports

But surrendering all your assets (and your depth) now means surrendering it for the future. James and Leonard together take up so much of your salary that you would be hard-pressed to get them more help. Does a team of James, Leonard and low-level veterans like the ones the Lakers signed this season beat the Warriors? Do they come close?

The crux of the matter is that the Lakers sacrificed an immediate star addition in exchange for flexibility and the chance at acquiring one in the future. The youth on the roster represents two things right now: depth at a low cost and high-valued assets that can net bigger returns in trades. What the Spurs asked for in one trade could be used to bring in at least two high-impact players should salary-matching work.

No one in the NBA builds teams solely through free agency anymore. While it is a major tool and can lead to massive jumps for teams when successful, it is not a sustainable method to building a contender.

In reality, it’s about drafting players, developing them, and either lucking out in landing a star at a more reasonable cost or using them in trades to net returns better suited for your team. Before landing Kevin Durant, the Warriors drafted and kept Stephen Curry, Klay Thompson, and Draymond Green, after all.

It may not work out for the Lakers that way. Their young players may not develop much further. Leonard may sign elsewhere. They could punt a year of LeBron James’ career while remaining patient about building a contender around him. It is a risk.

But it is a risk worth taking. The Lakers’ inaction should not be mistaken for lack of desire or tightening of the purse strings. It’s clear that they value their young players (namely Brandon Ingram) more than other teams do. But it’s also clear that they have a plan in mind – a plan that offers more flexibility and multiple paths to success.

Whether that success is ultimately reached is beyond our predictions 11 months in advance. The process is right, however, and that tends to yield results.

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