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Kawhi Leonard could be another ‘Dwightmare’ for the Lakers

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The Lakers have been down this road once before and they’d be wise not to tempt fate again.

San Antonio Spurs v Golden State Warriors - Game One Photo by Thearon W. Henderson/Getty Images

The NBA free agency moratorium is less than three months away and the Los Angeles Lakers’ plans to sign two max free agents hasn’t changed. However, the Lakers are also keeping an eye on Kawhi Leonard’s situation in San Antonio, according to a report by Sean Deveney of Sporting News.

An unnamed NBA executive told Deveney that the Lakers will likely “go in hard” for Leonard and that he believes there is mutual interest between the two sides to get a deal done sooner rather than later.

“I think they go in hard for Leonard once the season is over and once the dust settles in San Antonio,” the executive said. “[Leonard] wants to go to LA. There probably won’t be public demands on that, but he has leverage. He is going to be a free agent [in 2019]. He’s an LA guy and he can just let teams know he won’t re-sign next year with anyone but the Lakers.”

Leonard was in fact born and raised in sunny Los Angeles, CA, but he has spent the entirety of his six-year NBA career with the Spurs and told reporters in March that he plans on retiring in San Antonio.

The No. 11 pick in the 2011 NBA draft, Leonard has blossomed into a two-way superstar while playing under Spurs head coach Gregg Popovich. At just 26 years old, Leonard has already accumulated a laundry list of accolades including two All-Star selections, two All-NBA selections, four All-Defensive Team selections, two Defensive Player of the Year titles and a Finals MVP award in 2014.

Leonard was widely considered the favorite for league MVP coming into this season, but he only appeared in nine game for the Spurs this season and is doubtful to return before their postseason run is up due to a nagging quad injury he reaggravated in January. It is now mid-April, for those keeping track.

His lengthy and mysterious rehabilitation process, which has been handled by an independent team of doctors in New York, has left a “chilling impact” on Leonard’s relationship with the Spurs organization, according to ESPN’s Adrian Wojnarowksi, and it’s for that reason teams like the Lakers are preparing to make San Antonio an offer they can’t refuse.

But should the Lakers mortgage their future for what could end up being only a season of Kawhi Leonard? One would hope they’ve learned from their past mistakes.

Los Angeles Lakers v San Antonio Spurs - Game One

In August of 2012, the Lakers traded for Dwight Howard, a three-time Defensive Player of the Year and seven-time All-Star who, at the time, was in the prime of his career at just 27 years old. But there were several risks in trading for Howard, one being the fact that he had undergone season-ending hip surgery that same year and the other being his impending free agency.

Sound eerily familiar? It should.

The front office was banking on Howard coming back 100 percent and leading the Lakers to a deep playoff run alongside Steve Nash and Kobe Bryant, making it a tough situation for him to walk away from in the summer.

Unfortunately, Howard didn’t come back 100 percent, Nash was dealing with his own lingering back pain, Bryant tore his Achilles tendon just two games before the end of the regular season and the Lakers were swept by the Spurs in the first round of the 2013 NBA playoffs. As a result, Howard left a few months later.

The Lakers are in danger of walking down the same dangerous path with Leonard, except this time the stakes are much higher.

Charlotte Hornets v Los Angeles Lakers Photo by Sean M. Haffey/Getty Images

When the Lakers traded for Howard in 2013, they gave up Andrew Bynum, who as talented as he was had known issues with his knees and wasn’t regarded as the most motivated guy in the league. They also gave up a protected future first-round pick, which after years of NBA lottery day anxiety ended up being two second-round picks, the first of which was used to draft Ivan Rabb in 2017, who was traded for a future second-rounder just moments later.

Bynum and two second-round picks for a year rental of the best center in the NBA at the time? They could have done a lot worse.

This time around, however, the Lakers don’t have the luxury of giving up an All-Star as part of a four-team blockbuster trade. To get Leonard out of San Antonio, the Lakers will likely have to sacrifice the little they have.

Using the most recent blockbuster trades of Jimmy Butler, Paul George, and Kyrie Irving as reference, the formula to get a disgruntled superstar is:

  1. A star or a player with star potential (Isaiah Thomas, Victor Oladipo, Zach LaVine)
  2. An established role player or fringe starter (Jae Crowder, Domantas Sabonis, Kris Dunn)
  3. And a first-round pick.

Assuming Lonzo Ball is off the table, as he should be, that package could include some combination of Josh Hart, Brandon Ingram and Kyle Kuzma, as well as a first-round pick. Combined, Hart, Ingram and Kuzma will make roughly $16.5 million through 2020, half of what Leonard will command in 2019.

Then Ingram will hit restricted free agency in 2021, followed by Kuzma and Hart in 2022. If all three players live up to their hype, the Lakers could realistically keep that core together for the greater half of the next decade.

Whether or not they’ve shown superstar potential in their first few years, it’s hard to argue that at least one year of Leonard is worth sacrificing up to eight years with players that have already shown so much promise early in their careers.

Unless a scenario presents itself that would allow Los Angeles to have Leonard, Paul George and LeBron James on the same team next season, it would be in the Lakers’ best interest to avoid another potential “Dwightmare.”

The Lakers can reach out to the Spurs about Leonard as soon as San Antonio’s season is over, which could be as early as this weekend. While it’s unlikely talks will start heating up until near draft night, it’s going to be something worth keeping an eye on as the summer draws closer.