The Los Angeles Lakers have been doing everything they can work out a trade with the San Antonio Spurs for Kawhi Leonard after news broke Wednesday that LeBron James would be “hesitant” to sign with the Lakers as a free agent without Leonard on the roster.
Later Wednesday, Ramona Shelburne, Adrian Wojnarowski and Brian Windhorst of ESPN put that even more strongly, reporting that a Leonard trade would all but guarantee a team-up between the former two-time Defensive Player of the Year and arguably the greatest player in NBA history:
The stakes on these talks are enormous, because a deal for Leonard would likely clinch a free agent commitment out of LeBron James. James has until late Friday night to opt-out of the final year of his contract with the Cleveland Cavaliers, and is watching closely how the Lakers proceed with the Leonard talks.
James has never been more relatable to the average NBA fan than with the news that he is “watching closely” for trade rumors. Future hall of famers, they’re just like us!
On a serious note, this is the strongest sourced confirmation we’ve had that James’ decision is somewhat dependent on the Lakers getting another star in the building. Still, it’s not entirely clear that said star has to be Leonard, as the Lakers could theoretically team James with Oklahoma City Thunder free agent Paul George if they can convince both that the Lakers are the best situation for them.
Such a possibility is important, because it means the Lakers don’t necessarily have to send out their entire collection of promising young players for Leonard, something the Spurs are (understandably) trying to get Los Angeles to do. It sounds as if the two sides are somewhat at am impasse on that front, even if their talks were “productive.”
Again via ESPN.
The Lakers are using the Paul George and Kyrie Irving trades as proportional models for a Leonard deal, but San Antonio understands that this trade, for intents and purposes, would mean Leonard and James coming to the Lakers, and will likely command a massive package of young players and draft picks for Leonard, a two-time first-team All-NBA and two-time NBA Defensive Player of the Year.
It makes sense that the Lakers are trying to tell the Spurs that past precedent says they aren’t going to get much more than what the Indiana Pacers got for George (in what appeared to be a lopsided deal at the time) and what the Cleveland Cavaliers got for Irving (which I believe was just a trash bag full of used Chipotle tins from Danny Ainge’s office).
However, it also makes sense that the Spurs are saying that this situation is different, because, well, it is different. Not only are the Lakers getting one star in this transaction, they’re in all likelihood getting (at least) two and potentially creating the NBA’s next superteam. It’s understandable that the Spurs are going to try and use what little leverage they have to maximize the assets they can get for allowing that to happen.
And while the Lakers would appear to have more leverage due to Leonard making it clear to other destinations that he’d only be a one-year rental and that the Spurs clearly aren’t getting the offers they want, San Antonio still does have SOME leverage here because of the short timing window in which the Lakers have to make this superteam happen.
By July 6, it’s possible that restricted free agent Julius Randle has an offer sheet, which the Lakers will have to decide if they want to match, a much harder decision without knowing where they stand with Leonard, James and George. They might even have less time than that, as James reportedly wants to make his decision by July 4.
The Spurs can hold a Leonard trade hostage until then if they want, knowing full well that if the Lakers do sign James and George their path to getting Leonard in free agency becomes much more complicated and difficult, which could increase offers from the Lakers or other suitors around the league that are daring enough to call Leonard’s bluff about bolting for a cap-space-less Lakers team.
The above scenario could also backfire and leave the Spurs with nothing in exchange for Leonard, a risk they may ultimately be unwilling to take and something the Lakers will have to figure out if they’re really willing to gamble on.
This is the most precarious tightrope Magic Johnson and Rob Pelinka have had to walk as a front office, and it will be fascinating to watch the staring contest between the Lakers and Spurs over the next couple of days heading into free agency to see who blinks first. Whoever doesn’t flinch will ultimately be the one able to make the deal they want.
You can follow Harrison on Twitter at @hmfaigen.