NBA free agent rumors fever has fully taken hold, and we’re still a few days away from things officially starting on July 1. Already we have reports that LeBron James is “watching closely” to see if the Los Angeles Lakers can deal for Kawhi Leonard, and while it’s not certain that such a deal would guarantee he’s signing in L.A., that isn’t stopping the Philadelphia 76ers from entering the Leonard sweepstakes as potentially the biggest threat to the Lakers’ desired target.
Marc Stein of the New York Times reports that the Lakers and Sixers are both trying to get a to get a deal done for Leonard, and soon:
The Los Angeles Lakers and the Philadelphia 76ers have been pressing the Spurs to trade Leonard this week, as both teams believe that acquiring Leonard would put them in pole position to try to sign LeBron James away from the Cleveland Cavaliers when free agency starts Sunday at 12:01 a.m., Eastern time.
It’s understandable that the Sixers and Lakers both believe that such a deal would give them the upper hand in their efforts to sign James, especially if James really is “hesitant” to be the first star the Lakers land.
However, things might not be that simple:
Sources close to LeBron: He didn't text KD and his going to the Lakers would not be sealed (or doomed) by whether or not they trade for Kawhi. ... Man, we'll all be better when this is over, one way or the other— Joe Vardon (@joevardon) June 28, 2018
So while this might be a bit more complicated than just “Trade for Kawhi, get LeBron,” but arguably the bigger nugget in Stein’s piece was that the Sixers are firmly entering negotiations for Leonard.
Jake Fisher of Sports Illustrated had reported earlier on Wednesday that the Sixers hadn’t officially made an offer for Leonard, but that the team “has held serious internal discussions about acquiring Leonard over the last 48 hours” and that the Sixers “front office has presented team ownership with several trade scenarios for discussion.”
Fisher also reported what a potential package from Philadelphia might look like:
One team source says preliminary discussions with San Antonio revealed the Spurs have strong interest in a package involving burgeoning forwards Dario Saric and Robert Covington as well as a future first-round pick. A potential, more serious offer that Philadelphia is weighing internally includes Saric and Covington and the 2021 Miami Heat unprotected first-round pick the Sixers obtained in their draft-night deal with the Phoenix Suns.
Saric, Covington and future first (whether it’s from the Sixers or Heat) would seem to at the very least approach the level of value of the type of deal the Lakers are offering for Leonard, a deal which reportedly might be centered around Brandon Ingram and a first-round pick.
And all the Sixers realistically have to do is approach the value of the Lakers’ offer, not necessarily beat it, because the Spurs have made no secret that they have very little desire to give Leonard what he wants and send him to Los Angeles, or potentially create a superteam in their own conference. If both of those things remain true, they might be more inclined to even take a slightly weaker offer from Philadelphia just to fulfill those two goals.
As for the fear that Leonard will bolt in a year anyway, Fisher’s must-read report also addressed that, and seemed to make it clear that Leonard’s desire for a larger market is based around the lack of value of his shoe endorsement deal, and that he’d thus be open to heading to a few other larger markets outside of just Los Angeles:
While Leonard’s camp has made it clear the former Defensive Player of the Year prefers Los Angeles and the Lakers, a source close to the situation says the Southern California native is open to playing in other major markets. Leonard’s suboptimal contract extension discussions with Jordan Brand in March signaled the importance of playing in a larger market, and the Spurs star would be open to playing in Boston and New York, the source said. Philadelphia could pose an opportunity for Leonard to play for a contending organization in a major media market, and while he was closest with Spurs assistant coach Chip Engelland, sources say, it is believed Leonard and Brown maintain a good relationship from their time together in San Antonio.
All of this is big, and it means that Leonard might not just be a rental for all teams outside of the Lakers, and that Philadelphia could in theory have a chance to keep him for the long haul. This still might be a tough decision to make for a Sixers franchise working without a general manager currently, but Philadelphia still appears to loom as very much the largest threat to the Lakers’ desires to deal for Leonard.
You can follow Harrison on Twitter at @hmfaigen.