The Lakers have their sights set on acquiring a superstar in free agency this summer to upgrade the team around LeBron James. Not that it really matters at this point, but using cap space this summer on a star might help validate the D’Angelo Russell/Timofey Mozgov trade of 2017.
There are several targets who would be appealing to pair next to James, but perhaps none more so than Kawhi Leonard, who has followed James’ example by leading a path of destruction through the Eastern Conference playoffs and facing off against the Golden State Warriors in the NBA Finals. The duo of Leonard and James would be absolutely unguardable on the wing and a formidable defensive tandem. Furthermore, Leonard is from Los Angeles and originally preferred a trade to L.A. when he asked out of San Antonio last summer.
Unfortunately for the Lakers, not only is there another team in Los Angeles making significant (and potentially illegal) overtures for Leonard, a new report from David Thorpe of TrueHoop suggests that Leonard is interested in staying in Toronto:
Of course, he’s about to be a free agent. And because of that, as the media you might expect to hear sunny things about Kawhi’s return from Raptors sources eager to tamp down the impression Kawhi is bound for the Clippers or another team. But even before the Finals began, we at TrueHoop heard from plugged-in sources associated with players and the league — but not the team — that Kawhi would return to Toronto, at least on a short-term deal.
It makes a lot of sense for Leonard to return to the Raptors for a number of reasons. First of all, he wanted to leave the Spurs because he lost trust in the medical staff; by all accounts, he (and Uncle Dennis) has a great relationship with the trainers in Toronto, led by Director of Sports Science Alex McKechnie, incidentally a former Laker.
Secondly, the Raptors are a great basketball situation. They are currently in the Finals, and other than Danny Green, the rest of their rotation around Leonard is set to return next season. As Thorpe pointed out, they have a strong developmental culture, of which Pascal Siakam is the shining star. Toronto’s President of Basketball Operations Masai Ujiri has put the Raptors in position to win now, and his track record suggests he isn’t done yet. Furthermore, because Toronto has Leonard’s Bird rights, they can offer him the most money — they’re the only team that can offer a five-year contract and 8% raises.
Finally, the mention of a ‘short-team deal’ is instructive here. As an eight-year veteran, Leonard can sign a contract worth up to a maximum of 30 percent of the cap. Once he hits ten years of experience, he’ll be able to sign a max contract for 35 percent of the salary cap. If he wants to maximize his earning potential, he’ll sign a 2-year deal, or more likely a 3-year deal with a player option after two seasons, and then sign a full max in the 2021 offseason.
Essentially, the Lakers have been operating from a position of weakness from the moment Leonard was traded to Toronto. These latest rumors indicate that the status quo has not changed, and if L.A. wants to get Leonard in a Lakers uniform next season, they’re fighting an uphill battle.
A previous version of this post said that Henry Abbott, not David Thorpe, wrote the TrueHoop story.