An N.B.A. off-season frenzy expected to revolve around LeBron James took its first wild twist on Friday with the revelation that the San Antonio Spurs’ star forward, Kawhi Leonard, wants to be traded.
Amid a growing belief around the league that the longtime Spurs Coach Gregg Popovich would soon meet face to face with Leonard to try to repair the team’s deteriorating relationship with its best player, multiple reports indicated Friday that Leonard no longer wished to stay with the franchise that acquired him on draft night in 2011.
The San Antonio Express-News first reported Leonard’s stance.
Publicly making a trade request is against N.B.A. rules, but the depths of Leonard’s dissatisfaction with the Spurs have not been voiced directly by the player or his representatives.
Leonard appeared in only nine games in the recently concluded season because of the lingering effects of a quadriceps injury he suffered during the 2017 Western Conference finals. The list of potential trade suitors is expected to be long, despite inevitable questions about Leonard’s long-term health, and feature numerous high-profile teams, including both the Los Angeles Lakers and the Los Angeles Clippers, Boston, Philadelphia and the Knicks.
With Leonard under contract next season at $20.1 million, San Antonio does not have to rush into any deals and can still try to mend fences with him and his camp.
But the Lakers and the 76ers, in particular, have a strong incentive to try to persuade the Spurs to engage in trade talks this month. Both are known to be at the front of the pack that plans to chase James in free agency this summer. Acquiring Leonard before the market opens on July 1, when James is expected to opt out of the final year of his contract with Cleveland, would be a huge potential recruiting boost when James starts fielding pitches from other teams — and the plea from his hometown Cavaliers to stay.
The Spurs are the only team that can offer Leonard a five-year “supermax” contract extension — worth an estimated $219 million — but Leonard’s leverage is his ability to forgo the final year on his current contract and become a free agent in July 2019.
If the Spurs can’t repair the relationship and don’t trade Leonard before the next trade deadline, in February 2019, they risk losing their most prized asset without getting anyone or anything in return.
The frosty state of the partnership was clear during San Antonio’s first-round playoff loss to Golden State, as Leonard, 26, continued his injury rehabilitation away from the team and attended none of the Spurs’ five postseason games. ESPN reported on Friday that Leonard felt “the franchise turned on him” during the season once he started receiving outside treatment for his quadriceps tendinopathy in New York.
Friday’s reports have thrust the Spurs into a position familiar to Indiana, which a year ago found itself with an All-star forward in Paul George who made it known that he would not sign a long-term contract with the Pacers.
Indiana ignored George’s well-chronicled desire to land with the Lakers and instead traded him to Oklahoma City for guard Victor Oladipo and forward Domantas Sabonis. The Pacers initially received heavy criticism for the deal — largely because they didn’t receive a draft pick from the Thunder — but have since earned widespread praise for trading George out of the Eastern Conference thanks to Oladipo’s rise to All-Star status.
Leonard, like George, is a Southern California native. He was the 15th overall pick in 2011 out of San Diego State by the Pacers, who selected him on San Antonio’s behalf as part of a trade that sent the veteran guard George Hill to Indiana.
Leonard was named most valuable player of the 2014 N.B.A. finals in his third season and finished third in regular-season M.V.P. balloting in 2016-17. He has also twice been named the league’s defensive player of the year.