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Why Ask Kawhi: the Sixers and other players in a potential Kawhi Leonard deal

Taking a look at who could outbid the Sixers in a Kawhi Leonard trade

NBA: San Antonio Spurs at Philadelphia 76ers Bill Streicher-USA TODAY Sports

Tyler’s recent piece on trading for Kawhi Leonard sparked a terrific discussion. I had some thoughts on the subject, and I wanted to keep the conversation going, so, let’s do it! I was unable to resist giving the article the punning title above, but a more fitting title would be something like “Whither Kawhi?”

One time I was hanging out in Atlantic City with my friend A. In our youth we played a lot of poker together and I held my own, but A had invested a lot of time in his 20s becoming a superb poker player, and I hadn’t. At a low-limit 7-card stud table in A.C., I was dealt some strong cards but lost in the showdown with another player. My friend pulled me away from the table and asked “why did you keep betting?” I explained that my three kings was a good hand, and he said “but it was obvious from the other guy’s betting pattern that he had a straight.” Suffice to say, it hadn’t been obvious to me! I had fallen prey to the classic error of novices in strategic games; I focused too much on my own situation and not enough on what everyone else was thinking.

The discussion among Sixer fans about Kawhi Leonard has a bit of that flavor. Almost everything I hear is either about Kawhi — is he really injured? Is it degenerative? Is he a malcontent? Will he re-sign? Or it’s about the Sixers — should we be willing to include Dario? Will Markelle turn it around? Did the Boston series prove Covington isn’t really that good? Etc.

But there are a lot of players at this poker table. There are the Spurs, of course. The Sixers. Kawhi himself — his behavior last season means the threats that he might make to sit out or not re-sign are highly credible, and it’s unlikely a team will trade for him if he doesn’t express enthusiasm for the destination. And there are the other 28 teams in the league, or at least the subset of teams that are able to make a decent offer for Leonard. Let’s list some teams and see if we can figure out what they could/should/might be willing to offer. This has the inherent advantage of enabling us to be a little more objective; if we are analyzing what’s a fair trade between the Spurs and, say, Houston, we won’t face the deep biases we all have about Sixer players. I’m going to assume in this analysis that Kawhi passes everybody’s medical exams but that there is still some residual health risk based on what happened last year. So, teams will be trading for “healthy Kawhi” but with some nervousness about the long term.

1) Philadelphia 76ers

My focus will be on other teams, but let me note one organizing principle when discussing possible Sixer deals. There are actually two reasons we could go after Kawhi. Reason one is that we don’t get LeBron, and reason two is that we do — or perhaps “so we do”! In fact, let’s do three scenarios.

a) LeBron isn’t coming. For simplicity let’s assume Paul George isn’t either, let’s suppose they’re going together to the Lakers. In that case, we want Kawhi, and we don’t need to match cap space; indeed San Antonio might favor a deal that gives them cap relief. Of the four core assets involved in most Kawhi ideas — Fultz, LA 2018, Cov and Dario — Cov makes over $10M, Fultz over $8M while Dario and the LA pick will make only modest sums, around $2M or something. How much San Antonio will want, and how much others will offer, are of course unknowns, though see below for thoughts on those questions. But in this scenario, our resonable choices will be to pay up for Kawhi, or to sign lesser players to one-year deals and try again in 2019 free agency. So we should be willing to pay a lot for a healthy KL, and that will probably mean including Dario, and draft picks as they benefit the Spurs while helping them clear cap. Whether we also need to give Cov, Fultz, or both, and whether we should be willing to, are the open questions here.

b) LeBron is definitely coming. In that case we can only do a Kawhi deal if we match cap, which means sending out around $20M of salary. That means you almost certainly need to put both Cov and Fultz into the deal — I say “almost” because some folks have suggested that if you throw enough TJ’s and Justin’s and Holmes’ in there you can make it work; this seems highly unlikely but may be possible in theory. Please note that including Bayless doesn’t really help; we need to clear Bayless just to make room for LBJ, then you still need $20M more off the books to get Kawhi under the cap and create our Superteam. So that means it’s Fultz and Cov, or Fultz and Cov and Dario, or Fultz and Cov and picks, or all four, and we can discuss which of those combinations would be preferable to the alternative, which is to conclude that Joel/Ben/LeBron are sufficient star power and so the best move is to hold on to our other assets so as to maintain our youth and depth.

c) There’s a scenario where LeBron credibly communicates that if we get Kawhi he will join us, but not otherwise. In that case almost any offer not involving Ben or Joel would be worth it, maybe literally any offer as we’re getting arguably the two best players in basketball in the deal! So that means that if necessary, and it probably would be necessary if SA knew what we had going, we’d give all four of the key assets plus whatever draft picks and TJ’s and Boldens and Furkans the Spurs had the roster space to take.

In other words, there are Kawhi-trade scenarios where our options are limited and it’s pretty obvious what to do, and others where it’s much more up in the air. So now let’s look at some other teams to see what it might take for our offer to compete.

2) Boston Celtics

Boston knows the Sixers are likely to take another big step forward next year and that consequently standing pat may not suffice. I expect them to try to add a superstar, and with LeBron not heading their for a tearful reunion with Kyrie and AD probably staying put after New Orleans’ late-season surge, Kawhi is a likely option. The C’s have a ton to trade: in addition to established stars Irving, Hayward and Horford and budding stars Tatum and Brown, they have young-and-good players like Smart (RFA) and Rozier, plus first rounders from Memphis and the Clippers and Sacramento, plus all their own picks. If they want Kawhi, they have the ammo to go get him.

San Antonio is going to want Tatum, but I’m pretty sure Boston won’t bite on that, Tatum looks like he’s on a Hall of Fame career path, why would Boston let that happen elsewhere when they have strong non-Tatum packages to offer? The deal I fear, as a Sixer fan, is:

Boston gives Kyrie Irving and picks for Kawhi

I fear it because, as I have written many times elsewhere, and will write more in future articles, I just cannot find evidence to suggest that Kyrie Irving is nearly as good as his reputation. Before the playoffs I wrote that based on the on-off numbers Terry Rozier was not all that much worse than Irving, and I think the playoffs so far support that conclusion. One possibility is that Kyrie is a top-10 player in the league as many think, while Rozier is a bit behind, perhaps the 30th-best player in the NBA. My own view is that Kyrie is more like #30 while Rozier is a solid starter. If I’m right, then Kyrie’s return to health will help the Celtics next year, but not enormously. But adding (a healthy) Kawhi Leonard... well, that would help any team enormously, he is one of the absolute best players in the world. I personally believe a healthy Kawhi is worth around 3 times as much as a healthy Kyrie.

Now, obviously if the trade occurs it means that Pop and Buford disagree with me, and those guys know a lot more than I do about hoops, so if that happens I’ll have to reconsider my view in light of that new evidence. But if the C’s can pull that off, man, that’ll be a hell of a team — a Big Six of Rozier-Brown-Tatum-Hayward-Leonard-Horford coached by the extraordinary Brad Stevens.

So, if I were the Celtics’ that’s what I’d offer. More likely either the C’s love Kyrie or the Spurs don’t and so the deal would be centered on Jaylen Brown. Since Brown doesn’t earn a ton it would probably make sense to fill the salary gap by including a Marcus Smart sign-and-trade; something like:

Boston gives Brown and Smart and the Sacramento pick for Kawhi

If you think Boston wouldn’t offer that much conditional on KL being healthy, say why not. If you think they would, then ask what the Sixers would have to offer to beat that deal. The Lakers’ pick this year is similar in value to the SAC pick; my expectation is that the SAC pick will be #10 in next year’s draft, which is supposed to be weaker than this year’s. But randomness favors the SAC pick, there’s a chance it’s #3 and a chance it’s #15, and that’s a big plus because the gap from 3 to 10 is a lot bigger than the gap from 10 to 15. I am a Fultz Believer, but I can’t deny that right now Jaylen brown has more trade value than Markelle, arguably a lot more. I think either Cov or Dario is more valuable than Smart, though of course Boston fans may disagree.

So what I’d say is, if you think LA 2018 + Fultz + one of Cov/Dario will get it done, I’d say you may be right but you may not — even if you think that Sixers’ package beats the Boston package, remember they can, without disrupting their core, throw in the Memphis pick or Rozier, which are serious sweeteners. But, still, maybe. However, if you think we can offer a lot less than that and get a deal, I have to say that it seems like Danny can trump any lesser offer of ours pretty easily. Of the four logical assets Philly can offer — Cov-Dario-LA pick-Fultz — I think we’re going to have to give at least three if we want to close a deal.

3) Houston Rockets.

I haven’t heard any Kawhi-to-Houston rumors, and maybe the rivalry there is too strong for a deal to occur. But Morey is a genius so we should never count him out — if they don’t get past the Warriors he will be looking to upgrade, and he’s not going to fail to notice that Leonard is out there. Houston doesn’t have an ideal set of assets for such a deal, as they don’t hold any draft picks likely to be high and most of their best players are prime age or older. But they do have Eric Gordon, who is a fine player in his prime, and an exciting RFA in Clint Capela.

Offer I could see Houston making: Gordon and two first-round picks plus cap filler for Leonard

Offer I could see Spurs considering: Capela (sign and trade) and Gordon for Leonard and cap filler

Likelihood: Low. The asset fit doesn’t seem great, SA would probably rather trade with a non-Texas team, and the Kawhi injury risk isn’t ideal for a team that had the best record in basketball this year; i.e. if Kawhi is great for 5 years but starting 2 years from now when he’s finally 100%, that would be OK for, say, the Sixers, but not so wonderful for Houston, as CP3 may be retired by then.

4) Los Angeles Lakers

With each day that goes by it seems more and more likely to me that the Lakers are going to get Kawhi Leonard. As many Philly fans have noted, LeBron to LA really doesn’t make basketball sense. It could still happen, as LeBron would get to bring his family to a lovely, warm place, run his Hollywood businesses conveniently, play for a vaunted franchise, etc. etc.

But from a hoops perspective, you have a team that, after adding James and George, still looks pretty far shy of having enough talent to win the West. In 3-5 years perhaps Ingram and Ball will have developed to the point where they add enough to LBJ & PG to win a title, except by then James will be in his late 30s and perhaps no longer on the team. If James’ top priority is winning titles, it’s not a great fit.

Now, there is a scenario where the Lakers pull the trifecta and trade for Kawhi while adding James and George. That team would truly be formidable! But if it’s a choice between Kawhi and LeBron, Kawhi makes a lot more sense: he’s a Southern California native who supposedly wants to be more of a famous star. For all that, going to the Lakers is ideal, and since as noted above, he has considerable power to choose his destination, those factors may be determinative in the end. He’s just entering his prime and is similar in age to George, so having those two stars together with young and promising players like Ingram, Ball, etc. makes them a title threat perhaps not immediately but over a period that extends out for 5-8 years.

My own take on LA’s young players is not identical to the conventional wisdom. I think Ingram is a fine young player who has a real chance to be excellent. About Ball I’d say much the same; he has a lower floor than Ingram but a ceiling that is as high or higher. Obviously Ball has shooting issues, something we’re familiar with around here, but his passing, rebounding and defense are all shockingly good for such a young player. I don’t think that much of Kuzma; however, if he plays great next year I’ll have to change my mind, as you can’t always tell from a rookie season. But right now I see him as a player who is neither good nor all that young (he turns 23 in a few weeks; i.e. he’s almost exactly three years older than Markelle Fultz). I like Josh Hart but he’s even older than Kuzma, and my guess is he’ll be a solid player but not a star. RFA Julius Randle started to play rather well in his fourth year and has potential to be a valuable asset if he doesn’t get paid too massively this offseason.

As we all know, LA doesn’t have a pick this year but they do have a future Cleveland first-rounder, which could be quite valuable after James leaves Ohio.

Deal I think LA would offer: Ball, Kuzma and the Cleveland pick

Deal I think San Antonio might consider: Ingram, Hart and the Cleveland pick

LA still has overpaid guys around who could serve as cap filler in the deal, I’m too lazy to look up their details!

5) Others

Of course every team could use Kawhi Leonard. Cleveland could offer the underrated Kevin Love and Kyle Korver as part of a “blow it up” strategy; Kawhi wouldn’t go to Cleveland so they’d need to get a third team involved. This would be on a theory where Pop wanted to get guys he could win with in the short run, e.g. if he was planning to retire in a couple years and doesn’t want to rebuild. Sacramento could offer the #2 pick for Kawhi and hope that a superstar like Leonard would be enough to pull their young core (Fox, WCS, Hield, etc.) to respectability. The Knicks could offer Porzingis along with the bloated contract of Noah and perhaps their top-10 pick this year. None of these seem especially likely to me, but please share in comments your ideas for other teams that could come with something compelling.

The main point is: we probably shouldn’t kid ourselves that we have much of a shot to get Kawhi cheap; even if Boston doesn’t choose to outbid us, once we start talking about a modest-cost deal, there are lots of teams that could jump in. I admit that Jimmy Butler went for a modest package so anything is possible. But just because the Chicago brain trust did something, that doesn’t mean the wise stewards of San Antonio will.

In the end, it seems to me that our old rivals Boston and LA will bring strong packages to the table. My suspicion is that it will only make sense for us to offer more than them in my scenario c) above, the one where LeBron says he’ll bring his talents to South Philly if and only if we acquire Kawhi, in which case we will go over the top to beat any offer. Failing that, I’d guess Boston will make the best offer if Kawhi is indifferent as to location, but that KL will make it clear that only the Lakers will get his very best, and that consequently that’s the deal that will be made, if a deal is to occur.

Of course maybe I just think that because I want to think that; after all, if this is true it boxes Boston out and also likely ups our chance at LeBron considerably. But anyway, there it is, my back to the future 1980s scenario: as the Warriors and Rockets age out, Boston, Philly and LA to dominate the league once more, LA led by Kawhi, PG and Lonzo, Boston by a deep group of terrific players, and Philly with LeBron, Ben, Joel alongside a stalwart supporting cast of Cov, Dario and, hopefully, a resurgent Markelle Fultz. Should be fun!

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