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Sixers should trade for Kawhi Leonard now

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If Kawhi Leonard can be had for a reasonable price, it is worth taking the risk.

NBA: Philadelphia 76ers at San Antonio Spurs Soobum Im-USA TODAY Sports

First, let me say this: I expect the Sixers to make a very serious attempt to trade for Kawhi Leonard over the next few days. I have no inside sources; I’m just reading the same stuff we all are. And, looking at those rumors and tweets and such, I did not get the sense that Brett Brown and his team saw Kawhi as merely a lure to bring in LeBron James. I think the team believes they can compete for a title if they have Kawhi, and that without a player at his level that’s unlikely. Again, your guess is as good as mine here, but my guess is that the team will make a big Kawhi push.

Now, is that crazy? There’s an argument that it is. San Antonio asked for a lot for Kawhi, if the rumors are to be believed. Reading between the lines of those reports (and taking them at face value, which may not be justified, but just for the sake of discussion), the deal SA wants is:

  • To Philly: Kawhi
  • To Spurs: Robert Covington, Dario Saric, Miami 2021 #1, Philly 2019 #1, Philly 2021 #1 (perhaps with some protections on the Philly picks)

If you read those rumors differently, substitute your own view here; I thought this was pretty clearly the deal they were implying.

Now, since those reports, San Antonio lost a lot of leverage. First, LeBron went to LA, meaning that Leonard is less valuable to both Philly and LA because he no longer offers the add-on benefit of helping bring James in. Moreover we had a report that KL wants to be a Laker. As a quick aside, can you imagine this sort of thing happening in football? Imagine Aaron Rodgers announcing tomorrow that he wants to be a Cowboy or something? Hard to conceive that the Green Bay offensive line would give 110% after such a statement! Oh, and there’s a rumor Kawhi may threaten to sit out the season if he isn’t traded.

So, first, the trade above was a deal SA asked for, that Philly has so far turned down. And, second, the Spurs suggested that when their bargaining position was a lot stronger. So, what’s the new deal? A lot depends on whether other teams, like Boston, get involved. But I’ll throw out the following bid-ask spread — that is, what Philly will offer and the greater package SA will request.

  • Philly offers: Dario + Miami ‘21 + Philly ‘19, lottery protected
  • Spurs request: Dario + Cov + Miami ‘21 + Philly ‘19, top 5 protected

These offers are not as far apart as they appear. Let’s ignore the pick protection issue because, first, they are totally invented by me, and, second, it’s not that crucial since we’re not likely to finish below .500 next year. So the difference in the deal is Cov. Now, I am a gigantic Robert Covington fan. I think he’s hugely underpaid on his current deal. But, he is paid! That is, if SA doesn’t get him in the deal, they get extra cap space instead. So, just for fun, let’s assume they cave and take our version of the deal — that is, the deal I made up and suggested the Sixers might want to do. Then in addition to getting Dario, a highly-valuable draft pick and a moderately-valuable draft pick, the Spurs clear around $19M in cap space, in an offseason where few teams have money left to spend. I’m not sure exactly what their needs are or how they’d choose to spend the money, but given Pop’s ability to coach guys up I’d guess they can get a lot of value out of it. $19M of cap space is, these days, probably worth a late lottery pick. So the Spurs would be getting, effectively, Dario and three solid picks for a malcontent who’s about to leave — not bad! It goes without saying that perhaps we can get kawhi for even less, and if so that would be great. Just as, in theory, we might have to pay more. In any event, I want to make the case that if we could get that deal, we should do it.

It might seem obvious that we should do such a deal — Kawhi was arguably the second-best player in the league in his last healthy season, and opportunities to get a player like that come along approximately never. And yet based on the comment threads yesterday, I’d say the sentiment among hardcore fans is massively against giving any kind of decent package for Leonard. Why not? As I see it there are four basic arguments against such a trade: injury risk, worry he won’t try/will be a head case, worry he won’t resign, and belief that we won’t be competitive even with Kawhi. I’ll address all four but most of my energy will go into the last point.

  1. Injury. Clearly there’s some risk here, over and above the risk that exists with every player. But remember a year ago, when everyone acted as though it would be a miracle if Joel Embiid played two thirds of Sixers’ games? When some people saw Ben Simmons as a serious injury risk? Guys get hurt, and guys recover. Sometimes they get hurt again, but who will be healthy and who won’t is much harder to predict than people think. Between Brett Brown, Monty Williams, and our team doctor who has treated Kawhi, we are as well-positioned as a team can be to make an intelligent judgment on this issue. And it’s obvious they think it’s OK, or they wouldn’t have pursued Kawhi so vigorously to this point. If we do a deal and he fails the physical, fine, cancel it. But if the team pushes a deal through, that suggests to me that the injury risk is manageable.
  2. Mentality. Again, Brett and Monty know this situation, know the player. Obviously something went badly wrong in SA, and that is a serious red flag. But honestly I’d be shocked if he gets traded to Philly and then, after spending time with Joel, Ben and the team, decides he doesn’t want to give 100% to win with them. Call me a cockeyed optimist if you must, but that just goes against everything I know about human nature, especially the nature of the kind of hypercompetitive person who goes from mid-first-round pick to superelite player.
  3. Retention. Obviously if we knew for 100% sure that Kawhi was leaving in a year, it wouldn’t be worth it. But I don’t think that’s at all the case. Remember this: a player only has to want to stay on one day in order to sign an extension. I think if he plays with the Sixers, there’s a very good chance that sometime this year, or at the end of the year, he’s going to want to do that. As with the other points, it can’t be denied that it’s a risk factor; we absolutely could trade for him and then lose him to LA a year from now. But I think it’s more like 60% likely we keep him, not 0-10% as many fans seem to think.
  4. How good would the Sixers be with Kawhi?

Look, we’re all recovering from LeBron Fever. The idea of a world-shattering starting lineup of:

C: Embiid

PF: James

SF: Leonard

SG: Fultz

PG: Simmons

was thrilling. But just because we aren’t going to have perhaps the greatest lineup in NBA history doesn’t mean we can’t be awesome. Remember that with the trade I listed above, the Sixers would take on $19M of cap space. We currently have around $25M, and can create another $6M or so by stretching Bayless. That gives $12M. That should be enough to sign Tyreke Evans, especially since if we believe we will be keeping Kawhi, we won’t be saving cap space for the 2019 offseason, which means we can offer Reke a three-year deal; say two years plus a team option; with the base salary at — well, hopefully at $8M/year but if it has to be 10 or 12 million, we can do it. Then let’s give the $4.5M room exception to Kyle O’Quinn, as seems to already be the plan. Finally I urgently want to sign Luc Richard Mbah a Moute. He settled for the veteran minimum last year, and given how rapidly teams are running out of cap space and the fact that he knows Brett from his earlier time here and has a close relationship with Joel Embiid, I’m hoping we can get him to take the minimum again. Of course, if Tyreke comes cheaper than $12M we might have more room for Luc to get paid better. Sorry, JJ fans, this plan doesn’t have space to squeeze him in, though we can think of variants that might. But fundamentally I massively prefer Tyreke. The playoffs showed we need wings who can defend, especially switch defense. Tyreke is 6’6” and can guard 1-3; both his on-off and traditional defensive stats are strong. None of those things can be accurately said of JJ. Tyreke is a fine passer, a point guard in a pinch, JJ not so much. Reke can create for himself, which was sorely lacking from our wings last year; that’s not the case for JJ. Of course JJ is an all-time great distance shooter, while Tyreke is “merely” very good from 3. Still, people are a little confused about Reke’s shooting; I repeatedly see people say they fear betting on his having one fluky season shooting well. His three-point percentages for the past three years are 40%, 36%, 39%, on strong per-minute volume which is damn good and plenty consistent. He’s on another level as a player from JJ. Of course he’s an injury risk — missed big chunks of the two seasons before last — but at age 34 it’s silly to pretend JJ is a sure bet, either to be healthy or to play as well as he did in the past. Let’s get Tyreke, and if JJ fits too, even better.

So that gives a lineup of:

C: Joel

PF: Covington

SF: Kawhi,

SG: Tyreke

PG: Ben

Key bakups: O’Quinn, Luc, Fultz, Zhaire, TJ, Shamet, Milton, Furkan, Bolden

That is a ridiculously good starting lineup, probably the second-best in basketball after the Warriors. You have a top-two center (with AD), a top-3 SF (with LeBron and KD), a top-10 PG (so many awesome PGs in the league I can’t call Ben top-5 yet but he might be next year). Covington is, I would argue, top 5 at PF which is his best position and which is not a strong position league-wide, especially if AD is a center. Tyreke was a top-5 SG last year, I can’t promise he’ll be that good again but I’ll be shocked if a healthy Tyreke isn’t top 10. It’s a dominating lineup.

What about the bench? Well, I cooked it by putting in some of my favorite players, but, still... it’s terrific. We have O’Quinn backing up center; with an RPM last year around +2 he was well above average compared to starters, and is vastly overqualified to be a backup. Basically the same is true of Luc; he was at least average-starter quality last year, as a terrific defender who also shoots the three effectively. We have the stalwart TJ to back up Ben, unless of course Markelle breaks out and steals his playing time. Our backup wings are young and inexperienced but extremely talented, with Markelle, Zhaire and perhaps Furkan the most exciting and Shamet, Milton, and perhaps one of Anderson or TLC trying to break through as well. It may seem at first like that group is too risky, but that really isn’t so. Suppose a bad case scenario: Markelle is just OK and the rest are not ready for playoff minutes. That would be a bummer, but our playoff rotation would nevertheless be rock-solid. The key is that Covington is as much a 3 as he is a 4, so we are not thin at SF but, rather, deep.

C: Joel 36, O’Quinn 12

PF: Cov 24, Luc 24

SF: Kawhi 36, Cov 12

SG: Tyreke 30, Markelle 18

PG: Ben 36, TJ (or Markelle) 12

Indeed, if literally NONE of the backup wings play well, you can play Luc some extra minutes, give Cov more SF time and have Kawhi spend some time at SG.

I’m a big Sixers homer, so show me if this is just a manifestation of that. But as far as I can tell this team is by a decent margin the best in the East, and competitive with the best of the West as well. Maybe Brad Stevens will outcoach our Brett and cost us the ECF; maybe every Boston contested three will fall and we’ll lose that way; anything is possible. But it looks to me as though the Sixers have better starters and a better bench, in this scenario, than what Boston currently brings.

So, that’s my case. I agree that if we have to pay a lot more than this we need to walk away. I agree that even with this team firing on all cylinders we are guaranteed nothing, and I agree that Kawhi Leonard has given us plenty of reason to worry we won’t fire on all cylinders with him here. But I think if you have a shot to put a team like the one above on the floor, you need to take that shot. Let’s trade for Kawhi, assuming SA is reasonable, and sign Tyreke and O’Quinn and Luc.