The juiciest off-court drama of the NBA’s 2017-18 campaign resides not in massive markets like Los Angeles or New York, but in the dust-worn locale of San Antonio, Texas, where Spurs superstar Kawhi Leonard continues to sit out despite the go-ahead from the team’s training staff and encouragement (and, some have reported, frustration) from his teammates.
But because the Spurs are their buttoned-up selves, we won’t know if the team is trying to trade their two-way stud until a deal actually surfaces.
Thankfully, Gregg Popovich can’t reach through our screens and prevent us from speculating as to which teams are best positioned to make a move for the 2014 NBA Finals MVP and two-time Defensive Player of the Year.
The Boston Celtics
The most obvious squad for two reasons: One, their war chest of assets, headlined by young wings in Jayson Tatum and Jaylen Brown, the much improved Terry Rozier, and up to five first-round picks over the next two NBA drafts; and two, their projected ability to be competitive enough to convince Kawhi to stay in Boston beyond the 2018-19 season, when he’ll be able to opt out of his current deal.
The Los Angeles Lakers
The Lakers don’t have the draft assets that the Celtics have, but they have intriguing young talent of their own in Lonzo Ball, Brandon Ingram, Kyle Kuzma, and Josh Hart, and as it stands they should be able to carve out salary space for two max contracts this summer, making finding a running mate for Kawhi relatively easy. Also in their favor — Kawhi is from Los Angeles, and it’s been suggested that the Spurs forward would like to be closer to home.
The Portland Trail Blazers
Of all the teams on this list, the Blazers likely have the best player the Spurs can hope to receive (depending on the availability and your opinion of Al Horford) in C.J. McCollum. He’s a dynamic scoring guard that leaves one wanting on the defensive end — and so is backcourtmate Damian Lillard. Swapping McCollum, along with a pick and/or promising young big man Zach Collins, for the defensive-minded Leonard would provide Lillard with a star that better complements his game.
The Philadelphia 76ers
The 76ers have taken an unexpected leap this year, and Leonard’s arrival could put them over the top. Even better, Philly could assemble an interesting package without losing much of this year’s production: They’ll have three first-round picks over the next two drafts, and 2017 No. 1 overall pick Markelle Fultz has hardly played this season. Plus, something tells me Pop, and his apparent affinity for foreign bigs, would love Dario Saric.
The Phoenix Suns
The team with the brightest name is also the darkest horse for the services of the Spurs forward. The risk of losing Leonard after a year is why he’s practically off-limits to most down-and-out teams, but Phoenix has one thing they don’t: a 21-year-old already putting up All-Star numbers in Devin Booker. They’ll also likely be armed with four first-rounders over the next two drafts, including the inside track on the No. 1 overall pick in 2018, in addition to young assets like Josh Jackson, Dragan Bender, and Marquese Chriss.