Schmeelk: Kawhi Leonard To The Knicks? Don't Hold Your Breath

Leonard Reportedly On The Trade Block

John Schmeelk
June 15, 2018 - 4:09 pm

In what seemed like an inevitable report on Friday afternoon, nearly every NBA writer on the planet tweeted out that Kawhi Leonard wants out of San Antonio, and will soon ask for a trade. 

A few things to consider:

  1. Kawhi Leonard is still under contract for this upcoming season at 20 million dollars with a 15% trade kicker.
  2. With only one year left on his contract, Leonard will likely have to agree to a max 5-year, $219 million contract with whatever team acquires him for that team to send the assets the Spurs would require in any trade.
  3. This gives Leonard a defacto no-trade clause, since he can decide what teams he would be willing to sign a contract extension with.

Ian Begley of ESPN New York has reported that “people close to Leonard have expressed a desire for Leonard to play in New York,” per his sources. For this exercise let’s assume Leonard would be willing to sign an extension with the Knicks, and that the medicals regarding his season-long leg injury check out and he has a clean bill of health.

Kawhi Leonard might very well be the best two-way player in the NBA. He won the Defensive Player of the Year award back-to-back years in 2014-2015 and 2015-2016. He exploded offensively in in 2016-2017 when he averaged 25.5 points per game on 48.5% shooting from the field and 38% from behind the arc. He also grabbed 5.8 rebounds, dished 3.5 assists, and had 1.8 steals and .7 blocks per game. He’s a monster and will only turn 27 years old on December 26. Any team acquiring him will have him for the totality of the prime of his career.

Leonard is the best player, by far, the Knicks could ever hope to acquire in a trade or in free agency. He is a better player than Carmelo Anthony was when they acquired him. He is a more complete player than Kyrie Irving. That’s how good he is. There is no debate about that.

Before we examine the potential packages the Knicks would have to offer to outbid other potential suitors like the Celtics, Lakers and Clippers (as reported by Adrian Wojnarowski), they need to consider what type of window they are actually operating in with the potential of winning a title.

MORE: Reports: Kawhi Leonard Wants Spurs To Trade Him; Knicks A Possibility

Forgetting the Warriors and Rockets for a moment, the trade would first have to put them on the same competitive level as the Boston Celtics and the Philadelphia 76ers moving forward for the trade to make sense. Ideally, there would have to be a path for the Knicks to have a realistic chance of becoming the best team in basketball at some point over the course of Leonard’s contract. If that doesn’t seem possible, then a trade doesn’t make sense. Making a trade to become a perpetual 3-5 seed and winning one round of the playoffs shouldn’t be the goal. The goal is to build a championship contender.

There are two angles the Knicks could attack in putting a trade together. The first is to include Kristaps Porzingis. In this trade, the Knicks would offer their 22-year-old franchise player, but they wouldn’t include any other high potential future assets in order to retain a chance of putting a good team around Leonard. It’s also important to note that in any trade the Knicks would have to match Leonard’s current $20 million contract.

The Knicks would send: Kristaps Porzingis, Tim Hardaway Jr. and Damyean Dotson

The Spurs would send: Kawhi Leonard

The Spurs replace Leonard with another franchise player in Porzingis. They get Hardaway and Dotson to make up for the fact Porzingis is recovering from injury. Even though Porzingis is hurt, no other team has a player of his upside to offer the Spurs for Leonard. (aside from maybe Jayson Tatum)

The Knicks path forward would be Leonard, Frank Ntilikina, whomever they draft at number 9, and then whomever they can add in free agency next summer. Ideally, they could add Kyrie Irving and make those four players their core, along with whatever draft picks they add along the way.

This would be a supremely high risk move given the small window the Knicks are operating in. Both Irving and Leonard have injury histories and the franchise’s chance of success would be completely on their shoulders. There’s also no guarantee this team would be better than the Celtics or even the Sixers moving forward, let alone the Warriors.

The second option would be to try to keep Porzingis and add Leonard by trading away the future and the Spurs would embark upon a complete rebuild by getting future assets and shorter contracts they could more easily move down the road to create more cap space.

The Knicks would send Frank Ntilikina, the #9 pick this year, Damyean Dotson, Courtney Lee, Lance Thomas, and unprotected first-round picks in 2020 and 2022. It seems like a lot but the Knicks are getting Kawhi Leonard and not trading anyone we even know is a good young starter in the league.

The Spurs would send Kawhi Leonard.

This would put the Knicks in position to try and win right away with Leonard, an eventually healthy Kristaps Porzingis, Tim Hardaway Jr. and whomever the team might be able to add in free agency. There would not be enough money in this scenario to be able to sign Kyrie Irving to max contract. He would have to take less to come to the Knicks, even if they stretched Joakim Noah. It leaves the Knicks with a dilapidated roster with little ability to add the type of players necessary next to Porzingis and Leonard to win. This could be the Carmelo Anthony trade all over again.

Those are the two best offers the Knicks could make, and frankly, neither are homeruns for the franchise. The first one gives them a better chance at long term success. Both present great risks and put the Knicks in very narrow predicaments to put together a real winner. There’s no guarantee building slowly through the draft and wisely using their cap space is a better path, but it certainly leaves more options available to them.

These trades also probably aren’t better offers than the Celtics can make with young stars like Jayson Tatum and Jaylen Brown. They also have veterans like Al Horford, Gordon Hayward, Marcus Smart and Kyrie Irving to potentially offer in a trade. The Celtics also own four first-round picks next year: their own, the Sacramento pick (only protected for the top spot), the Clippers pick and the Grizzlies pick, protected 1-8. I don’t see how the Knicks beat that, assuming Leonard is willing to play in Boston.

In other words, this is fun to talk about, but it is not going to happen. The Knicks will be unlikely to put together the best package, and even if they did, any deal would put their roster in such a precarious position that it would be hard to be a real championship contender. The patient and prudent approach likely remains the best one. Do not grab the shiny object. Stay the course and pick the best available player ninth overall next Thursday.

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