He’s a notoriously quiet guy, but there’s sure a lot of noise around Kawhi Leonard these days.
Leonard, who can become a free agent after next season, wants out of San Antonio, and while he’d reportedly prefer to return to his hometown of Los Angeles, the Sixers are among the teams willing to trade for the enigmatic player. Thursday, Sports Illustrated’s Jake Fischer reported the team has discussed a number of possible packages for Leonard, including a deal that would include Dario Saric, Robert Covington and the Heat’s 2021 unprotected first-round pick (see story).
For just a single year of Leonard, it’s not worth giving up that type of haul. The Sixers might think adding Leonard would immediately make them a championship contender, and that being part of their culture would draw him back long term. Given the pieces they’d have to give up in a trade, that’s still too much of a risk.
The team might also might figure, quite reasonably, that Leonard would entice LeBron James. We do know Leonard reportedly wants to team up with James (see story). Yet if James knows Leonard will only be in Philadelphia for a year, that may not be enough to sway him. It could absolutely influence his decision, but there’s no guarantee that the possibility of playing with Leonard for a year would be enough to make James to alter his destination.
But, if the Sixers could somehow ensure that Leonard would re-sign with the team after next season (and that’s obviously a big if), he’s a star worth building around.
A common talking point in support of the argument that Leonard doesn’t make sense long term for the Sixers is that he’s some sort of a team cancer, and that the weird tension between him and the Spurs about the handling of his quad injury is indicative of larger issues with his character.
While it’s fair to note the breakdown in communication between Leonard and the Spurs, an organization that typically avoids these sort of awkward situations, it’s not rational to automatically label Leonard bad for team culture. He has a reputation of being an extremely unselfish, quiet guy. He’s absolutely made some mistakes dealing with a frustrating injury, but that’s no reason to write him off forever. Especially given his past relationship with Brett Brown, a change of scenery might be perfect for him.
The questions about Leonard’s health are a valid concern. It’s certainly not worth making a deal if the Sixers aren’t confident that Leonard can stay on the court. That said, Leonard has been treated by Sixers chief medical officer Dr. Jonathan Glashow, so you’d think they should have as good an idea as anyone of whether his quad injury could be a long-term problem.
If he’s healthy, Leonard is a special player. Let’s not forget he’s a two-time Defensive Player of the Year, or gloss over his averages of 25.5 points, 5.8 rebounds, 3.5 assists and 1.8 steals per game in 2016-2017.
He’s also a star who would fit well with the Sixers. Like Paul George, who the Sixers are reportedly also interested in pursuing (see story), it’s not hard to imagine Leonard co-existing with Ben Simmons and Joel Embiid. His ability to score in isolation and make threes (38.6 percent for his career) would be especially valuable.
Yes, Embiid and Simmons’ offensive roles would be somewhat diminished if the Sixers built around Leonard, though that’s not a unique issue. George (28.4 percent) and LeBron James (31.4 percent) both had higher usage rates than Leonard (27 percent) over the last four seasons. And on the Sixers, Leonard could be effective in a less ball-dominant role than on the Spurs. Embiid would still be able to get his share of touches in the post, with Simmons running the point and Leonard providing another go-to option on the wing.
Even if it took a little time for the Sixers to find the right role for Leonard on offense, it’s not crazy to think that he could immediately make the Sixers, who had the third-best defensive rating in basketball last season, the best defensive team in the NBA.
If Leonard would definitely stick with the team for the long haul (which, again, is a huge if), the reported package of Covington, Saric and the Heat’s 2021 unprotected first-round pick is a very reasonable deal from the Sixers’ perspective. Leonard is clearly an upgrade in every way on Covington, a first team All-Defensive selection. And while it would be unfortunate to have to give up the beloved, gritty Saric, you need to make some sacrifices if you want to land stars. As for the 2021 unprotected first-rounder, it’s a valuable asset, but as we’ve seen with Nerlens Noel, Jahlil Okafor and others, top picks are far from sure things.
What is a sure thing, however, is that a healthy Kawhi Leonard is one of the best players in the game. All the off-court drama with the Spurs shouldn’t detract from that fact. A long-term core of Leonard, Simmons and Embiid is capable of winning championships.