If Sixers can somehow land Kawhi Leonard long term, he's a star worth building around

If Sixers can somehow land Kawhi Leonard long term, he's a star worth building around

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.

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Shake Milton on NBA return: 'I don’t really think we should be playing'

Shake Milton on NBA return: 'I don’t really think we should be playing'

It wasn’t surprising to hear Joel Embiid say he “hated the idea” of the bubble or Mike Scott voice his displeasure for the NBA’s jersey idea.

It was mildly surprising to hear second-year guard Shake Milton take the strongest stance when it came to the NBA’s decision to resume the season.

I don’t really think we should be playing,” Milton said in a video conference call with reporters Tuesday, “but I think the NBA is doing all that they can to make the environment as safe as possible. My teammates want to play so we’re going to go down there and try to win.

When asked why specifically he thought the league shouldn’t resume play, he provided a poignant response.

I think [the spread of the virus], and then also I feel like there’s a lot of other stuff going on,” Milton said. “There are issues going on right now in the world that are way bigger than a sport, way bigger than the game of basketball. I feel like we’re on the cusp of finally having people tune in and really try to listen and try to understand more about the things that are happening in our country. I feel like the moment is too big right now and I don’t want the game of basketball to overshadow it.

Perhaps lost in the shuffle of so many things being shared on social media was Milton posting something that seemed a bit out of character for the soft-spoken 23-year-old. 

Milton is a native of Owasso, Oklahoma, a northern suburb of Tulsa. The 23-year-old has shared various posts about the city and the Tulsa race massacre that occured in 1921 as well as posts about Breonna Taylor, the Louisville EMT who was fatally shot by police while sleeping in her apartment.

While he’s glad to see the league wants to keep the message in the public scope, he’s curious to know how they’ll do it.

I think [the NBA trying to highlight racial injustice is] good — I think we should definitely do it,” Milton said. “I want to know how we’re going to go about doing it, that’s really my concern. I heard ideas about the names on the back of the jerseys and putting stuff on the court, but I kind of want to see what the NBA is actually going to do. That’s cool and all, but that’s kind of like the same as having a T-shirt where you see somebody’s face and it says RIP on the back. That’s only going to take you so far. So I’m interested to see what else the NBA has planned and what else they’re going to do.

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Sixers' Joel Embiid doesn't believe in the NBA's restart plan

Sixers' Joel Embiid doesn't believe in the NBA's restart plan

Joel Embiid intends to travel with the Sixers to Orlando for the NBA’s resumption, but he is not confident in the league’s plan and does not endorse it.

On a video conference call Tuesday, the All-Star center explained why he does not support the NBA heading to Florida during the coronavirus pandemic in an attempt to conclude the 2019-20 season with a champion.

I hated the idea,” Embiid said. “I feel like with everything that has been going on, it’s unfortunate what’s been going on in the world. Obviously people look at it in a different way. There might be some other reasons behind everything going on. To me, that part never mattered. To me, all I want is to stay healthy and stay safe, keep the people around me safe. I want to make sure I’m able to live for a long time and not have any sort of consequences in the future from this if I were to be in a situation where I was getting the virus. 

“Unfortunately, I’m not a big fan of the idea. But then again, I’m going to do my job. I’m not going to let the city down. I’m going to represent my city — that’s what I’ve always done — my family, my teammates. The mindset doesn’t change. It doesn’t matter the fact that I don’t like that idea and I still don’t believe in it. I don’t think it’s going to be safe enough.

“Because I know I’m going to do the right things, I know I don’t ever do anything, I only play video games, I’m always home — I don’t do anything. But then again, I don’t trust those other guys to do the same. But, like I said, I’ve gotta do my job.

The Sixers will travel to Walt Disney World on Thursday and are scheduled to resume play on Aug. 1 against the Indiana Pacers. There’s been a spike in coronavirus cases in Florida, which reportedly has raised concerns around the league. Positive coronavirus tests during the NBA’s Phase 2 protocol have prompted several teams to shut down their facilities, including the Bucks, Heat and Clippers. 

There have been over 2.9 million confirmed coronavirus cases in the United States and over 130,000 coronavirus-related deaths in the country, according to NBC News

Embiid said he considered opting out but felt obligated to play. 

I thought about it,” he said, “but then again, I wouldn’t let my teammates down. I play in a city that’s tough and I consider myself as being tough … I’m not going to give up that easily. If you told me that the current trend is that people are getting sick and a lot of people are dying, obviously you don’t know what's going to happen and you don’t want to be in a situation where you put your life at risk ... and all that stuff, just for what? The money and all that stuff. At the end of the day, basketball is not all that matters. I've got family, I've got myself to look out for. That's all I care about.

"At the end, when it’s all said and done, basketball shouldn’t define me. I should be looked at as just Joel Embiid the person. Like I said, it’s unfortunate but I want to represent my city. I've been here too long. This is my opportunity. I believe we have a great chance of winning the championship. Still not 100 percent sure, but that's what I'm thinking. I want to represent the city. I don’t want to let my teammates down, I don't want to let anybody down. I’ve been working too hard for this and I've just got to keep pushing and hope for the best. 

Embiid sees no reason why he personally will have any trouble adhering to the NBA’s health protocols, which detail everything from testing procedures to physical distancing mandates to approved recreational activities. But he’s somewhat skeptical that more outgoing NBA players will follow all precautions to minimize the risk of coronavirus exposure. 

“I look at myself and I’ve been doing this for quite a bit now — six, seven years,” he said. “Like I said, all I do is play video games and stay in my room on the road, or even when I’m home. Just stay home, play video games, do what I've got to do. Just being with my family. 

“And obviously we’re all different. Some guys like to go out and some guys like to do stuff, (there are) some guys that like adventure. So that’s the way I’m thinking. I know myself. I know I’m not going to put everybody else at risk, but the question is, is everybody else going to do the same? And just being around this business, I surely don’t think so.”

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